The Middle Class Is Coming Out of Its Coma

National Journal introduces its index of middle-class well-being — using 17 measurements from household debt to social trust.

National Journal

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.

The recent shakiness in indicators measuring economic stability — unemployment, foreclosures, access to medical care — has left Americans feeling shaky as well. To more and more Americans, a sense of stability has become the prize attribute of a middle-class life. Optimism and an orientation toward the future are, likewise, defining traits of middle-class Americans and markers of middle-class health — historically, at least. Membership in the middle class is a state of mind as much as anything, detectable by the answers to broad but simple questions: Are you better off than your parents were? Will your children be better off than you are? Yes and yes, 21st-century Americans still say, but by steadily dwindling margins.

Measuring the Middle Class

If a sense of stability and forward momentum are the most essential psychological attributes of a strong middle class, strength of community probably isn't far behind. Community and connectedness also underlie our ability to stay stable when things get rocky, to pick up on opportunities for advancement, to take good risks, and to feel agency in our lives. We chose the rate of volunteer work as a measure of people's commitment to their community, and asked a general question on social trust. Both have declined modestly since 2000 but are flat in recent years.

And last, we examine how aging Americans are setting themselves up for retirement or semiretirement — an assessment of how golden the golden years might be. After years of falling stock prices and home values, the answer, you will be unsurprised to hear, is nowhere near as golden as things looked five years ago, recent gains in housing prices and 401(k)s notwithstanding.

We left many factors out because of space limitations or skepticism that they tell us very much about the well-being of the nation's most populous economic class. Homeownership, for one, and other measures of material possession. While owning a home, in particular, is often associated with the American Dream, the collapse in the housing market in 2007 raised doubts about whether it's unambiguously a good thing for more Americans to own houses. Nor is it clear if homeownership is even as important an ambition for the aspiring middle class today, especially among young adults.

But, overall, we hope these measures provide a rounded sense of the middle class — and how much ground it has lost.