As President Obama takes the stage Tuesday night to deliver his State of the Union address, he may want to be wary of appealing to the middle class, traditionally politicians’ favorite demographic. That's because fewer Americans than ever see themselves that way.
Just 44 percent of Americans say they identify as “middle-class,” the lowest share on record, according to a survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center. That’s down from 53 percent in 2008, during the first few months of the Great Recession.
On the flip side, as the chart shows, the percentage of Americans who see themselves as "lower-class" has surged 60 percent in the past six years.
Even as the share of Americans actually earning middle-income wages has been on a steady decline for the past few decades, a large swath of Americans have continued to view themselves as middle class.
That’s because as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman notes, whether you see yourself as middle-class often has little to do with income. Instead, it’s more about markers like whether you have a stable job and income, whether you’re protected from a financial emergency and whether through your hard work you can give your kids a better life.
For many Americans, the Great Recession and its subsequent slow recovery has thrown all of those things into question. Nearly half of the jobs lost during the recession paid middle-income wages and about the same share of new jobs created during the recovery were low wage, according to a 2012 analysis from the National Employment Law Project, a left-leaning think tank. Nearly half of Americans are one financial emergency from financial disaster, according to a 2013 report from Corporation for Enterprise Development. Student loan debt topped $1 trillion in 2012.
By contrast, the top 1 percent of earners took home more than 19 percent of the country’s household income in 2012, their largest share since 1928. In other words, the rich are getting richer and everyone else is getting poorer. No wonder Americans are starting to feel like the middle has disappeared.