We already knew (thanks to a Pew Research Center report I discussed here) that the United States is no longer a middle-class nation. Now we know (based on a new Pew report), that American cities have become increasingly less middle-class in the past decade and a half.
Not surprisingly, given the size and diversity of the U.S. economy, not all cities followed the same trajectory: in some cities (a good example is Odessa, Texas, with an energy-based economy), the hollowing-out of the middle-class was because the share of adults who were upper-income increased, while in other cities (such as Springfield, Ohio, with a decline in manufacturing) there was a downward movement, with a large increase in the proportion of the adult population falling into the low-income category.*
But there are broader trends that characterize most cities: they’ve become decreasingly middle-class, and the middle income itself has declined precipitously. Thus, from 2000 to 2014, the share of adults living in middle-income households fell in 89 percent of U.S. cities (203 of the 229 metropolitan areas for which data were available, which accounted for three-quarters of the nation’s population in 2014), while in 97 percent of those cities the median income itself declined by more than 8 percent (from $62,462 in 1999 to $67,673 in 2014). In fact, double-digit losses in median incomes (10 percent or more from 1999 to 2014) prevailed in 95 metropolitan areas.
Once again, two highly cherished ideas in the United States—that the nation’s cities are characterized by and based on the middle-class, and that the middle-class itself is improving over time—are shattered by these findings.
The Pew report also revealed that there’s a strong correlation between the overall level of inequality and the decline in the “middle-classedness” of U.S. cities.
When incomes of households near the bottom of the distribution are closer to the incomes of households near the top, it means that relatively more households may be found sitting within a narrower band of income. In other words, it raises the likelihood that more households are situated within the $41,641-to-$124,924 income band that defines the middle class. Meanwhile, if the distance between the top and bottom reaches of the income distribution is stretched farther, households are spread thinner and fewer of them are likely to fall within the middle-income band.
The proportion of middle-income households is also strongly correlated with the change in inequality since 2000.
As it turns out, then, while the change in the share of middle-income adults in U.S. cities is not related to changes in median income, it is strongly correlated with the degree and the change in the degree of income inequality. In other words, as the United States has become more unequal in the past decade and a half, its cities have become increasingly less middle-class.
My previous question thus remains: in the midst of the current political debate, will the decline of the United States as a middle-class nation based on middle-class cities be used as a source of fear, intimidation, and scapegoating—or, alternatively, will it serve as a wakeup call to imagining and creating the kinds of real changes that will finally end the declining fortunes of the working-class and its exclusion from the major decisions about how the economy is organized?
*Pew’s categorization remains the same in this study: “middle-income” households are those with an income that is 67 percent to 200 percent (two-thirds to double) of the overall median household income, after incomes have been adjusted for household size and location. Here’s what the numbers look like: