Aug. 22, 2012 at 12:56 PM ET
The Great Recession and weak recovery have left slightly fewer Americans feeling like they are part of the middle class, and many who do still identify themselves as such say they are now worse off.
A new and comprehensive survey on how the middle class feels, released Wednesday by Pew Research Center, finds 42 percent of people who identify themselves as middle class say they are in worse shape financially than before the recession began. About 32 percent are in better shape, and the rest either don’t know or see no difference.
The recession officially ran from December of 2007 to June of 2009, although economic growth has generally been slow since and unemployment has remained high.
There is no hard and fast definition of middle class, but it’s clear from the Pew results that many people feel like the middle-class ideal is slipping through their fingers. The vast majority of the people who identified themselves as middle class also said that it’s tougher to maintain their standard of living than it was a decade ago.
It’s not surprising that many people feel like it’s harder to get ahead financially than it used to be. The nation’s median household income rose fairly steadily for five decades until hitting a peak in 1999. But since then, median household income, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by 7 percent, to $49,445 as of 2010. The Census Bureau is scheduled to release the 2011 data in September.
The people in the Pew study who identified themselves as middle class said it would take a median annual income of $70,000 to lead a middle class life, according to the researchers. The Pew study of 2,508 adults included 1,287 people who described themselves as middle class, and it was conducted in mid-July.
The self-described middle class is more pessimistic about their children’s future than they were four years ago. Less than half -- 43 percent -- said they think their children’s standard of living will be better than their own at the same age, down from 51 percent in 2008. About 26 percent said they think their children’s standard of living will be worse, up from 19 percent in 2008.
The weak economy and middle-class Americans’ pessimism about it will likely be a key factor in the upcoming presidential election.
In the Pew survey, middle class appeared to be more optimistic that President Obama’s policies would help them, with 52 percent saying the president would help middle-class Americans if he was re-elected in November. Just 42 percent said Mitt Romney’s policies would help the middle class if he was elected.
A separate poll, conducted by Gallup in August and also released this week, found that more than half of registered voters in swing states feel no better off than they were four years ago. That’s similar to the results from a Gallup survey of registered voters in all states.
Swing state voters were closely divided on whether President Obama could have helped them more. According to the Gallup survey, 46 percent of swing state voters said Obama has done as well as could be expected in dealing with the difficult economy, while 52 percent said he has not done as well as expected.
The Gallup survey included 970 voters in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.