Can the Middle Class Be Saved?

The Great Recession has accelerated the hollowing-out of the American middle class. And it has illuminated the widening divide between most of America and the super-rich. Both developments herald grave consequences. Here is how we can bridge the gap between us.
Andy Reynolds/Wonderful Machine

In October 2005, three Citigroup analysts released a report describing the pattern of growth in the U.S. economy. To really understand the future of the economy and the stock market, they wrote, you first needed to recognize that there was “no such animal as the U.S. consumer,” and that concepts such as “average” consumer debt and “average” consumer spending were highly misleading.

In fact, they said, America was composed of two distinct groups: the rich and the rest. And for the purposes of investment decisions, the second group didn’t matter; tracking its spending habits or worrying over its savings rate was a waste of time. All the action in the American economy was at the top: the richest 1 percent of households earned as much each year as the bottom 60 percent put together; they possessed as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent; and with each passing year, a greater share of the nation’s treasure was flowing through their hands and into their pockets. It was this segment of the population, almost exclusively, that held the key to future growth and future returns. The analysts, Ajay Kapur, Niall Macleod, and Narendra Singh, had coined a term for this state of affairs: plutonomy.

In a plutonomy, Kapur and his co-authors wrote, “economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few.” America had been in this state twice before, they noted—during the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties. In each case, the concentration of wealth was the result of rapid technological change, global integration, laissez-faire government policy, and “creative financial innovation.” In 2005, the rich were nearing the heights they’d reached in those previous eras, and Citigroup saw no good reason to think that, this time around, they wouldn’t keep on climbing. “The earth is being held up by the muscular arms of its entrepreneur-plutocrats,” the report said. The “great complexity” of a global economy in rapid transformation would be “exploited best by the rich and educated” of our time.

The Great Recession and the Middle Class

Kapur and his co-authors were wrong in some of their specific predictions about the plutonomy’s ramifications—they argued, for instance, that since spending was dominated by the rich, and since the rich had very healthy balance sheets, the odds of a stock-market downturn were slight, despite the rising indebtedness of the “average” U.S. consumer. And their division of America into only two classes is ultimately too simple. Nonetheless, their overall characterization of the economy remains resonant. According to Gallup, from May 2009 to May 2011, daily consumer spending rose by 16 percent among Americans earning more than $90,000 a year; among all other Americans, spending was completely flat. The consumer recovery, such as it is, appears to be driven by the affluent, not by the masses. Three years after the crash of 2008, the rich and well educated are putting the recession behind them. The rest of America is stuck in neutral or reverse.

Income inequality usually shrinks during a recession, but in the Great Recession, it didn’t. From 2007 to 2009, the most-recent years for which data are available, it widened a little. The top 1 percent of earners did see their incomes drop more than those of other Americans in 2008. But that fall was due almost entirely to the stock-market crash, and with it a 50 percent reduction in realized capital gains. Excluding capital gains, top earners saw their share of national income rise even in 2008. And in any case, the stock market has since rallied. Corporate profits have marched smartly upward, quarter after quarter, since the beginning of 2009.

Even in the financial sector, high earners have come back strong. In 2009, the country’s top 25 hedge-fund managers earned $25 billion among them—more than they had made in 2007, before the crash. And while the crisis may have begun with mass layoffs on Wall Street, the financial industry has remained well shielded compared with other sectors; from the first quarter of 2007 to the first quarter of 2010, finance shed 8 percent of its jobs, compared with 27 percent in construction and 17 percent in manufacturing. Throughout the recession, the unemployment rate in finance and insurance has been substantially below that of the nation overall.

It’s hard to miss just how unevenly the Great Recession has affected different classes of people in different places. From 2009 to 2010, wages were essentially flat nationwide—but they grew by 11.9 percent in Manhattan and 8.7 percent in Silicon Valley. In the Washington, D.C., and San Jose (Silicon Valley) metro areas—both primary habitats for America’s meritocratic winners—job postings in February of this year were almost as numerous as job candidates. In Miami and Detroit, by contrast, for every job posting, six people were unemployed. In March, the national unemployment rate was 12 percent for people with only a high-school diploma, 4.5 percent for college grads, and 2 percent for those with a professional degree.

Housing crashed hardest in the exurbs and in more-affordable, once fast-growing areas like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and much of Florida—all meccas for aspiring middle-class families with limited savings and education. The professional class, clustered most densely in the closer suburbs of expensive but resilient cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Chicago, has lost little in comparison. And indeed, because the stock market has rebounded while housing values have not, the middle class as a whole has seen more of its wealth erased than the rich, who hold more-diverse portfolios. A 2010 Pew study showed that the typical middle-class family had lost 23 percent of its wealth since the recession began, versus just 12 percent in the upper class.

The ease with which the rich and well educated have shrugged off the recession shouldn’t be surprising; strong winds have been at their backs for many years. The recession, meanwhile, has restrained wage growth and enabled faster restructuring and offshoring, leaving many corporations with lower production costs and higher profits—and their executives with higher pay.

Anthony Atkinson, an economist at Oxford University, has studied how several recent financial crises affected income distribution—and found that in their wake, the rich have usually strengthened their economic position. Atkinson examined the financial crises that swept Asia in the 1990s as well as those that afflicted several Nordic countries in the same decade. In most cases, he says, the middle class suffered depressed income for a long time after the crisis, while the top 1 percent were able to protect themselves—using their cash reserves to buy up assets very cheaply once the market crashed, and emerging from crisis with a significantly higher share of assets and income than they’d had before. “I think we’ve seen the same thing, to some extent, in the United States” since the 2008 crash, he told me. “Mr. Buffett has been investing.”

