24 Ways the Middle Class Has Changed Over the Past 50 Years

24 Ways the Middle Class Has Changed Over the Past 50 Years

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We frequently hear younger people complain about America no longer being a place where the middle class can thrive. Are they just spoiled, or has the middle-class dream evaporated? It turns out there have been some undeniable changes in middle-class America over the past 50 years.

1. The Middle Class Is Shrinking

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One source pegs the middle class as households earning between $47,189 and $141,568 annually. Despite such a broad scope for induction into the middle class, this demographic is shrinking yearly. Per the same source, the percentage of middle-class American households shrunk from 61% to 50% between 1971 and 2021.

2. The Outlook for the Middle Class Is Dire

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Where once being in the middle class meant lifelong financial security and the potential for your children to strike it rich (thanks to private schooling and first-class SAT tutors), that’s no longer the case. The CBO estimated that middle-class households lost $5,500 in purchasing power back in 2019. That’s an alarming acceleration of inflation’s effects.

3. They Are Struggling to Outpace Inflation

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According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), rampant inflation since 2019 has diminished the purchasing power of middle-class households by $2,900 per year. In other words, middle-class wages lag behind the inflation-fueled deterioration of their paychecks, something middle-classers could have told themselves.

4. Household Incomes Have Risen

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Since 1980, the average household income for the middle class has risen, but not steadily or by as much as you might think. In fact, during the Great Recession, real median household incomes for the middle class fell to about where they were in 1980, suggesting a stagnation in middle-class incomes dating back more than 40 years.

5. The Middle Class Has Become the Credit Card Class

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The middle class has become the debtor class, unable to qualify for social programs but not wealthy enough to buy goods outright. 36% of middle-class households reported relying on their credit cards more often in 2022 than years before, and we know how insidious credit card debt can be.

Where once the middle class was a building block to higher echelons, it now seems to be a step down towards indebtedness.

6. The Dream of Owning a Home Is Less Feasible

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Home prices have ballooned at a rate two times higher than the rise in household income since 1985. Americans today need an average income of about $166,600 to afford a home. Many who consider themselves “middle class” do not have an annual household income over $166,000.

7. Tax Policy No Longer Works for the Middle Class

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Where once tax policies promoted the growth and sustenance of a robust middle class, the current system leaves middle-class households in a costly no-man’s land. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains that wealthy households shield a larger share of their income from the pass-through deduction, while the lower classes face a much lighter tax burden. That leaves the middle class paying through the nose to Uncle Sam.

8. They Are More Politically Relevant

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Despite being a shrinking cohort, the middle class has become a hot-button political topic in recent years. Richard Nixon called the middle class the “silent majority,” and the middle class would often go unrecognized (formally, at least) in election cycles of yesteryear. Today, increasing financial pressure on the middle class has made them a passionate voting bloc that insists on politicians recognizing their needs.

9. Writers Aren’t as Focused on the Middle Class 

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Google Books’ Ngram Viewer indexes how often words are used in literature. The peak for mentions of the middle class in books came in 1977 and has declined precipitously since. As the public’s interests splinter in a million different ways, it makes sense that the middle class would be drowned in a sea of disparate book types and topics.

10. They Are Losing Ground to Upper-Income Households

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Though middle-class household incomes have risen since 1970, the incomes of upper-class homes have risen far faster. Whether or not you believe a wealth gap is a problem, it’s undeniably growing. 

11. The Middle Class Holds Increasingly Less of the Nation’s Total Income

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The middle class’ total net worth and purchasing power continue to represent less and less of the nation’s total household income. If the middle class feels ignored by policymakers and corporations, this might help explain why.

12. There Is a Middle Class in Every American City (But They Don’t Earn the Same)

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As the cost of living in different American cities continues to rise at different rates, the picture of the middle class becomes more muddled. In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., a household must earn $74,000 to be on the lower end of the middle class. In Miami, someone who earns $43,000 breaks into the middle class. As living costs continue to fluctuate, these varying brackets will continue to shift.

13. The Middle Class Today Includes Working Women

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Historically, the middle class has grown partly because of women entering the workforce. Today, with more households scratching and clawing to enter (or stay in) the middle class, two-income households are common among middle-class households.

14. Today’s Middle Class Mirrors Global Trends

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The American middle class is not the only one that experienced a steady contraction between 1991 and 2010. The middle classes of Germany, Italy, and Spain experienced a similar downsizing during the same period, proving that the larger economic trends in America exist elsewhere, too.

15. Middle-Class Households Are Falling Into the Lower Class

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Middle-class households aren’t vanishing into thin air but are mostly moving into the lower class. In the working-class town of Goldsboro, NC, middle-class households decreased from 60% in 2000 to 48% in 2014. In the same span, lower-income households rose from 27% to 41%. 

16. Married Couples Still Dominate the Middle Class

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It remains true that being married significantly increases your likelihood of being in the middle class. Though much has changed about the middle class in the past half-century, this fact has remained true.

17. Savings Have Become More Sparse Among Today’s Middle Class

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While having a retirement account is still one of the hallmarks of the middle and upper classes, lagging wage growth and accelerating inflation have diminished middle-class households’ total savings. 

18. Certain Minorities Are Moving from Lower to Middle Class

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Black Americans, in particular, have become increasingly likely to ascend from the lower-income rung to the middle class in the past several decades.

19. The American Middle Class Remains Smaller Than Many Other Nations

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Perhaps one of the outcomes of a society where Americans (at least to some degree) can earn their way into and out of income brackets is that America’s middle class remains smaller than in many other nations where equality sometimes takes precedence over economic freedom.

20. The Floor Is Rising on the Middle Class

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Thanks to inflation, you don’t have to lose a job or go into bankruptcy to fall out of the middle class. You can merely make what you made last year (or for the past decade), and the shrinking value of a dollar could cause the middle-class floor to rise right past you. Today’s middle-class occupants face a significant risk of this happening due to the furious pace of inflation.

21. The Upper Class Is Leapfrogging the Middle

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While we know that the gulf between the upper and middle classes is widening, the pace seems to be ticking upward. Whereas an upper-class family had triple the wealth of a middle-class household in 1983, it had seven times the wealth 30 years later.

22. The Majority of Americans Claim the Middle Class

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In 2022, 52% of surveyed Americans reported being either middle-class or upper-middle-class. While this roughly aligns with the true percentage of middle-class earners, it is significantly less than the 63% that claimed the middle class in 2003.

23. The Middle Class Has Little Time to Themselves

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The financial crunch eating the middle class has significantly limited middle-income earners’ personal time. The average middle-class couple works 11.5 more hours per week today than they did nearly half a century ago, and for what? Less real income than their less constrained predecessors.

24. The Middle Class Must Innovate

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Faced with figures detailing the erosion of the middle class, it is not enough to simply work harder to ascend into, remain in, or transcend the middle earning tier. If you are going to defy the downward pull on the middle class, you will have to upgrade your skills, seek new opportunities, invest wisely, and innovate to stay ahead or simply hold your financial ground.

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