The middle class is shrinking, and so is its share of America’s income and wage growth, according to a new study released Thursday. The study from the Pew Research Center found that the middle class — defined as Americans with incomes between $39,000 and $118,000 — fell backward in income for the first time since the end of World War II, and the number of Americans who fit into that category shrunk from 61 percent in 1971 to just 51 percent in 2011.
The share of income that went to the middle class also fell during the first decade of the 21st century, a 10-year period that featured two damaging recessions, including the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and a major housing crisis. The share of income that went to the wealthiest Americans, however, has grown substantially since 1970, as the Washington Post notes:
In 1970, the share of U.S. income that went to the middle class was 62 percent, while wealthier Americans received just 29 percent. But by 2010, the middle class garnered 45 percent of the nation’s income, tying a low first reached in 2006, compared to 46 percent for upper-income Americans.
Since 2000, the median income for America’s middle class has fallen from $72,956 to $69,487.
The Pew survey is the latest to note rising income inequality in America as the middle class continues to struggle while the wealthy remain relatively prosperous. Income inequality in the U.S. is now comparable, if not worse, than it is in countries like Ivory Coast and Pakistan, as middle class wages have stagnated. A 2010 Census Bureau study found that incomes for the bottom tier of Americans fell four times faster than they did for the wealthiest after the recession.
The “lost decade” for the middle class corresponds to declining tax rates for the wealthy and a growth in corporate profits. In the last 12 years, incomes for the wealthiest 400 Americans quadrupled even as their tax rates were halved, and executive compensation has grown 127 times faster over the last three decades than worker pay, one study found.