It's a simple question, asked repeatedly at the political conventions: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
A nonpartisan survey conducted in July asked Americans to indicate their socioeconomic category, and about a third of Americans now assign themselves to lower classes, compared with a quarter of respondents in 2008.
The Pew Research Center survey, which polled 2,508 adults and did not include Asians, analyzed responses based on race, age, education, party affiliation, and other factors that have provided longitudinal insights into opinions during the recession and its slow recovery.
In the intervening years, the rate of inflation has risen about 6.4 percent, according to the Consumer Price Index calculator. In 2008, the unemployment rate was 5.8 percent; in July, it continued to drop, to 8.1 percent after a high of 10 percent in October 2009.
The Pew figures suggest that many Americans feel they are living in an era of decline, at least when it comes to their self-perception on class.
By age, the demographic that fell the farthest was Millennials. Nearly four in 10 Americans ages 18 to 29 identified as lower-class in 2012, a jump from 25 percent in 2008. In July, the unemployment rate among those ages 20 to 24 was 13.5 percent and at 8.2 percent for those 25 to 34.
By race, larger numbers of whites and Hispanics had a more dour opinion of their status: The share of whites placing themselves in the lower or lower-middle class grew from 23 percent to 31 percent; among Hispanics, 40 percent now categorize themselves in a lower bracket, compared with 30 percent four years ago.
The share of blacks in the lower brackets remains at 33 percent over the same four-year period.
While more Democrats place themselves in the lower class than Republicans, the share of Republicans who say they are in the lower class has risen sharply, the report notes. About 23 percent of Republicans call themselves lower class, up from 13 percent in 2008. In contrast, one-third of Democrats see themselves as lower class, a 4 percentage point jump.
A good education generally affords a positive income and identity. But recent studies have shown that even college graduates have lost some middle-class ground, validating the Pew results among the college-educated who responded.
The survey showed that 36 percent of those who attended college but did not graduate call themselves members of the lower classes, compared with 24 percent four years ago. Fully 41 percent of Americans with, at best, a high school education pool themselves in the lower groups, up from 32 percent in 2008.
There appear to be lingering generational self-impressions. About 60 percent of those who consider themselves in the lower class say they remain in the same ranks as their parents.
Despite a lack of ascension among longtime members of lower classes, American optimism seems in place for all but poor whites: 56 percent of blacks and 63 percent of Hispanics believe their children will become better-off, reflecting significant hikes from 25 percent and 19 percent, respectively.
Among whites, 42 percent think the lives of their children will be worse-off in years to come.
This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.
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