More Americans see middle-class status as unobtainable goal now

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WASHINGTON — A sense of belonging to the middle class occupies a cherished place in America. It conjures images of self-sufficient people with stable jobs and pleasant homes working toward prosperity.

Jeremy Horning, of Southfield, Mich., returned to school after losing his job as a logistics manager at a warehouse. He is emblematic of millions of Americans who no longer think of themselves as middle class because of declining incomes and rising prices.  MIKE HOUSEHOLDER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Jeremy Horning, of Southfield, Mich., returned to school after losing his job as a logistics manager at a warehouse. He is emblematic of millions of Americans who no longer think of themselves as middle class because of declining incomes and rising prices.

Yet nearly five years after the Great Recession ended, more people are coming to the painful realization that they’re no longer part of it.

They are former professionals now stocking shelves at grocery stores, retirees struggling with rising costs and people working part-time jobs but desperate for full-time pay. Such setbacks have emerged in economic statistics for several years. Now they’re affecting how Americans think of themselves.

Since 2008, the number of people who call themselves middle class has fallen by nearly a fifth, according to a survey in January by the Pew Research Center, from 53 percent to 44 percent. Forty percent now identify as either lower-middle or lower-class compared with just 25 percent in February 2008.

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who say they’re middle or upper-middle class fell 8 points between 2008 and 2012, to 55 percent.

The most recent National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey found that the vast proportion of Americans who call themselves middle or working class, though still high at 88 percent, is the lowest in the survey’s 40-year history. It’s fallen 4 percentage points since the recession began in 2007.

The trend reflects a widening gap between the richest Americans and everyone else, one that’s emerged gradually over decades and accelerated with the Great Recession. The difference between the income earned by the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans and by a median-income household has risen 24 percent in 30 years, according to the Census Bureau.

Whether or not people see themselves as middle class, there’s no agreed-upon definition of the term. In part, it’s a state of mind. Incomes or lifestyles that feel middle class in Kansas can feel far different in Connecticut. People with substantial incomes often identify as middle class if they live in urban centers with costly food, housing and transportation.

In any case, individuals and families who feel they’ve slipped from the middle class are likely to spend and borrow less. Such a pullback, in turn, squeezes the economy, which is fueled mainly by consumer spending.

“How they think is reflected in how they act,” said Richard Morin, a senior editor at the Pew Research Center.

People are generally slow to acknowledge downward mobility. Many regard themselves as middle class even if their incomes fall well above or below the average. Experts say the rise in Americans who feel they’ve slipped below the middle class suggests something deeply rooted.

More people now think “it’s harder to achieve” the American dream than thought so several decades ago, said Mark Rank, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Three years ago, Kristina Feldotte, 47, and her husband earned a combined $80,000. She considered herself solidly middle class. The couple and their four children regularly vacationed at a lake near their home in Saginaw, Michigan.

But in August 2012, Feldotte was laid off from her job as a special education teacher. She’s since managed to find only part-time teaching work. Though her husband still works as a truck salesman, their income has sunk by more than half to $36,000.

“Now we’re on the upper end of lower class,” Feldotte said.

Americans’ self-perception coincides with data documenting a shrinking middle class: The percentage of households with income within 50 percent of the median – one way to define a broad middle class – fell from 50 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2010.

The Pew survey didn’t ask respondents to specify their income. Still, Pew has found in the past that people who call themselves middle class generally fit the broad definitions that economists use.

Roughly 8.4 percent of respondents to the National Opinion Research Center’s survey, last conducted in 2012, said they consider themselves lower class. That’s the survey’s highest percentage ever, up from 5.4 percent in 2006. NORC is a social science research organization at the University of Chicago.

Tom Smith, director of the NORC, said even slight shifts are significant. Class self-identification “is traditionally one of the most stable measures” in the survey, he said.

By contrast to the most recent recession, the severe 1981-82 downturn had little effect on class self-identification in Smith’s survey.

Why do so many no longer regard themselves as middle class? A key reason is that the recession eliminated 8.7 million jobs. A disproportionate number were middle-income positions. Those losses left what economists describe as a “hollowed-out” workforce, with more higher- and lower-paying and fewer middle-income jobs.

Rob McGahen, 30, hasn’t yet found a job that paid as well as the purchasing agent position at Boeing’s defense division that he left in 2011. Nervous about the sustainability of that job because of government defense cuts, McGahen quit after buying a bar near his St. Louis home.

The bar eventually went bankrupt and cost him his house. He and his wife moved to Pensacola, Fla., where he’s had little luck finding work in defense contracting.

Now, he works in the produce section of a supermarket. His wife earns the bulk of their income as a speech pathologist. Their household income has been cut in half, from $110,000 to $55,000, and he and his wife have put off having children.

“It’s definitely been a step back,” McGahen said.

Now living in an apartment, he misses the couple’s three-bedroom house on a quiet cul-de-sac in a St. Louis suburb.

Home ownership is among factors economists cite as markers of middle-class status. Others include being able to vacation, help children pay for college and save for a secure retirement.

Yet stagnant middle-class pay, combined with steep price increases for college, health care and homes, have made those expenses harder to afford. Median household income, adjusted for inflation, hasn’t budged since 1996, according to the Census Bureau. Average college tuition has soared 174 percent in that time.

