The Pew Research Center has released the results of a new survey that finds that fewer Americans self-identify as middle class. This is disturbing but not for the obvious reasons.
On the surface, this may not be a surprise since beginning around 1970 or so, we have seen a steady increase in inequality and stagnation of income for those described as being in the middle and lower classes.
But what is noteworthy is that while objectively the conditions of the middle class has deteriorated, Americans like to think of themselves as being the middle class. If you break up the population in terms of income quintiles (as I did in 2008 and should really update), then one could reasonably count just the middle three quintiles as middle class (upper, middle, and lower middle class) with the top quintile being rich and the bottom quintile being poor. If so, then middle class would be just those families earning between $20,000 and $90,000 and this would be a fixed proportion (60%) of the population. If we define the classes as being split equally into three (upper, middle, and lower), then the middle class would consist of 33%.
But the way people think of their own class affiliation may have little connection to the actual numbers. Since politicians and the media pander to the idea of the middle class as the salt of the earth, it is seen as a desirable group to belong to and so far more people think they belong to it than may be the case. As I said back in 2008
As a result, we have the curious phenomenon that almost everyone, from the quite poor to the quite rich, thinks of themselves as middle class. Thus someone who is earning $30,000 a year feels they are in the same class as, and feel a sense of class solidarity to, someone earning $250,000 a year. Hence they react with a sense of grievance when someone with much higher income than them doesn’t come out ahead because of any change in fiscal policies.
The word class has become perceived as based not only on income but also as a proxy for family background, the nature of one’s job, the social circle one moves in, and lifestyle practices. This vagueness has enabled almost everyone to think of themselves as middle class because in at least one area of their life they may overlap with those much better off than them. So someone who has a good formal education but now works at minimum wage job may still consider himself middle class because he reads newspapers and books, listens to classical music, and is involved in arts and community activities.
So what is significant about the Pew results is that people are giving up clinging to the idea that they are members of the middle class. Maintaining that self-image has just become too difficult and they see themselves as drifting down the economic ladder.
And that is what is disturbing about these results. It may signal a growing sense of despair that things are not going to get better.