If you paid attention during the 2016 presidential election, you may have noticed that pretty much every candidate, from Republican to Democrat, from Libertarian to Socialist, agreed on one thing – the American middle class is suffering. From Bernie Sanders, we heard that wealth was being consolidated by the top 1%, and that the middle class is in the midst of a “40-year decline.” Ted Cruz said that the middle class is “headed in the wrong direction”. Even Jeb Bush admitted that the middle class was “shrinking”.
But what exactly is the middle class? Who's in it and who isn't? Is it really shrinking? And what about you? Which income class are you actually in? It turns out, these questions are difficult to answer. So we’re going to start with some data.
What's Your Income Class?
What Do the Data Say?
The middle class is still the majority (52%) of the US population, according to a recent report (September 2018) from the Pew Research Center. But compared to the '70s and '80s and '90s and even the oughts, it's shrinking.
In fact, Pew's previous report, from 2015, revealed that – for the first time since at least the 1960s – the majority of Americans weren't in the middle class. In 2015, slightly fewer than 50% of American adults lived in middle-income households (on the chart below, it rounded up to 50%) – down from 54% in 2001, 59% in 1981 and 61% in 1971. It also found that the share of income going to middle-income households fell from 62% in 1970 to 43% in 2014. The middle class has been both shrinking in population share and seeing its cut of the income pie drop.
The most interesting part of the 2015 Pew report, though, was its finding that the middle class is decreasing not only because more people are poor, but also because more people are rich. The percentage of lowest-income earners, those earning less than two-thirds of the median income, had grown 4 percentage points – from 16% to 20% of the population. At the same time, though, the percentage of Americans in the very highest-income households also rose – 5 points since 1971, taking that group from 4% to 9% of the population. The bottom line: The shrinking middle class is less a decline in how well the population as a whole is doing and more of a polarization of where growth is coming: at the extreme bottom and top of the economic spectrum.
Source: "The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground," Pew Research Center. Washington, D.C. (12/09/2015).
Also note that the state of the U.S. economy is changing with – and because of – demographic changes in American society. On average, the U.S. population has grown older. This makes a big difference to the median income because retirees typically live off savings and generate little income. The country is also significantly more diverse than it was in the 1970s. Increases in the number of immigrants, for example, push down median incomes because immigrants on average make less money.
As of September 2018, though, Pew reported that 52% of American adults were in the middle class, according to 2016 income figures, with 19% in the upper class and 29% in the lower class. According to Pew, the data suggest that the middle class has stabilized in size. See the chart from the report below, for these later figures on how class composition has changed since the 1970s.
Source: "The American Middle Class Is Stable in Size, but Losing Ground Financially to Upper-Income Families." Pew Research Center. Washington, D.C. (09/06/2018).
Who's Losing Ground
However, the data also suggest that middle-class families continue to lose financial ground to upper-income families. While the median income of the upper class increased 9% from 2010 to 2016, the median income of the middle and lower classes increased about 6% over the same period.
If we take a longer view, say, from 2000 to 2016, we see that only the income of the upper class has recovered from the previous two economic recessions: Upper-class incomes were the only ones to rise over that period.
This has only contributed to a trend that has been ongoing since the 1970s at least: the divergence of the upper class from the middle and lower classes. In another piece, Pew reported that the wealth gaps between upper-income families and middle- and lower-income families were at the highest levels ever recorded.
The 2018 piece from Pew reported that, in 2016, the median income for the upper-income class was $187,872; for the middle class, it was $78,442; for the lower class, it was $25,624 (in 2016 dollars; figures reflect a three-person household).
The Top 1%
When we look at the top 1%, these trends are only exaggerated. According to a 2015 report from the Economic Policy Institute, in the United States, the top 1% of wage earners take home 21% of US income. Look at the chart from the report below: These are near historic levels of income share for the 1%.
Source: Economic Policy Institute
According to the same report, the average income of the 1% in 2015 was $1,316,985. To even qualify as a member of the 1%, one had to make $421,926. (That's more than double Pew's 2016 median upper-income class income of $187,872.)
What Class Am I In?
OK, so the obvious followup question is: Where does that leave me? Which class do I fall into?
Income data released by the U.S. Census Bureau show that 2017 median household income was the highest on record at $61,372. Pew defines the middle class as those earning between two-thirds and double the median household income.This means that the category of middle-income is made up of people making somewhere between $40,500 and $122,000. Those making less than $39,500 make up the lower-income bracket. Those making more than $118,000 make up the upper-income bracket. Easy, right? Just take your household income and see where you fit given these numbers.
The problem is that your $61,372 probably doesn't buy you the same kind of life as your cousin’s $61,372 in another part of the country. The lives of families making the median income look very different given the vastly different cost-of-living levels across the U.S.
This lived experience can make it difficult to determine your income-class status. In his report for the Urban Institute entitled “The Growing Size and Incomes of the Upper Middle Class,” nonresident fellow Stephen Rose writes that “because people tend to live in communities with similar incomes, they view themselves as being near the middle because their neighbors’ circumstances are similar to their own even if their incomes are significantly below or above the US median.” People, in the aggregate, tend to live, work and socialize with people of similar income levels. For this reason, we often don't have accurate reference points that would help us gauge our actual class status.
