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Guest opinion

Hart: The sinking middle class

Chances are if someone asked you where you’d place yourself on the socio-economic ladder, you’d say “middle class.” And why not? Being middle class is almost synonymous with being American. It speaks to equality and to rejection of the Old World class system we left behind. The growth of the American middle class following World War II made us the envy of the world, crushed Soviet propaganda in the Cold War and proved that our historic experiment with free-market democracy indeed could spread prosperity and economic security throughout the population.

Besides, we tend to be squeamish about even the idea of class – to the point that we kind of deny it exists. Too, few Americans seem inclined to call themselves “lower class.” And you seldom hear anyone describe themselves as “upper class,” at least not publicly.  

Anyway, all that glorious historic middle-class triumph stuff is, well, history. Today, the chances are increasing that you may no longer make the middle class cut.

An analysis by Stateline, an online news service supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, finds that the percentage of the population that officially merits the title of “middle class” has shrunk in all 50 states since 2000. The analysis defines a middle class household as one having an annual income between 67 percent and 200 percent of the state median household income. The “median” income sits exactly in the middle of all incomes, with half of households earning more and half earning less.

In Arizona, the analysis, based on American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, finds that the percentage of households in the official “middle class” sank from 50 percent in 2000 to 45.9 percent in 2013. During the same period, the state’s median household income dropped from $55,889 (adjusted for inflation) to $48,510. So the income bar has lowered, but fewer of us are making it anyway.

This means that your household has to earn at least $32,502 annually to be officially entitled to a place in the “middle class” – a standard that now apparently eludes more than half of Arizona households. And that’s before expenses, such as housing: The Stateline analysis finds that 34 percent of Arizona households spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing, with 30 percent being the federal standard for housing affordability. This percentage has grown from 30 percent of households in 2000.

So where did these formerly middle class American families go? Some fortunate ones earned their way up into (what we avoid calling) the upper class. But the rising evidence of wealth inequality in the nation, and the fact that Arizona’s median income dropped during this period, suggest that most of our missing middle class have sunk into (what we also never call) the lower class.

So the next time you hear someone – perhaps even a politician – tossing around the phrase “middle class,” pause and think a minute: Is that me?

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Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Bill Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

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