Headlines declare that the middle class is shrinking to oblivion. Here's the genesis of the latest barrage of those alarming newsflashes, a Pew Research analysis, entitled, aptly, "America's Shrinking Middle Class ...."
The observations of the analysis and the raft of stories that have come out in its immediate wake, such as this Marketwatch bulletin from Quentin Fottrell and this CityLab piece from Tanvi Misra, miss several important insights as they focus on the surface of the data.
Oh, it's provocative, all right, to look at population percentage data that maps to a myth-busting indication that America's prided Middle Class may have run its course. The upward-mobility, quality-of-life, pursuit-of-happiness Horatio Alger exceptionalism lever as a motivator, as a source of inspiration, as a defining benchmark that set American society apart from other places and jurisdictions in the world has served as an economic, cultural, almost spiritual beacon for more than two centuries.
Still, when you place a grid--i.e. income tiers, such as lower-, middle-, and upper-income--over geographical areas as the researchers at Pew have done, their data may be correct, but the inferences and insights they draw from it may cloud not only some important insight, but can equally obscure accountability, a look at options, and pathways to action.
It doesn't take research rigor and talent to recognize that America's Middle Class, which for so long stood for much that made people proud, hopeful, determined, and productive, has been flickering like an almost-spent light-bulb, as many of us puzzle over whether we need its illuminating power or not.
The most helpful of the inferences in this data may be those that tie jobs and industry sectors to shifts in income levels.
What the data misses are a few key points.
One, is that the Census failed to count millions of immigrant--many of them illegal or pre-legal--households during the 1980s and 1990s and the first decade of the current millennium. So, the the math is distorted.
Two, explanations for the change in household income don't seem to include the fact that, in absolute numbers, more households are aging into fixed income, post-career status, which would impact household income analysis, and will do so to an increasing degree as the Baby Boom ages into retirement.
Underlying all the observations, as well, are facts around housing, housing affordability, and the mismatch between jobs and income opportunity and available housing options at attainable monthly costs to young adult households. The vibrance of America's Middle Class is most significant--as a motivator, an inspirer, and an economic benchmark--for adults aged 18 to 40 or 45. If there's a Middle Class for that age band, we're probably going to be okay.
If not, we're not regenerating hope, purpose, and a sense of causal relationship between hard work and a meaningful life.