The Vanishing Middle

It’s happening not just in politics, but economically, as well.  The Pew Research Center finally put together a set of numbers that spells out a data driven narrative of what we’ve felt happening for some time now: the middle class, as defined by a family of three living on $39,000 to $118,000 a year, has declined to 51% of the total population, down from 61% in the early 1970s.  The top quarter of the income brackets has seen their share of income rise, the middle class declining significantly, and the top 10% decline slightly.  The middle class, in addition to shrinking, has seen their net worth (overall accumulated wealth) decline by 28%.  The upper class has expanded to 20% from 14%, so some of the skewed wealth distribution is explained by some people simply doing better, overall.

And it’s not just the numbers that are falling: faith in the future is slipping as well.  What’s interesting is that black and Latino folks are more upbeat about the future than their white counterparts, even though they’ve suffered much more, comparatively speaking, through the most recent economic downturn.

The middle class in this country is the lynchpin of American politics.  On average, I’d say it’s outlook is largely center-right, with some socially liberal tendencies.  It’s getting harder to enter and stay in the middle class, and that, over the long term, may significantly impact voter attitudes.  If, as to be expected, this trend of a shrinking middle class continues, I see no reason why national politics will assume a tone that’s much more hostile and statist than what we’ve seen in the past few decades.

Suffering on this scale in the middle class is not without precedent, and in all of those precedents, each and every time, government, as directed by that middle class, has stepped in to remedy the economic imbalances that inevitably occur.  It happened in the early 1900s, during the course of the Great Depression and in the 1960s.  While we should take heart from historical precedent, we should allow ourselves to become complacent, because, as with all politics, it requires action on the part of voters and our leadership in order to craft and implement a real, results-driven solution.

One of the beauties of America is that, even though it always takes far longer than any of us ever like, the self-correcting nature of our democracy, in the long term, gets it right.  Our results at home may not always be stellar, but, Americans, Winston Churchill famously said, after we’ve exhausted all other available options, always do the right thing.


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