On Wednesday, during a panel discussion on MSNBC featuring Commentary Magazine’s John Podhoretz and Sirius XM’s Senior Director for Progressive Programming Zerlina Maxwell, anchor Katy Tur suggested that the American middle class is “almost” non-existent.
TUR: You have this class of people who have more wealth than everybody else combined and almost no middle class any longer, and people who have no money whatsoever who are basically living on the poverty line.
PODHORETZ: We have no middle class any longer?
TUR: We have a much smaller middle class than we historically used to.
PODHORETZ: No, we don’t.
MAXWELL: Yes, we do.
PODHORETZ: No, we don’t. That’s actually not true. But in any case, what you’re talking about —
At this point, Tur cut off Podhoretz, claiming that the federal workers who were impacted by the partial government shutdown were not middle class because they were “worried about paying [for] groceries.”
We just had a government shutdown where 800,000 federal workers were missing one or two paychecks, and a number of them said that they were worried about paying groceries because they couldn’t —
Podhoretz then jumped back in, saying: “That doesn’t mean that they’re not the middle class.”
Tur replied that “living paycheck to paycheck is not middle class,” to which Podhoretz stated: “Sure it is. Middle class is an income level.”
MAXWELL: Yes, but if wages are not growing, and the cost of living is higher, then certainly, the income level that you’re talking about that used to be middle class is no longer that. You’re actually working poor.
PODHORETZ: That is just simply incorrect.
MAXWELL: If you are living paycheck to paycheck and you cannot buy food for your family, how is that middle class?
PODHORETZ: The median income in this country has gone up $6,000 in the last two years, from $47,000 to $53,000 a year.
Tur then asked Podhoretz: “So everyone’s doing fine?”
Podhoretz replied: “I’m not saying everyone’s doing fine, but you just said that there’s no middle class anymore. That’s a crazy thing to say, Katy.”
Tur’s assertion that there is “almost no middle class any longer” is patently false, according to data from Pew Research.
In September 2018, Pew released a report regarding the middle class using data from 1971 – 2016. The data showed that while the middle class shrank by 9% from 1971 to 2016, 52% of Americans still qualify as middle class.
Moreover, from 2011 to 2016, the American middle class remained “virtually unchanged,” according to Pew.
From 2000 to 2016, the median income for middle class Americans dipped then rebounded. In 2000, the median middle class income (“scaled to reflect a three-person household,” according to Pew) stood at $78,056; in 2010, that dropped to $74,015; by 2016, it had bounced back to $78,442.
Pew states that this appears to be “a reflection of the lingering effects of the Great Recession and an earlier recession in 2001.”
According to Mark J. Perry, professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan, some in the middle class have actually moved upward, which accounts for some of the middle class shrinkage.
Setting “middle class” at an annual household income of between $35,000 to $100,000 in 2016 dollars, Perry shows that the middle class went from 53.2% of households in 1967 to 42.1% in 2016.
However, the percentage of households earning more than $100,000 annually (upper income earners) increased from just 8.1% to 27.7% over the same period. Additionally, households earning less $35,000 annually (lower income earners) shrunk from 38.7% in 1967 to 30.2% in 2016.
According to Perry:
… the 19.6 percentage point increase in the share of high-income U.S. households between 1969 and 2016 (from 8.1% to 27.7%) was a result of: a) an 11.1 percentage point shrinkage in the share of middle-class households (from 53.2% to 42.1%), and b) an 8.5 percentage point shrinkage in the share of low-income households.
The American middle class may be shrinking, but it still represents a large portion of the populace, and it appears that some of the shrinkage is due to former middle income earners moving up the economic ladder.