Take a look at this map to get a sense of the different levels of wealth found in different areas of the country (data from 2012 Census).
Where Do You Stand?
If you want to know exactly how you fit into the income-class matrix, the Pew Research Center has a recently updated income calculator. You can break down your class status first by state, metropolitan area, income before taxes and members of household, then by education level, age, race and marital status.
According to the calculator, a before-tax salary of $45,000, for a three-person household, in Jackson, Tenn., puts you squarely in the middle class along with 50% of adults in Jackson. But that same salary in the same household in the New York City metro area puts you in the lower class along with 31% of adults in the area. State and city taxes vary, access to healthcare varies, cities are more expensive, and children are expensive. All of these factors can contribute to what class you feel you're in, regardless of what national statistics say.
3 New Ways to Look at Class in America
So, it turns out that lower class, middle class and upper class are tricky terms to box in. The Pew income calculator is a good start for learning where your income puts you, given where you live and some background factors. But class is about more than just how much money you make. Before we leave the topic, it's worth taking some time to think about how these three other factors fit into who and where you are.
Social and Cultural Capital
Start with social and cultural capital, a concept debuted in 1986 by French sociologist and public intellectual Pierre Bourdieu. His essay "The Forms of Capital" outlines how different forms of capital shape class. He said that in addition to economic capital, there is social and cultural capital.
Social capital is your connections: It's whom you know, whom you socialize with, who's in your circle. It's "group membership," according to Bourdieu. If you've ever heard someone say "it's not what you know, it's who you know," you're familiar with the idea of social capital.
Cultural capital is a little less concrete, but it's basically someone's cultural literacy. This includes education level, skills, cultural knowledge and taste, ways of behaving, speaking and dressing. It's the way that you communicate, through your behavior, that you are of a certain social status.
When we talk about class, it's important to remember that it's not just a matter of income, or economic capital, even when you account for cost of living and lived experience. And this is because there are other forms of capital. Social and cultural capital offer different kinds of currency, and a slightly different kind of class status. It's also important to note that having one of these forms of capital makes it much easier to acquire the other two.
Top 20, Bottom 80
Upper, middle and lower may no longer be the best way to look at where you fit. Nor is the latest wrinkle in popular politics: the 1% vs. the 99%. Your income class could be something else, again with significant implications for your life and the nation's economy.
In his book, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Richard V. Reeves, breaks down the American class system not in terms of 1% and 99%, but in terms of 20% and the 80%. The top 20% sets itself apart in a number of ways.
In a review of the book, "Why the 20%, and not the 1% are the real problem," the Economist reports that while "between 1979 and 2013, average incomes for the bottom 80% of American households rose by 42%...by contrast, those of the next richest 19% rose by 70%, and of the top 1% by 192%." In other words, the top 1% is not the only income class pulling away from the rest of the country.
The top 20% includes the lawyers and the doctors and the managers, all the way up to the CEOs and beyond. They marry later, are better educated and have larger and richer social networks. They're healthier, too – they have statistically lower rates of heart disease and obesity.
Reeves argues that this class is important for understanding inequality for two reasons. The first is that this class perceives their socioeconomic status as being squarely middle-class, while their actual circumstances put them among the nation's richest. However, because they're not the 1%, we tend not to focus on their behavior.
The second reason is that this top quintile of earners – those making more than roughly $112,000 a year – have been big beneficiaries of the country’s growth. The top 20% of earners may not be seeing the income gains made by America’s top 1%, but their wages and investments have increased and they enjoy the comforts of life at the top.
Further, this quintile accounts for a huge portion of national income share, and Reeves argues that if the country wants to raise income-tax revenue to pay for social programs, as many Democrats would like, policies will have to focus on the top 20%.
It's more than enjoying comfort, though. According to Reeves, the top 20% also engages in different forms of "opportunity hoarding" – ensuring that their children have a better shot at remaining in that upper 20% of income earners – through "zoning laws and schooling, occupational licensing, college application procedures, and the allocation of internships." To say the least, it puts a dent in America's idea of itself as a meritocracy.
What's Happening to Economic Mobility
How much economic mobility you've experienced – and expect for your family – is another aspect to consider when you're thinking about income class. In an article in The Atlantic, "The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy," Matthew Stewart, argues that while we are quite conscious of the inequality in America, we tend to be somewhat OK with this because "in the United States, everyone has an opportunity to make the leap: mobility justifies the inequality." Or so we like to think, and claim.
However, "contrary to popular myth, economic mobility in the land of opportunity is not high, and it's going down." There's a concept called intergenerational earnings elasticity (IGE). It essentially measures to what extent a child's income is the product of their parent's income. Zero would mean that there's no relationship between parental income and child income. One would mean that parental income determines child income, unequivocally.
In the United States, IGE is at roughly 0.5. That's higher than "almost every other developed economy." That doesn't speak to commendable levels of economic mobility, or equal opportunity.
