What Is Happening to the Middle Class?
Scott Winship’s “What ‘Lost Decade’?” (October 1) opens by misstating one of the basic findings of “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class,” a report released by my organization, the Pew Research Center. He claims we say that “over the past 40 years, the middle class has grown poorer.” In fact, we say exactly the opposite. Our analysis of Census trend data shows that, from 1970 to 2010, the median annual household income of the middle tier of the population rose by 34 percent after adjusting for inflation and changes in household size. Our report also shows that this finding is in sync with the public’s perceptions about its long-term economic mobility. Asked to compare their standard of living now with that of their parents at the same age, 60 percent of self-identifying middle-class respondents to our nationwide survey said theirs is better. Just 13 percent said it is worse (the remainder said it is the same).
While our report looked at these and other long-term trends, it focused mainly on changes over the past ten years — the first decade of the post–World War II era in which the median household income of the middle income tier declined (it fell by 5 percent), and also a time when the median wealth of the middle income tier plunged (by 28 percent). Our survey found an increase in economic anxiety across a wide range of measures and a decline in the share of the public that self-identifies as middle class. We believe we’ve reported the facts and the public’s perceptions of the facts.
Mr. Winship also takes us to task for some of the methodological choices we made. For example, he suggests that we would have gotten different findings had we used different statistical boundaries to define the middle income tier. However, as we noted in the report, we ran simulations using many different boundaries; the basic trends were unaffected. He suggests that the use of the decade time frame distorted our analysis; we chose this time frame because median household income in the United States peaked in 1999 and has not returned to that peak since — the longest such stretch in our modern economic history. He also suggests that we would have gotten a different picture had we excluded from our analysis the Hispanics who have come to this country since 1970. Yes, we often add value to our findings by looking at variations among different sub-groups, and we did so in this report. But the overarching goal of the report was to draw a data-driven portrait of America’s middle class — all of it — and to look at how it has changed over time. We’re confident we achieved that goal.
Executive Vice President
Pew Research Center
Scott Winship replies: Paul Taylor is correct that I misattributed the claim that the middle class has grown poorer over 40 years to the Pew Research Center report, and I apologize for the carelessness. As I wrote later in the piece, the report finds that both “lower income” and “middle income” Americans got richer over the 40-year period. My piece attempts to show that PRC’s subhead (“Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier”) is badly off. The issue of accounting for Hispanics — a small point raised in the piece — is illustrative; trends showing everyone lumped together look worse than trends for either Hispanics or non-Hispanics considered separately.
An additional note: Because of an editing error, the subtitle of this article referred to the “Pew Research Council.” The correct name of the organization is the “Pew Research Center.”