What's Happening to the Middle Class?


America’s middle class has just endured one of the worst decades in modern history, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. In the last 10 years, members of the middle class have watched their wages decrease along with their net worth, and have reported an overall more difficult time making ends meet.

According to the study, “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class,” 85% of middle class Americans say it is “more difficult now than it was a decade ago… to maintain their standard of living.” The middle class is also a dwindling population: Today only 51% of Americans fall into the middle class, down from 61% in 1971. However, it seems that some members of the middle class are upwardly mobile, as the percentage of wealthy families rose from 14% to 20%, while those falling into the lower income category rose to 29% from 25%.

In just the last year, members of the middle class have seen their median household income fall to $69,487 from $72,956 in 2010. Over the last 10 years, household net worth has also dropped dramatically—down to $93,150 from $129,582 in 2001.

“The question is: ‘What has changed?’” says Adrian Nazari, CEO of Credit Sesame, a mortgage, loan and debt management site. “One of the biggest things that wiped out their wealth was the real estate market. After the crash, they may have lost homes, and then their ability to borrow money was also significantly reduced when the credit markets tightened up.”

Frozen and tight credit markets have reduced the middle class’ ability to borrow and has impeded their ability to make big-ticket purchases like cars, education or open small businesses, Nazari says.

“When the middle class don’t have access to borrowing money at a lower rate, the gap between their amount of income and their amount of debt gets bigger. They’re going to end up paying more for the things they need because of the elevated interest rates.”

However, according to the Pew data released Wednesday, the middle class doesn’t cite the weak real estate market or the credit markets as the reason for their discontent. The majority—62%— say “a lot” of the blame for the struggles lies with Congress, while  54% fault  banks and financial institutions and 47% point to “large corporations.” Other things blamed included the Bush administration, the Obama administration and foreign competition.

“The truth is that many Americans have yet to recover from the recession,” says Ken Kamen, managing director at Mercadien Asset Management and author of Reclaim Your Nest Egg: Take Control of your Financial Future. The Pew study shows  42% of adult members of the middle class say their financial situation is worse now than it was before the recession. More than half—51%— say their household financial situation will take at least another five years to recover, while 8% say they will never recover from the damage done during the Great Recession.

“People don’t feel comfortable anymore. They feel vulnerable. In the last decade, we had an attack on our shores, we saw real estate values tumble by more than 30%, and then there’s the curse of longevity—people are living longer than they ever thought, and they’re going to need more money than they ever imagined. There is a tremendous amount of angst out there.”

He continues to explain that the added worry that parents have that their children will not enjoy a certain lifestyle is also taking a toll on middle class parents.

According to the study, 32% of middle-class adults say they are not at all confident that they will have enough income and assets to last throughout their retirement years, and 26% say their children’s standard of living will be worse than their own. However, another more tangible factor in the middle class’ worries is that they are simply spending more than ever because what it means to be middle class has changed.

“Think about how much we now spend each month on Internet, cellular phones, cable, video games, and computers,” says Kamen. “It’s staggering. If you want to be connected to things, which every American family does, then it’s an additional $200-$300  a month added to your budget to do that.”

Additionally, the social pressures and pressures that stem from media images shouldn’t be ignored, Kamen says. There is a lot of misinformation on the Internet and on TV about what “middle class” really means.

“We are seeing images of how other people live, and the Internet says that people simply live better than you do. It pigeonholes people to finding aspiration in that or finding desperation in that,” he says. “Honestly, I think it has a lot to do with why people are getting more pessimistic.”

Nazari says another more concrete factor with the middle class over the last decade is inflation.

“You can’t overlook inflation as a big part of middle class families’ problems. We have had a steady inflation that has not stopped in the last decade, and income has simply not grown that fast. The cost of living and the cost of borrowing have gone up, and it catches up with you.”

Inflation may be one of the big factors middle class Americans look at during this year’s election. According to the study, 41% of people are very pessimistic about the country’s long-term economic future. Half of all people surveyed said they lean more towards the democratic party, while 39% of people said they side with republicans. Eleven percent of people declined to identify with either political party.