Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Exaggerated Death of the Middle Class

The U.S. middle class is not shrinking. But the good news stops there.

Illustration: Gary Taxalgary Taxal

Mark Twain, upon reading his obituary in the New York Journal, famously quipped that the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The same could be said today of reports from the scholarly world, the media and even the White House about the shrinking of the middle class. Here’s why.

The most easily obtained income figures are not the most appropriate ones for assessing changes in living standards; those are also the figures that are often used to reach unwarranted conclusions about “middle class decline.” For example, analysts and pundits often rely on data that do not include all sources of income. Consider data on comprehensive income assembled by Cornell University economist Richard Burkhauser and his colleagues for the period between 1979—the year it supposedly all went wrong for working Americans—and 2007, before the Great Recession.

When Burkhauser looked at market income as reported to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the basis for the top 1 percent inequality figures that inspired Occupy Wall Street, he found that incomes for the bottom 60 percent of tax filers stagnated or declined over the nearly three-decade period. Incomes in the middle fifth of tax returns grew by only 2 percent on average, and those in the bottom fifth declined by 33 percent.

Things appeared somewhat better when Burkhauser looked at the definition of income favored by the Census Bureau which, unlike IRS figures, includes government cash payments from programs like Social Security and welfare, and looks at households rather than tax returns.

Still, the income of the middle fifth only rose by 15 percent over the entire three decades, much less than 1 percent per year. The Census Bureau reports that from 2000 to 2010, the income of the middle fifth actually fell by 8 percent. With numbers like these, it’s understandable why so many people think the American middle class is under threat and in decline…

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