America is increasingly becoming a place of high- and low-skill jobs, with less room available for a middle class.
A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that over the past 30 years, the U.S. workforce has shifted toward high-paying jobs that require a great deal of education -- jobs in the legal, engineering or technology industries, for example -- and toward low-paying jobs that require little schooling, like food preparation, maintenance and personal care.
What haven't fared so well are the industries in the middle, like sales, teaching, construction, repair, entertainment, transportation and business -- the ones where a majority of Americans end up working.
In 1980, these middle-level jobs accounted for 75 percent of the workforce. By 2009, that number had fallen to 68 percent. In the same span of time, low- and high-skill jobs had each grown as a percentage of the workforce.
The New York Fed's report highlights the growing gap between rich and poor in America, a wealth discrepancy that one economist recently described as approaching "Gilded Age" levels. It also offers evidence that the middle class, a large consumer base that once powered the country's robust economy, is beginning to erode, as outsourcing, technological advances and social policy cause employment opportunities to evaporate.
Poverty and long-term unemployment are increasingly afflicting middle-class households, and food insecurity is a growing concern in many suburbs. The nationwide move toward high- and low-paying jobs has been mirrored by a similar geographic shift: today, twice as many Americans live in either poor or affluent neighborhoods as did in 1970.
And corporations are not unaware of the declining purchasing power of the middle class, with some companies now focusing on luxury items and bargain goods, and putting less emphasis on middle-market products.
Meanwhile, wealth has become ever more concentrated at the top. In October, a Congressional Budget Office report showed that the past three decades have seen the incomes of the very highest earners nearly triple, while wages have remained relatively stable for the vast majority of workers -- the literal 99 percent on which the Occupy Wall Street movement has based its identity.