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'The Rising Waters'--Carl Hassman, 1869-1933
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CHARLOTTE, N.C.--A long and familiar list of concerns fuels Americans' discontent this election season: the economy, taxes, the deficit, health care reform, and on and on.
But the Pew Research Center last month put its finger on what's really at the heart of the country's continuing struggles: The American middle class is smaller, poorer, and more pessimistic than it has been in a long time. That explains a lot of the uneasiness so many people feel these days, and it deserves a lot more substantive debate in the presidential and congressional campaigns.
A large and strong middle class has long been a cornerstone of America's economic health. Most people once did well enough to maintain an acceptable standard of living, and most had a chance to do better than their parents. That undergirded our quality of life and made the United States the envy of many countries.
It's all vanishing. If we stay on this trajectory, a majority of residents will not be middle class. (As defined by Pew, the middle class is a household that makes between 67 percent and 200 percent of the national median income.)
Some of Pew's findings:
Just 51 percent of adults were in the middle class in 2011--down from 61 percent in 1971.
The middle class's median wealth dropped 28 percent in the decade since 2000, and its median income fell 5 percent.
The middle class's share of the nation's household income has dropped from 62 percent in 1971 to
"The notion that we are a society with a large middle class, with lots of economic and social mobility and a belief that each generation does better than the next--these are among the core tenets of what it means to be an American," Pew's Paul Taylor told the Los Angeles Times. "But that's not necessarily the case anymore."
The Great Recession and the plunge in housing values whacked the middle class. The wealthy have a smaller percentage of their wealth tied up in their homes. As a result, the upper class's wealth actually climbed a tiny bit--1 percent--in the decade after 2000, compared with the 28 percent loss for the middle class.