Seven Reasons to Worry About the American Middle Class

Middle incomes are stagnant. Employment and wages are down. Few believe in the American Dream anymore.

A suburban home in New Jersey, August 23, 2009
A suburban home in New Jersey, August 23, 2009 (Flickr/vonSchnauzer)

The Brookings Institutions’ Eleanor Krause and Isabel V. Sawhill give seven reason to worry about the American middle class:

  1. Middle incomes are stagnant while the top 20 percent of Americans have seen their incomes almost double since 1980.
  2. Employment and wages are declining for workers at the bottom and in the middle of the skill and wage distribution.
  3. Middle-class children’s prospects are declining. Upward mobility has fallen nearly in half since 1940. Children born into poor families have a hard time making it into the middle class as adults whereas those born wealthy are less likely to fall.
  4. Destinies are diverging, especially by race. Hispanics have relatively high rates of upward mobility, but black Americans are less likely to move up the income ladder and more likely to fall down it — especially black men.
  5. Place matters more than ever. Nearly all job growth is in the cities. The rural population is shrinking. Yet Americans don’t move as much as they used to.
  6. A sense of well-being has eroded, at least for some. Most — especially white — Americans are no longer confident their children will grow up to be better off than them. Blacks and Hispanics are a bit more optimistic.
  7. Middle-class families are more fragile and more dependent on two incomes. The improvement in middle-class family incomes over the past several decades is entirely thanks to women’s added work hours and earnings. The sharp decline in marriage and rise in single parenthood is affecting everyone except those with college degrees.