Every time I see the words “middle class” in an article title, I read the article. Why? Because I relate. I consider myself middle class, and I want to know if what is happening in my middle-class life also is happening to others in my economic circle. I’m looking for reassurance that the lifestyle we have worked for and continue to work for is sustainable.
I am grateful to be middle class—to live in a country that actually has a middle class. I like to think that everyone in the U.S. has the opportunity to achieve a middle-class life, but I’ve grown more and more skeptical about this possibility over the last few years. I’ve witnessed too many friends and family members having difficulty finding jobs and paying bills—living from paycheck to paycheck with little hope of ever getting ahead. This concerns me, and I am not alone in my concern.
Naturally, I read with much interest the article that appeared yesterday on nbcnews.com about a new and comprehensive survey conducted by Pew Research Center on how the middle class feels.
The overview begins: “As the 2012 presidential candidates prepare their closing arguments to America’s middle class, they are courting a group that has endured a lost decade for economic well-being. Since 2000, the middle class has shrunk in size, fallen backward in income and wealth, and shed some—but by no means all—of its characteristic faith in the future.”
It continues with some sobering statistics: “Fully 85 percent of self-described middle-class adults say it is more difficult now than it was a decade ago for middle-class people to maintain their standard of living. Of those who feel this way, 62 percent say ‘a lot’ of the blame lies with Congress, while 54 percent say the same about banks and financial institutions, 47 percent about large corporations, 44 percent about the Bush administration, 39 percent about foreign competition, and 34 percent about the Obama administration. Just 8 percent blame the middle class itself a lot.
“Their downbeat take on their economic situation comes at the end of a decade in which, for the first time since the end of World War II, mean family incomes declined for Americans in all income tiers. But the middle-income tier—defined in this Pew Research analysis as all adults whose annual household income is two-thirds to double the national median ($39,418 to $118,255 in 2011 dollars)—is the only one that also shrunk in size, a trend that has continued over the past four decades.
“In 2011, this middle-income tier included 51 percent of all adults; back in 1971, using the same income boundaries, it had included 61 percent. The hollowing of the middle has been accompanied by a dispersion of the population into the economic tiers both above and below. The upper-income tier rose to 20 percent of adults in 2011, up from 14 percent in 1971; the lower-income tier rose to 29 percent, up from 25 percent. However, over the same period, only the upper-income tier increased its share in the nation’s household income pie. It now takes in 46 percent, up from 29 percent four decades ago. The middle tier now takes in 45 percent, down from 62 percent four decades ago. The lower tier takes in 9 percent, down from 10 percent four decades ago.”
Is a middle-class lifestyle still achievable with hard work? According to the survey, “Two-thirds of the middle class (67 percent) agree that ‘most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard,’ while 29 percent agree that ‘hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people.’ Among the general public, the shares are similar—63 percent say hard work pays off, while 34 percent say it does not necessarily lead to success. The Pew Research Center has asked this question 10 times since 1994, when 68 percent of the public agreed that hard work would pay off. The proportion saying so peaked in 1999, when roughly three-quarters (74 percent) expressed that view.”
You can read many more statistics in the report, such as those that reflect how optimistic or pessimistic the middle class is about its future, including how our children will fare: “… some 43 percent of those in the middle class expect that their children’s standard of living will be better than their own, while 26 percent think it will be worse, and 21 percent think it will be about the same. Four years ago, in response to the same question, the middle class had higher hopes for their offspring, with 51 percent predicting they would have a better standard of living and 19 percent thinking it would be worse.”
I wasn’t surveyed, but I know how I feel. Honestly, it varies. Some days I feel reasonably optimistic that we’ve been through the worst and better days are within sight. Other days, I’m concerned that this is the new status quo, and while further erosion of the middle class may abate somewhat, it will continue to be more difficult to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, let alone achieve it.
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