A few days ago media outlets reported on a Pew Research survey which indicates that the American middle class is dying.

It is a nuanced picture.

Pew’s summary of findings says, in part (emphases in bold mine):

In at least one sense, the shift represents economic progress: While the share of U.S. adults living in both upper- and lower-income households rose alongside the declining share in the middle from 1971 to 2015, the share in the upper-income tier grew more.

Over the same period, however, the nation’s aggregate household income has substantially shifted from middle-income to upper-income households, driven by the growing size of the upper-income tier and more rapid gains in income at the top. Fully 49% of U.S. aggregate income went to upper-income households in 2014, up from 29% in 1970. The share accruing to middle-income households was 43% in 2014, down substantially from 62% in 1970.2

And middle-income Americans have fallen further behind financially in the new century. In 2014, the median income of these households was 4% less than in 2000. Moreover, because of the housing market crisis and the Great Recession of 2007-09, their median wealth (assets minus debts) fell by 28% from 2001 to 2013.

It should be noted that Pew uses the term ‘middle income’ rather than ‘middle class’.

Pew’s survey has tracked income levels between 1971 and 2015. In the bar graph ‘Share of adults living in middle-income households is falling’, we see that in 1971, 61% of Americans were in the ‘middle income’ bracket, whereas this year, only 50% are.

Interestingly, the percentage of those in the ‘lower middle’ bracket is unchanged for all those years and remains at 9%.

The upper two categories of income show a small improvement for ‘upper middle’ from 10% to 12% but a more noticeable move upward for ‘highest’ from 4% to 9%.

Unfortunately, the percentage of Americans in the ‘lowest’ income category has increased from 16% to 20%.

Where demographics are concerned, three groups have most improved their economic standing since 1971: blacks, married couples with no children at home and those 65 and over.

The bottom three groups are those with only a high school diploma, those who dropped out of high school and holders of an associate’s degree or less than two years’ college.

FiveThirtyEight recapped the Pew Survey. The readers’ comments are excellent. Contributors who were alive and well in 1971 recall the good old days when:

  • One household salary sufficed, not two;
  • You could make a decent income with only a high school diploma;
  • College and university tuition was far less, even relatively speaking, than today;
  • People worked far fewer hours;
  • Being middle class was just as much a state of mind as it was income, whereas today it is merely defined by materialism — your income and the type of home you can afford.

Many readers agreed that both political parties are to blame for the decline of the middle class from 1971 to the present day.

In many ways, life was much better in 1971 than today. People mixed much more — different incomes, occupations and generations. It didn’t matter what you earned, how old you were or where you lived but the values you believed in.

One lady who grew up in the 1960s also pointed out that nearly all middle-class Americans belonged to a church and attended services regularly. I remember that, too. Back then, if you didn’t go to church you were either a free-thinker or living in a dysfunctional household. People, including children, used to ask their peers ‘What are you?’ — referring to denomination — or ‘What church do you go to?’ No one thought anything of it. Theology helped us to place people socially and psychologically.

I’m so grateful for those days in many ways. I miss them.

1979 was the last time I felt truly free in the civic sense of the word.

I must be getting old.

More resources:

Both of these are from the US Census Bureau —

Share of Aggregate Income Received by Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent of Families, 1947 to 1994

Historical Income Tables: Households (data go up to 2013)

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