“The Morose Middle Class”: At Best, Treading Water And At Worst, Sinking
The Middle Class is in a funk, its view of the future growing dim as fear rolls in like a storm.
An Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll released Thursday found that while most Americans (56 percent) hold out hope that they‘ll be in a higher class at some point, even more Americans (59 percent) are worried about falling out of their current class over the next few years. In fact, more than eight in 10 Americans believe that more people have fallen out of the middle class than moved into it in the past few years.
The poll paints a picture of a group that is scared to death about its station in life.
By the way, 58 percent of respondents in the poll viewed themselves as either middle class (46 percent) or upper middle class (12 percent).
According to the poll, Americans see a middle class with less opportunity to get ahead, less job security and less disposable income than the middle class of previous generations.
Respondents were most likely (52 percent) to say that losing a job would put them at the greatest risk of falling out of their current class, followed by an unexpected illness or injury in the family.
Most of those polled believe that higher education is the key to staying in the middle class, but many worry about its prohibitive cost and inaccessibility.
And who did most of them say is responsible for making it worse for the middle class? Congress, chief executives of major corporations and big financial institutions.
Of those who blame politicians, there is some evidence that Republicans get more of the blame than Democrats. A CNN/ORC poll released last month found that 32 percent of respondents thought that Democrats favor the middle class compared with 27 percent who believed the same of Republicans. Sixty-eight percent of those polled believed that Republicans favor the wealthy, compared with 24 percent who believed that Democrats do.
This anxiety about a shrinking middle class is understandable.
A Pew Research Center study, “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class,” released in August, found that “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.”
According to the report, “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.”
The report continued:
“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 — is the only one that also shrunk in size, a trend that has continued over the past four decades.”
It’s important to note that many of the people who describe themselves as middle class would not be placed under that rubric by most objective observers. For instance, the Pew study found that 35 percent of people making $30,000 and under and 46 percent of those making $100,000 and over self-identified as middle class. (Meantime, six percent of those making $30,000 and under self-identified as upper class, and six percent of those making $100,000 and over self-identified as lower class. Go figure.)
As Pew pointed out, over the last decade, “middle-tier median household income” fell and median net worth plummeted, and people in the middle class said it was becoming harder to maintain their lifestyles.
To add insult to injury, another Pew report, released this week, found that “during the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent.”
As The Washington Post reported in September after the release of a frightening Census report: “The vise on the middle class tightened last year, driving down its share of the income pie as the number of Americans in poverty leveled off and the most affluent households saw their portion grow.”
The wealthy have come surging back, riding record stock market highs, but many in the middle class are at best treading water and at worst sinking.
In his State of the Union speech in February, President Obama said that the “true engine of America’s economic growth” is “a rising, thriving middle class.”
It certainly looks as if that engine has stalled.
By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 27, 2013
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