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Once an economic bedrock, 'middle class' feels unattainable to many

Published May 15, 2015

For a cornerstone phrase decreasing numbers of Americans identify with and today's presidential candidates steer away from, "middle class" remains one very hot topic.

That's because the very concept of the middle class — in which a U.S. family can make enough money to afford a home, a car, health care, child care, a yearly vacation and their kids' education — is increasingly in jeopardy.

"One of the enduring successes I have observed in my lifetime of 64 years is the ability of the 1 percent or the power elite to continually convince so many Americans that they are, in fact, middle class," said Tampa resident Lew Sibert, a retired "minor" pharmaceutical executive. "The statistics are abundantly clear that, certainly in the last decade or more, wages have not kept pace with the everyday cost of living. We are fewer owners and more renters. We throw away a disproportionate share of our incomes on our cars. And our vices.

"And yet, perhaps to preserve our sanity, we condition ourselves to believe 'we aren't doing so bad' or 'we're better off than (fill in the name)' — so we must be middle class."

Pollsters who track the growing anxiety of Americans would agree with Sibert.

Fewer Americans are identifying themselves as middle class in recent years, a recent Gallup survey finds. More Americans feel they have slipped.

"Currently, 51 percent of Americans say they are middle class or upper middle class, while 48 percent say they are lower class or working class," Gallup reported last month. "In multiple surveys conducted from 2000 through 2008, an average of more than 60 percent of Americans identified as middle or upper middle class." Among Gallup's findings:

• In 2008, polls found 30 percent of Americans making $30,000 or less still identified themselves as middle or upper class. In the latest polls, only 25 percent did.

• In 2008, 57 percent of people making between $30,000 and $75,000 said they were middle or upper class. Now that figure is 48 percent.

• Even among those earning more than $75,000, the 86 percent identifying as middle or upper class in 2008 had slipped to 78 percent in the latest polls.

Many point to the weak bounceback of the economy and skewed government policies.

A Pew Research Center survey in February found majorities said that large banks, large corporations and the wealthy have been helped a great deal or a fair amount by government policies.

By contrast, 72 percent said that, in general, the government's policies since the recession have done little or nothing to help middle-class people. Nearly as many said they have provided little or no help for small businesses (68 percent) and the poor (65 percent).

This is a reversal of an earlier trend. In the last decades of the 20th century, many in the middle class saw themselves become upper-class households. Since 2000, more of the middle class has been shrinking because incomes have fallen or are treading water.

The figures for Tampa Bay are typical and disappointing. Pinellas County's average annual pay in 2013 was $43,194, up just $881 (or $88 a year) over the previous decade. Hillsborough's pay in 2013 was $47,408, up $1,226 over the same period. Pasco's average pay slipped to $34,540, a loss of $878. Hardest hit was Hernando County where average pay of $32,141 in 2013 was down $1,256 from 2004.

It's hard to feel middle class and bullish with the lack of progress shown by those pay numbers.

And it is a feeble argument by Florida's political leaders that simply reducing the unemployment rate with lower-paying jobs somehow will empower the Sunshine State going forward. Even the jobless rate in the state has stopped declining in recent months.

A recent report from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis concluded that "families that are neither rich nor poor may be under more downward economic and financial pressure than common but simplistic rank-based measures of income or wealth would suggest."

The study, conducted by William R. Emmons and Bryan J. Noeth, found that one reason many Americans viewed themselves as struggling was that their real incomes had not advanced significantly beyond their parents' — even when they reached higher educational levels. And those who matched their parents' achievements were actually worse off.

Young adults have been especially hard hit. A recent report from the Young Invincibles research group found that, since 2009, the share of impoverished young people has been higher than at any other point in the past 25 years. Since 2009, 16 percent of young people without children were in poverty, up 5 percentage points from the late 1990s. And as many as 23 percent of young parents were in poverty, an 8 percentage point increase. Larger debts driven by rapidly rising education costs have compounded their burden.

Maybe that's why so many politicians running for president in the 2016 election are avoiding the phrase "middle class" in their remarks. Instead, the New York Times reported this past week, we hear alternative phrases like "working class" or "hardworking taxpayers" or "ordinary Americans."

The phrase "middle class" — long synonymous with the American Dream — suggests the Times, "now evokes anxiety, an uncertain future and a lifestyle that is increasingly out of reach."

"I'm worried we're about to see the first generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents," Mike Poller of South Florida's Poller & Jordan Advertising firm told me. "Those who achieve what you and I as old white guys consider 'middle class' will be lucky. The definition of middle class is changing."

Or perhaps "middle class" has just outlived its purpose.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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