In the same article, Stewart cites the work of economist and former chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, Alan Krueger. Krueger found that increasing immobility and increasing inequality are not uncorrelated trends: "It's as if human societies have a natural tendency to separate, and then, once the classes are far enough apart, to crystallize."
Class is Relative: Inequality and Its Effects
What does the consolidation of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer do to someone's sense of their income class? Some of this depends on awareness. The knowledge and experience of inequality changes perceptions and behavior. This has different implications at different ends of the spectrum. In a New Yorker article, "The Psychology of Inequality," Elizabeth Kolbert explores just that.
The Experience of Feeling Poor
Kolbert discusses this by describing the findings of psychologist Keith Payne, a UNC professor and the author of "The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die." According to Payne, she writes, "...what's really damaging about being poor...is the subjective experience of feeling poor." This subjective experience of feeling less privileged compared to those around us has implications for behavior, as "people who see themselves as poor make different decisions, and, generally, worse ones."
It's not an unfair characterization. In an article from historian Rutger Bregman championing universal basic income he writes, "It's a harsh question, but look at the data: poor people borrow more, save less, smoke more, exercise less, drink more and eat less healthily." And Payne cites research that suggests that the poor are more likely to engage in risky behavior.
It's not uncommon for the narrative around poverty to suggest that people are poor because of their bad decisions, but new research argues that the opposite is true. In their book, "Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much," economist Sendhil Mullainathan and behavioral scientist Eldar Shafir explore what they call "the scarcity mindset."
A review of the book in The Economist summarizes their work well. When an individual feels they are lacking some vital resource – money, friends, time, calories – their mind operates in fundamentally distinct ways.
The scarcity mindset brings the mind two advantages. 1) The mind concentrates on pressing needs, with great focus; and 2) it "gives people a keener sense of the value of" that thing they seem to lack – they have a much better sense of what a dollar would be worth if they had it.
The mindset can weaken the mind, too, though. It "shortens a person's horizons and narrows his perspective, creating a dangerous tunnel vision." And it causes people significant anxiety, sapping brainpower and "reducing mental 'bandwidth.'" The pair cite experiments showing that feeling poor "lowers a person's IQ by as much as one night without sleep."
So, the work in "Scarcity" would suggest that being poor changes the ways in which people think and behave. Later on in Kolbert's piece, Payne cites research that he argues "provided the first evidence that inequality itself can cause risky behavior."
Research from Payne and Mullainathan and Shafir all seems to point in the same direction: the flaws some people see as inherent in the poor are actually the result of being poor.
The Discomfort of Extreme Wealth
The wealthy feel some discomfort with this consolidation of wealth, too, but for different reasons. In her book, "Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence," sociologist Rachel Sherman interviews members of the 1% and asks them all about one thing they'd really rather not talk about: their wealth and privilege.
Sherman distinguishes between two subgroups in the 1% – the upward-oriented and the downward-oriented. The upward oriented "tended not even to think of themselves as socially advantaged," because they tended to hang out in economically homogenous groups, where people had as much or more money than they did. The downward-oriented, with more economically diverse social networks, were "more likely to see themselves as privileged," and felt serious discomfort about it.
In her article, Kolbert sums up one of Sherman's primary findings quite nicely, regardless of which direction the privileged were facing: "...the privileged prefer not to think of themselves that way."
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Sherman writes that this class "described themselves as 'normal people' who worked hard and spent prudently, distancing themselves from common stereotypes of the wealthy as ostentatious, selfish, snobby and entitled." Sherman found that the very wealthy actually took efforts to distance themselves from these descriptions, not just in self-description, but in behavior as well. Kolbert quotes Sherman writing about these descriptions and behaviors as illuminative of "moral conflicts about having privilege."
And that makes sense. No one wants to be seen as selfish, or entitled, or undeserving of their wealth. However, ultimately Sherman argues that "such moves [from the 1%] help wealthy people manage their discomfort with inequality, which in turn makes that inequality impossible to talk honestly about, or to change."
The Bottom Line
Class is a complicated question. It involves more than just income. It involves cost of living, lifestyle choices and lived experience. It involves social and cultural capital. And while the Pew income calculator may tell us where we stand, the experience of class is entirely relative. People deduce their class standing from the cues in their immediate surroundings – their neighborhood, their workplace, their social circles.
The middle class has stabilized in size, but it's losing income share, mostly to the top 20% and especially to the top 1%. And when we talk about the effects of class in America, we should keep in mind the top 20% and the top 1% because the behavior and choices of both these groups seem to produce increasing class inequality and immobility.
Most people tend to think of themselves as middle class. But the truth is, the middle class includes people with vastly different lifestyles and concerns. Pew's 20% upper class is basically Reeves's 20%. But people who belong to the lower sections of that quintile may not feel especially wealthy if those around them are far more affluent. And people who don't think of themselves as middle class may develop behavior patterns that are connected to whether they feel poor or wealthy, without being aware of it. These are questions worth asking and answers worth pondering.