A foreclosed house in a middle-income Detroit suburb. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

It’s now smaller than the upper and lower economic tiers combined, a Pew study finds.

America’s middle class has been steadily shrinking since 1971, and now this segment of the U.S. population is around the same size as the layers above and below it combined, a new analysis by Pew Research Center finds. It’s “a demographic shift that could signal a tipping point,” Pew says.

Pew Research Center

In 2015, middle-income Americans (adults in a three-person household with annual income between $42,000 and $126,000) made up about half of the U.S. population, down steadily from 61 percent since 1971. In absolute numbers, this middle-income band now contains around 120 million people, which is almost the same as the total number of Americans in the other economic tiers combined (121 million).

Presidential candidates from both parties have decried this trend as a significant economic strain on the country—and they’re right. The bands at the two extremes are growing the fastest, indicating a widening income inequality. The share of Americans in the lowest-income segment has grown from 16 percent in 1971 to 20 percent in 2015; the richest segment, meanwhile, has more than doubled from 4 percent of the U.S. population to 9 percent over that period. The upper-middle and lower-middle classes have remained steady.

The uppermost tier is also getting a larger slice of the proverbial pie than it was before, both because it now contains more people and because these people are rapidly making more and more. In 2014, almost half the total income in the U.S. went to this relatively small share of the population, compared to 29 percent in 1970.

Pew Research Center

It’s not all bad news. While the middle class has been languishing in the last decade because of the recession, its income has grown overall since 1971—by 34 percent. This is less growth than the 47 percent increase in upper-tier household income during that period, but more growth than the 28 percent increase rise for lower-income households.

The fact that the upper tier grew the most signals “economic progress,” Pew says. It means that Americans who were previously in the lower income tiers may have advanced up. The likelihood of economic mobility, however, varies greatly by demographic group. Black Americans, for example, still remain more likely to be in the lower income band than Americans overall, even though they’re better off than they were 40 years ago.

Which way the middle class tips—more contraction, or new growth—will depend in large part on the economic policies of the next administration. If you want to see where you fit in right now, check out this Pew income calculator.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: a Tower Records Japan Inc. store in Tokyo, Japan.
    Life

    The Bankrupt American Brands Still Thriving in Japan

    Cultural cachet, licensing deals, and density explain why Toys ‘R’ Us, Tower Records, Barneys, and other faded U.S. retailers remain big across the Pacific.

  2. photo: a commuter looks at a small map of the London Tube in 2009
    Maps

    Help! The London Tube Map Is Out of Control.

    It’s never been easy to design a map of the city’s underground transit network. But soon, critics say, legibility concerns will demand a new look.

  3. Transportation

    How Media Coverage of Car Crashes Downplays the Role of Drivers

    Safety advocates have long complained that media outlets tend to blame pedestrians and cyclists who are hit by cars. Research suggests they’re right.

  4. Photos

    How Thousands of Headstones Ended Up Under a Philadelphia Bridge

    A surprising tale of a forgotten cemetery, a land grab, and some clever recycling.

  5. photo: A vacant home in Oakland that is about to demolished for an apartment complex.
    Equity

    Fix California’s Housing Crisis, Activists Say. But Which One?

    As a controversy over vacancy in the Bay Area and Los Angeles reveals, advocates disagree about what kind of housing should be built, and where.

×