Who Are the Middle Class, and Are They Disappearing?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The middle class is a political priority in Washington right now. Each party would like to show how it’s working to improve conditions and aid the struggle of middle class American families. Each would like to prove that the other is secretly apathetic to the plight of average American family working to maintain their family’s lifestyle. That makes the middle class a fairly important target group, both in terms of selling legislation and executive action, and in terms of 2016 presidential election preparation. As such, it’s a pretty important group to consider for voting potential and general satisfaction. Let’s look at some big qualitative and quantity questions for America’s middle class.

How is the middle class doing according to politicians?

The first question of importance is how the middle class is fairing currently. The Obama administration argues that unemployment is down, gas prices are down, the housing market is recovering, and the economy is steadily seeing improvement, but that stagnant minimum wages and much needed tax reforms have left many in America feeling like their lot has yet to improve. Republicans argue that economic growth has been slow, the budget has been over-zealous, and that businesses still face challenges. “We need to start growing America’s economy, not Washington’s economy. Our challenge — our opportunity — is to pass common-sense solutions that will help expand opportunities for middle-class families and small businesses. Solutions that simplify our tax code to make it both pro-growth and pro-family,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a January speech on “solutions for middle class families.”

“I know that there are Republicans in Congress who disagree with my approach, and I look forward to hearing their ideas for how we can pay for what the middle class needs to grow. But what we can’t do is simply pretend that things like child care or college aren’t important, or pretend there’s nothing we can do to help middle class families get ahead,” Obama said last month. 

What about statistics?

As of 2014, 49% of Americans said they considered the tax burden on the middle class to be too great, according to Gallup. Pew Research showed the wealth gap between upper and middle income to be rising, reaching a record gap size in December 2014 with a 6.6 times net worth gap. And in general, while Americans report that they feel more financially secure, 41% of respondents in a national survey taken by Bankrate — a consumer financial service group — reported that “staying current on expenses, bills” was their top financial priority, meaning simply coming out even is still a struggle for many.

Who is the middle class versus the working middle?

This is where the question gets tough. First of all, the middle class and working middle aren’t the same, depending on who defines these terms. Middle class can refer to socioeconomic factors, income, debt, job security, and it can refer to other factors as well, like education, family characteristics, etc. Middle income is more specific to financial definitions of middle America, while middle class can safely be assume to include a broader array of defining factors.

Is the demographic size remaining consistent?

According to Pew Research, those included in the middle income category have decreased since the 1970s, when 61% of adults were in middle-income families. But between 2010 and 2013, it remained at a level of 51%.

Those considered to be within the range of middle income has changed over time. In 2000, the range was from $43,691 to $131,072, but by 2013 it had narrowed to $40,667 and$122,000. The general trend is certainly toward a smaller middle income group, increasing the sizes of the upper and lower income brackets, making the separation of wealth more extreme. In 1970, higher and lower income were at 14% and 25% respectively, compared to the 20% and 29% seen in 2013.

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 11.17.09 AMIs this a demographic of voters?

Of course, part of the reason middle-income is such a major talking point for politicians is that they hope to gain the vote of this population. And indeed, the population of middle income versus extreme poor and extreme rich is much larger. But that only matters if voter turnout and involvement is seen within that population. A study from Benjamin Page, Larry Bartel, and Martin Gilens looking at 30 years of voter data showed that there was not a single year “in which low-income voter turnout was higher than high-income voter turnout.”

That looks only at high versus low turnout though, and based on the table shown above, it’s clear that voter involvement seems to relate directly to income level, increasing with yearly income. As such, a focus on middle class voters and issues makes sense given the larger percentage of the population that falls in that category than in either extreme and the apparent involvement of voters within that demographic.

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