There is no single way, or even a persuasive way, to capture the state of the American middle class in a number. Indeed, the more one delves into the very concept of "middle class," which is so central to Americans' conception of self, the more elusive it becomes. Who's in it? Who isn't? What are its boundaries? Does holding a mortgage or owning a smartphone suffice? Should we scoff when a couple making $200,000 a year call themselves "middle class"? The questions don't end.
And yet, numbers can be useful, when judiciously applied. In this chart, we offer 17 indices on a range of factors meant to describe the strength, resiliency, and prosperity of the middle class. How is it doing? All in all, not so well — and not only because of the economic crash of 2008 and its lingering aftermath. At the turn of the millennium, Americans could look back on a decade of rising incomes, rising assets, rising hopes, and swelling opportunities, even for historically disadvantaged groups. In the dozen years since, the down arrows far outnumber the ups, although the past year has seen a majority of indicators improve.
Household income and family net worth are the most fundamental — and probably the best — measures of middle-class health. But the collapse of the housing market and the Great Recession savaged both, and also made it tougher for individuals to enter the middle class in the first place. Economist Isabel Sawhill and welfare expert Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institution have shown persuasively that if young adults can graduate from high school, find full-time employment, and delay parenthood until marriage, they've got a 3-in-4 chance of leading middle-class lives or better. Yet two of those three metrics have been heading south almost steadily since 2000.