Inequality 2.

Americans history since 1967 has been complex and troubled. However, the economic fortunes of virtually all Americans have steadily improved.[1] In 1967, 40 percent of households earned less than $35,000; 53 percent earned between $35,000 and $100,000; and 7 percent earned more than $100,000 a year. In 2013, 34 percent of households earned less than $35,000 a year; 43 percent earned between $35,000 and $100,000; and 22 percent earned more than $100,000.

The share of households earning more than $100,000 increased from 7 percent to 22 percent. This 15 percent moved up from the middle class. If nothing changed for the lowest share of households, then the middle class would have fallen to 38 percent. Instead, the share earning less than $35,000 decreased from 40 percent to 34 percent. This 6 percent moved up into the middle class. This pretty much matches up with the 43 percent still earning between $35,000 and $100,000 a year. For all three classes, then, the years from 1967 to 2014 have seen a total of 21 percent of Americans moving from the lower class into the middle class or from the middle class into the upper class. This means that 79 percent of Americans remained in their original class. That doesn’t mean that many of them felt frustrated or deceived.

However, the over-all rise of American household fortunes masks other important trends. First of all, the general process of advance went into reverse after 2000. In 2000, 31 percent of households earned less than $35,000 a year; 45 percent earned between $35,000 and $100,000; and 25 percent earned more than $100,000. Then, between 2000 and 2013, 3 percent of households fell out of the middle class into the lower class, and 3 percent fell out of the upper class into the middle class. So, the American story up to 2000 was even more emphatically one of success. It was followed by a period of retreat. How much of the retreat—and the resulting sense of crisis–arises from the pain of the Great Recession and how much from long term trends like globalization? People were clearly falling backward between 2000 and the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. This decline resulted from foreign competition and new technology.

Some of the people who “fell” from the ranks of the middle and upper classes probably were marginal new arrivals. Any economic down-turn would shove them off the ledge. They were the victims of President Obama’s rejection of an adequate stimulus bill back in 2008-2009 and of Republican-enforced austerity policies after 2010.

Average median household income has fallen by 9 percent. Among households headed by people 65 or older, median income has risen by 14 percent since 2000. Partly, the rise in income for older households results from people who continue to work after age 65. Partly, it results from increasingly generous benefits (Social Security, Medicare) provided to older people.

One of the key factors here appears to be education. Even as late as 1992, almost half of middle class families were headed by someone with a high school education or less; slightly more than half by someone with at least some college. Today, 37 percent of middle class families are headed by someone with a high school education or less; 63 percent with at least some college. The middle class has declined most markedly in places that have shifted from industry toward technology and services. New England and New Jersey offer good examples.

How should we deal with globalization, the increased value of education, and the weighting of social policy toward older Americans at the expense of younger Americans?

[1] Dionne Searcey and Robert Gebeloff, “More Fall Out As the Middle Class Shrinks Further,” NYT, 26 January 2015.


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