“The rich seem to be on the road to recovery,” says Emmanuel Saez, an economist at Berkeley, while those in the middle, especially those who’ve lost their jobs, “might be permanently hit.” Coming out of the deep recession of the early 1980s, Saez notes, “you saw an increase in inequality … as the rich bounced back, and unionized labor never again found jobs that paid as well as the ones they’d had. And now I fear we’re going to see the same phenomenon, but more dramatic.” Middle-paying jobs in the U.S., in which some workers have been overpaid relative to the cost of labor overseas or technological substitution, “are being wiped out. And what will be left is a hard and a pure market,” with the many paid less than before, and the few paid even better—a plutonomy strengthened in the crucible of the post-crash years.

The Culling of the Middle Class

One of the most salient features of severe downturns is that they tend to accelerate deep economic shifts that are already under way. Declining industries and companies fail, spurring workers and capital toward rising sectors; declining cities shrink faster, leaving blight; workers whose roles have been partly usurped by technology are pushed out en masse and never asked to return. Some economists have argued that in one sense, periods like these do nations a service by clearing the way for new innovation, more-efficient production, and faster growth. Whether or not that’s true, they typically allow us to see, with rare and brutal clarity, where society is heading—and what sorts of people and places it is leaving behind.

Arguably, the most important economic trend in the United States over the past couple of generations has been the ever more distinct sorting of Americans into winners and losers, and the slow hollowing-out of the middle class. Median incomes declined outright from 1999 to 2009. For most of the aughts, that trend was masked by the housing bubble, which allowed working-class and middle-class families to raise their standard of living despite income stagnation or downward job mobility. But that fig leaf has since blown away. And the recession has pressed hard on the broad center of American society.

“The Great Recession has quantitatively but not qualitatively changed the trend toward employment polarization” in the United States, wrote the MIT economist David Autor in a 2010 white paper. Job losses have been “far more severe in middle-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs than in either high-skill, white-collar jobs or in low-skill service occupations.” Indeed, from 2007 through 2009, total employment in professional, managerial, and highly skilled technical positions was essentially unchanged. Jobs in low-skill service occupations such as food preparation, personal care, and house cleaning were also fairly stable. Overwhelmingly, the recession has destroyed the jobs in between. Almost one of every 12 white-collar jobs in sales, administrative support, and nonmanagerial office work vanished in the first two years of the recession; one of every six blue-collar jobs in production, craft, repair, and machine operation did the same.

Autor isolates the winnowing of middle-skill, middle-class jobs as one of several labor-market developments that are profoundly reshaping U.S. society. The others are rising pay at the top, falling wages for the less educated, and “lagging labor market gains for males.” “All,” he writes, “predate the Great Recession. But the available data suggest that the Great Recession has reinforced these trends.”

For more than 30 years, the American economy has been in the midst of a sea change, shifting from industry to services and information, and integrating itself far more tightly into a single, global market for goods, labor, and capital. To some degree, this transformation has felt disruptive all along. But the pace of the change has quickened since the turn of the millennium, and even more so since the crash. Companies have figured out how to harness exponential increases in computing power better and faster. Global supply chains, meanwhile, have grown both tighter and more supple since the late 1990s—the result of improving information technology and of freer trade—making routine work easier to relocate. And of course China, India, and other developing countries have fully emerged as economic powerhouses, capable of producing large volumes of high-value goods and services.

Some parts of America’s transformation may now be nearing completion. For decades, manufacturing has become continually less important to the economy, as other business sectors have grown. But the popular narrative—rapid decline in the 1970s and ’80s, followed by slow erosion thereafter—isn’t quite right, at least as far as employment goes. In fact, the total number of people employed in industry remained quite stable from the late 1960s through about 2000, at roughly 17 million to 19 million. To be sure, manufacturing wasn’t providing many new jobs for a growing population, but for decades, rising output essentially offset the impact of labor-saving technology and offshoring.

But since 2000, U.S. manufacturing has shed about a third of its jobs. Some of that decline reflects losses to China. Still, industry isn’t about to vanish from America, any more than agriculture did as the number of farm workers plummeted during the 20th century. As of 2010, the United States was the second-largest manufacturer in the world, and the No. 3 agricultural nation. But agriculture is now so mechanized that only about 2 percent of American workers make a living as farmers. American manufacturing looks to be heading down the same path.

Meanwhile, another phase of the economy’s transformation—one more squarely involving the white-collar workforce—is really just beginning. “The thing about information technology,” Autor told me, “is that it’s extremely broadly applicable, it’s getting cheaper all the time, and we’re getting better and better at it.” Computer software can now do boilerplate legal work, for instance, and make a first pass at reading X-rays and other medical scans. Likewise, thanks to technology, we can now easily have those scans read and interpreted by professionals half a world away.

In 2007, the economist Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, estimated that between 22 and 29 percent of all jobs in the United States had the potential to be moved overseas within the next couple of decades. With the recession, the offshoring of jobs only seems to have gained steam. The financial crisis of 2008 was global, but job losses hit America especially hard. According to the International Monetary Fund, one of every four jobs lost worldwide was lost in the United States. And while unemployment remains high in America, it has come back down to (or below) pre-recession levels in countries like China and Brazil.

Presented by

Don Peck is a features editor at The Atlantic. This essay is adapted from his new book, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures & What We Can Do About It.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In