That decline in people who say they're middle class reflects the fact that the American middle class is shrinking. It's not just that middle-income households are taking in a smaller percentage of the income—though that's true, too—but actually making up less of the population. The proportion of adults who live in households earning between two-thirds of the median income and double the median has declined from 60.8 percent in 1971 to 50.7 percent in 2011. Upper-income people have gone from making up 14 percent of the population in 1971 to 20 percent in 2011, meanwhile, and lower-income people have gone from 25 percent to 29 percent. People who are still in that middle class are squeezed in other ways. The median income for households in the middle fell from $72,956 in 2001 to $69,487 in 2010, while, thanks in large part to the housing market crash, median net worth plummeted from $129,582 in 2001 to $93,150 in 2010, having peaked at a bubblicious $152,950.
With numbers like that, no wonder 85 percent of people who describe themselves as middle class say it's harder now to maintain their standard of living than it was a decade ago. And no wonder the percent of middle-class adults who say they expect their children's standard of living to be better than their own has decreased from 51 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today, while the percent expecting their children's standard of living to be worse has increased from 19 percent to 26 percent.
People's incomes and worth are being squeezed, the very existence of a meaningful middle is being squeezed—and it's all taking a toll on their hope for the future. Which is good, in a way. The false hope of wealth has for a long time been used as a weapon against the fight to level the economic playing field and make the wealthy pay their fair share. If a majority of people no longer think the economy is getting better all the time for them and theirs, there may be reason to hope, not for individual wealth, but for a strengthening fight for change.