Over the last four decades, the percentage of Americans who are solidly in the middle class has shrunk, from 61 to 50 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Some of those who have left the middle class are doing better, and others are doing worse. As the Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson put it, “The extremes grow at the expense of the center.”
The Harvard professor and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. says that the problem stems from the American education system having failed to adapt to the 21st century’s highly globalized, highly technological economy. For those who get top-tier training, there’s opportunity for prosperity. But for those who go to poor schools and don’t graduate from college, the traditional pathways to the middle class—in particular manufacturing jobs and small-business ownership—are usually unavailable. Instead, service work has grown in its share of overall employment, and service work tends to provide very poor wages and few opportunities for growth. Though these dynamics are affecting both black and white Americans, Gates said, black Americans in particular tend to attend under-funded schools and struggle to build middle-class economic security.