The last ten years has been a “lost decade” for the middle class, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center. Since 2000, median family income has fallen 5 percent, from $72,956 to $69,487. Median net worth dropper even farther, from a high of $152,950 before the financial crash to just $93,150 in 2010. All in all, the middle class ended the decade poorer, smaller and less optimistic than they were at the turn of the millennium. The destruction of middle-class wealth, in particular, erased nearly two decades of gains.
The Pew study, which surveyed 1,287 adults describing themselves as middle class, found that most Americans remain worse off than they were before the recession. More than half believe it will be at least another five years before their finances recover, and 85 percent said it was harder to maintain a middle-class standard of living today than it was ten years ago.
Government data supports Pew's survey results. If you consider as middle class anyone earning between two-thirds and double the national median income (roughly $39,000 to $118,000), then the middle class has shrunk from 61 percent of the U.S. population in 1970 to just 51 percent in 2010, reversing decades of postwar growth in which the middle class grew larger and stronger.
The Pew report indicates that 6 percent of Americans leaving the middle class joined the ranks of the rich, whose numbers grew from 14 percent of the adult population in 1971 to 20 percent in 2010. Four percent fell into the lower-income tier (below $39,000), which now constitutes 29 percent of the population.
Wealthy families also increased their share of the national income to 46 percent, up from 29 percent four decades ago. The middle class, which in 1970 took home 62 percent of total income, saw their share fall to 45 percent. The lowest-income tier made only 9 percent.
Rich Morin, a senior editor at the Pew Research Center, told The Huffington Post this trend will continue unless steps are taken to counter growing inequality, predicting Americans will see “the rich getting richer and more numerous as the poor grow poorer and more numerous” while the middle class dwindles. According to Morin, the disappearance of the traditionally strong middle class could have dire consequences for the health of American democracy. “If you lose the middle class, you're in danger of losing a lot.”