The Disappearing Middle Class

New research out from Pew last week confirms what everyone in the U.S. has long suspected; the middle class is shrinking.

Comprising 62% share of U.S. aggregate income in 1970, today the middle class commands just 43%.

What has changed?

Pew explains:

“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.”

Rakesh Kochhar, Pew’s Associate Research Director, put it succinctly in a CNN article:

“The steady decline of the middle class is yet another sign of economic polarization. Not only are more Americans shifting into the upper and lower classes, but they are moving into the higher range of the upper class and the lower range of the lower class. This is yet another sign of growing income inequality. There are fewer opportunities that place people in the middle of the income distribution.”

What does it mean for society?

The middle class has long been the bedrock group for consumer spending and civic participation. In an election year, middle class frustration with stagnating wages, lack of job opportunities, and the belief that life won’t be better for their children has been a recurrent theme. But perhaps most importantly, this troubling decline has forced Americans to rethink the American dream and the long-held belief in America as a land of unlimited opportunity.

Most Americans identify themselves as middle class (51% identify themselves as middle or upper middle class) according to Gallup. So this news hits at the very root of Americans’ identity and their expectation that things will get better.