Many of the formerly middle class are still struggling with student debt. McGahen, who has an MBA, estimates he’ll be making $600 payments on student loans each month for the next decade. Feldotte, with two master’s degrees, says she has “lots and lots of debt.”

And she isn’t prepared to help her children pay for college.

“There’s no money to help them,” she said.

A slowly improving U.S. economy could lift some people back into the middle class. Still, the recession and slow recovery have left permanent scars.

McGahen and his wife are trying to rebuild their savings. They no longer have credit cards. Timmerman travels much less than he thought he would in retirement.

“I have really beat myself up a lot over the last 2½ years,” McGahen said. “Until I get myself up and going again and in a good place ... it is tough.”

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deestafford 04/06/14 - 12:05 am
Of course many people feel that way and why...

Of course many people feel that way and why shouldn't they? Obama has ripped four spark plug wires off the 8 cylinder economic engine that is the American economy. He has not made the first right economic decision since becoming president. I would like someone to name one decision he's made that improved the economy.

His goal, as he himself stated, was to redistribute the wealth. He has a false impression of what capitalism and the free market are.

Given his upbringing and mentors and relatives he was exposed to from birth until assuming the presidency there was only one way he could become---a leftist, Marxist, statist who saw his mission in life to be the destroyer of what America was because of all the "wrongs" in its past.

I would venture to bet some, if not many, of the people voted at least once for Obama and some both times. Yet, those in that boat saw nothing in his past--if they had bothered to look---that would have led them to believe that he was other than what I described above. The same goes for the media who continues to sit on his lap and pant.

If many of the people who have lost the drive for the American Dream would look in the mirror they would find the cause of what has brought about the malaise with their votes for Democrats.

Truth Matters
Truth Matters 04/06/14 - 01:38 am
"Too many people on public

"Too many people on public assistance. Living off the government teat."
"No we don't need healthcare for the un and under-employed. Let's repeal the ACA and people can give their doctor a chicken as barter for healthcare."
"No we can't raise your minimum wage so you won't need food stamps."

If the minimum wage was raised and lessened the need for safety net programs, what would the GOP use as leverage to keep their base angry at the "freeloaders and moochers" so the GOP can win elections?

scoobynews 04/06/14 - 06:41 am
Sure go ahead and raise

Sure go ahead and raise minimum wage then eliminate income tax and go to fair tax. Oh you mean to tell me that by raising the minimum wage and resorting to a fair tax it would eliminate any real raise because prices would go up significantly? Welcome to the world of the so called "middle class" who have been paying taxes to fund public assistance and paying higher prices without seeing raises in almost six years now. Paying someone $10 an hour to give me sorry service at a fast food restaurant is just plain ridiculous. Minimum wage jobs are supposed to be stepping stones to a better paying job not a career.

seenitB4 04/06/14 - 11:52 am
“Now we’re on the upper end of lower class,”

That is sad but true...millions feel that way today..
Job loss because of stupid decisions & let us not forget that the internet has a 2 way sword...IT gives & it takes away...think about it---postal jobs--sales clerks--map makers--cell phones--library--banking--on & on...
We need quality jobs...I hope we are wise enough to create them in the near future.

dwb619 04/06/14 - 12:09 pm
smoke stack

Unless the "smoke stack" industry returns to the USA, the middle class will continue to struggle.

corgimom 04/06/14 - 03:18 pm
A special-education teacher,

A special-education teacher, laid off- highly unusual- that can't find full time work? Really?

School districts go begging for special education teachers, something is off there. They make more than regular teachers, and are very scarce.

And two masters degrees, and she can't find work?

Something is very, very strange there.

And he's a truck salesman, that he could do anywhere?

Why don't they move to wherever she could get a job?

raul 04/06/14 - 05:34 pm
@corgiman. And a speech

@corgiman. And a speech pathologist only making 55 K a year? The median annual wage for speech-language pathologists was $69,870 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,380, and the top 10 percent more than $107,650.
Speech-Language Pathologists - Bureau of Labor Statistics

Graymare 04/06/14 - 05:55 pm
Bureau of Labor Stats? And,

Bureau of Labor Stats? And, moving costs money. Do you still believe what the government feeds you? Y'all walk a mile in these folk's shoes then tell us what you think. "There but for the Grace of God I".

corgimom 04/07/14 - 08:52 am
Graymare, my son supports a

Graymare, my son supports a family of 4 on the same wages, in Southern California, and you don't see newspaper stories about him whining.

I didn't grow up middle class, either, and I've been unemployed, so your "walk a mile in their shoes" is ridiculous.

I HAVE done it, and I know that whining to a newspaper doesn't do anything for anybody, it's THEIR responsibility to find a job wherever they can.

What I do believe in is that people need to stop whining, face facts, and go to wherever they can find a job. They have kids to feed, and they need to act like adults and step up to the plate and do it.

I did it, why can't they?

Why would you think that I hadn't?

corgimom 04/07/14 - 08:54 am
What, exactly, is "middle class"?

"Plenty of smart people have taken a stab at that question. In the past few years, the "middle class" income range has been described as between $32,900 and $64,000 a year (a Pew Charitable Trusts study), between $50,800 and $122,000 (a U.S. Department of Commerce study), and between $20,600 and $102,000 (the U.S. Census Bureau's middle 60% of incomes)."

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