Meet the New Middle Class: Who They Are, What They Want, and What They Fear

After years of economic turmoil, most families now believe the most valuable--and elusive--possession in American life is economic security.
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Reuters

Americans still believe they can reach for the stars, but they are increasingly fearful they are standing on a trapdoor as they try.

That's the deeply ambivalent message from the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll exploring the public's perception of what it means to be middle class in America today. Fully 56 percent of those surveyed said they believe they will eventually climb to a higher rung on the economic ladder than they occupy now. But even more said they worry about falling into a lower economic class sometime in the next few years. Reaffirming the results in earlier Heartland Monitor polls, most of those surveyed said the middle class today enjoys less opportunity, job security, and disposable income than earlier generations did. And strikingly small percentages of American adults said they consider it "very realistic" that they can meet such basic financial goals as paying for their children's college, retiring comfortably, or saving "enough money to ... deal with a health emergency or job loss."

In all, the survey suggests that after years of economic turmoil, most families now believe the most valuable--and elusive--possession in American life isn't any tangible acquisition, such as a house or a car, but rather economic security. Asked to define what it means to be middle class, a solid 54 percent majority of respondents picked "having the ability to keep up with expenses and hold a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt"; a smaller percentage defined it in terms of getting ahead and accumulating savings. "It seems like that class of the people just live from paycheck to paycheck," said Dale High, a trucker from near Idaho Falls, Idaho, who responded to the poll. "Everything is going up, but wages are staying the same. And people can't live like that."

The backdrop for these sober assessments is a darkening of the national mood since President Obama won reelection. The share of Americans who say the country is on the right track reached a four-year high of 41 percent in the Heartland Monitor survey conducted just after his victory in November. But that optimism plummeted in the latest survey to less than three in 10. The number of people who expect the economy to improve over the next year also skidded.

Obama's approval rating dipped as well. Last November, it reached 54 percent, the highest level in a Heartland Monitor survey since summer 2009. In the new survey, slightly more adults said they disapproved than approved of his performance. Congress fared far worse. And when respondents were asked whether key institutions or individuals, from Obama and Congress to big-business leaders, were making life better or worse for the middle class, only local business owners attracted a broadly positive assessment.

The poll reaffirms Americans' enduring confidence that they can better their own circumstances. But the results highlight how much economic anxiety and political alienation still shadow daily life, even after the blackest clouds of the Great Recession have lifted.

Minorities Rising
Essayist Garrison Keillor defines his fictional Lake Wobegon as a place where all the children are above average. The new poll found that Americans take almost the opposite tack in their self-descriptions, with most placing themselves at the center of the economic ladder. Asked to define their class status on a 5-point scale, just 2 percent identified themselves as upper class and 12 percent as upper-middle class. More respondents placed themselves below the middle: 12 percent said they were lower class, and 26 percent called themselves lower-middle class. By far the largest group--46 percent--self-identified as middle class.

The sense of belonging to the middle class transcended many objective economic boundaries. Racial differences were relatively muted, with 50 percent of African-Americans, 47 percent of whites, and 39 percent of Hispanics calling themselves middle class. As survey supervisors Jeremy Ruch and Brent McGoldrick note, a plurality of respondents in every educational grouping said they were middle class. So did almost two-thirds of households earning between $50,000 and $100,000. Among households earning $30,000 to $50,000 and among those over $100,000, the share that identified as middle class--just under 45 percent--was almost exactly the same.

Some distinctions emerged when respondents were asked to compare their economic class with that of their parents at the same age. The results showed upward mobility in America in a mixed light at best: 35 percent ranked themselves higher than their parents, 31 percent in the same class, and 29 percent in a lower class. These findings revealed large variations by race and education. Among Hispanics, more respondents said they'd risen above their parents' station than said they had slipped (47 percent to 22 percent). Responses were similar for African-Americans (33 percent to 22 percent) and college-educated whites (38 percent to 35 percent). But among whites without college degrees, more said they had lost ground (36 percent) rather than gained it (29 percent).

See the Full Poll Results

Expectations about children diverged along similar lines. As in earlier Heartland Monitor surveys, members of minority groups expressed more optimism about their children's prospects than whites did. While 56 percent of nonwhite respondents said they expected their children to reach the upper class or upper-middle class, just 38 percent of whites agreed. Whites were twice as likely as minorities to say their children would settle in the lower class or lower-middle class and slightly more likely to predict they would reach the middle class. These somber sentiments, as in the earlier Heartland surveys, differed surprisingly little between whites with and without four-year college degrees.

In fact, numerous economic studies show that the children of white parents, particularly those with advanced education, are far more likely than young minorities to reach the top rungs of the economic ladder. But this survey reconfirms earlier Heartland results that suggest minorities are more likely than whites to expect opportunity for their children, because they are more likely to see their own lives as examples of generational progress. Two-thirds of Hispanics and half of African-Americans placed their parents in the lower class or lower-middle class at their age, compared with about one-third of whites.

In this poll, as in earlier surveys, whites were much more likely to express fears that opportunity for young people has already peaked, even for those with a college degree. "I feel sorry for my kids--they're just getting out of college--because they have nothing to look forward to," said Tim Cooper, a logistical equipment salesman who lives in the Chicago suburbs. "They're not going to have the ability in the near future to buy a home. There are thousands of people who are going to be stuck with their student loans."

On a Tightrope
People who responded to the Allstate/National Journal poll reported a substantial amount of economic churning in their own lives--showing, again, a close balance between upward and downward mobility in American life. Exactly 30 percent of those surveyed reported they had risen from a lower economic class, and 27 percent said they had slipped down from a higher class. Forty-three percent had seen no movement at all.

Looking into the future, the poll found a mix of optimism and anxiety, filigreed with fascinating contrasts of race and class. Overall, 56 percent of those surveyed said they thought it very or somewhat likely they would reach "a higher class at some point" in their lives. Just 42 percent thought it unlikely they would climb. Optimism is even more common among Americans of working age; more than four-fifths of adults under 30, more than two-thirds of those in their 30s, and just over three-fifths of people in their 40s think they will rise, compared to much smaller proportions of seniors and workers soon to retire.

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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