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Americans Have Stopped Thinking of Themselves as Middle Class


In last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned the middle class eight times. This year, Obama explicitly referenced this income group less, but still alluded to the middle class a handful of times. Politicians have long been able to get away with ambiguous definitions of “middle class” since so many people have traditionally lumped themselves into this category. A recent Pew survey, however, indicates that more Americans are identifying as lower rather than middle class. This wasn’t the case ten years ago. What explains this change?

First, it’s helpful to look at just how fungible the term “middle class” has been in recent years for President Obama, administration officials, and the media: 


Despite this amorphous nature of the term, a declining number of people think it applies to them.

What explains the historically high associations with the middle class? In 2005, a New York Times survey found that only 1 percent of Americans identified as “upper class,” and only 7 percent identified themselves as being part of the “lower class.” In an article for The Atlantic, communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio posits that because we typically only see extreme images of both the rich (the Kardashians) and the poor (the homeless), most Americans do not identify with either, and thus end up in the middle.

However, the Pew survey released last week indicates a rapid increase in the number of people who identify themselves as lower class, as well as a smaller rise in those identifying themselves as lower-middle class. As Paul Krugman points out, the two “lower” categories now make up almost a plurality of the population (indeed, approaching the 47 percent mark).

All this might be the harbinger of a shift in political rhetoric: Now when Obama says “middle class,” the majority of the country no longer thinks he’s speaking about them.

Image via Shutterstock