Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new analysis by the Pew Research Center pinpoints the areas with the largest shares of middle-income adults in the U.S.
The American middle class has contracted so much since the 1970s that it’s now smaller than the upper and lower classes put together. That historic shift has largely been driven by economic conditions within U.S. metros, a new Pew Research Center report finds.
Out of the 229 metros Pew examined, 203 saw their shares of adults in middle-income households (defined here as those with two-thirds to twice the national median household income) decline between 2000 and 2014. In many of these metros, that decline was much higher than the 4 percentage point drop nationwide. (in 53, it was 6 percent or higher.)
The decrease in household incomes in most U.S. metros partly explains the pinched middle class in these areas. But each metro has a different story. In Midland, Texas, for example, the upper class has ballooned in recent years because of the flourishing oil-based economy in that region (see above, left). As a result, the shares of middle-income households have dropped. Goldsboro, North Carolina, is the opposite case: There, it’s the rising share of low-income households that has squeezed the middle class.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more dramatic drops in shares of middle-income households between 2000 and 2014 occurred in metros with the widest income gaps. “The decline of the middle class is a reflection of rising income inequality in the U.S.,” the report reads.
Overall, three key geographical trends emerge from Pew’s analysis. The 10 metros with the biggest middle classes are generally the Midwest and Northeast. The ones with the thickest upper classes are sprinkled across the Northeast (with the exception of Midland, Texas, which has the highest share of upper-income adults). And the metros with the biggest shares of low-income adults are generally concentrated in the South and Southwest. (These areas are particularly concerning because they contribute to the expansion of the U.S. lower class, which is now wider than its upper class.) Here’s Pew’s interactive map showing these distinctions:
One thing this map makes clear is that the middle-class-heavy metros tend to exist in areas where manufacturing is still a key industry. But even in these regions, the future well-being of middle-income households is far from guaranteed, the Pew researchers write:
The role of the manufacturing sector in sustaining the middle class in these Midwest localities is not clear-cut. While manufacturing jobs tend to pay more than average, the sector has been letting go of workers in recent decades. Nationwide, employment in the manufacturing sector shrank 29% from 2000 to 2014. The middle-class communities in the Midwest were not immune to this trend.