The shrinking middle class

A shopper pays for her purchases at a Target store.
A shopper pays for her purchases at a Target store. AP

Used to be, being “middle class” meant a family had a measure of economic security, though not wealth, and hopes that the children would themselves one day expand the middle class with families of their own. It meant having a job. It meant some, though not all, goals had been attained.

The old television show “The Wonder Years” was one of the mirrors of the middle class. There were struggles, but family members were secure and happy and tried to laugh at their steeper hills and enjoy their times to coast.

But now the Pew Research Center has found that the sizes of upper-income households and lower-income households have grown in recent years, diminishing the number of middle-income households. Pew, which is a nonpartisan organization, saw the increase in the percentage of people in the high-income group as “economic progress.”

That may be true enough, but there is no question that such progress comes at a price. The middle class has long been America’s strength, and it represented in 2008, according to the Gallup poll, where 63 percent of Americans who were polled saw themselves.

The size of the group, at least in percentages, gave it political clout that was good for the country. Politicians, always tempted by the pressures of wealthy people and corporations and money-juggling bankers, felt they had to consider the welfare of the middle class when making policy.

But what will happen now? The size of the middle class is shrinking but still is substantial, slightly under 50 percent, according to Pew. So it cannot be ignored, and that’s good.

Those in the middle class are at the heart of the American Dream of a better and more secure life for themselves and the same for their children. (The financial definition of middle income was determined by Pew to be $42,000 to $126,000 for a family of three.)But if more in the middle class may be making it to the higher-income category, more also have lost ground and have slipped into the lower-income category. Their access to the dream is diminished.

Whenever Democrats talk about higher taxes on the wealthy, or at least fewer tax breaks for the wealthy, the screams go up from Wall Street to country clubs that any change would be akin to socialism, amounting to a “redistribution of wealth,” the greatest sin a democracy can commit – at least according to those who are wealthy.

But when a middle class shrinks, and those who were in the middle class now think of themselves as lower on the ladder with a harder chance of moving up, a country’s character, of being a place where all can dream and all can succeed, changes. And not for the better.