Trust Magazine

How the American Middle Class Has Changed in the Past Five Decades

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In this Issue:

  • Fall 2022
  • Antarctic Krill
  • Follow The Facts
  • From Research Comes Change
  • How the American Middle Class Has Changed
  • How to Translate Questions for International Surveys
  • Robert Anderson “Andy” Pew
  • Conservation Can Be a Rallying Point for Our Divided Nation
  • The "Sandwich Generation"
  • Nonprofits Fill the Gap in Statehouse News Coverage
  • Follow the Facts
  • Noteworthy
  • Private Lands Are the Next Battleground
  • The Complexities of Race and Identity
  • Return on Investment
  • The FDA Needs More Information on Supplements
  • Tracking Marine Megafauna to Guide Ocean Conservation
  • When the Water Rises
  • View All Other Issues
How the American Middle Class Has Changed in the Past Five Decades

The middle class, once the economic stratum of a clear majority of American adults, has steadily contracted in the past five decades. The share of adults who live in middle-class households fell from 61% in 1971 to 50% in 2021, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of government data.

Here are three key facts about how the economic status of the middle class has changed since 1971:

1. Household incomes have risen considerably since 1970, but those of middle-class households have not climbed nearly as much as those of upper-income households. 

Median income, in 2020 dollars and scaled to reflect a three-person household

2. The share of aggregate U.S. household income held by the middle class has fallen steadily since 1970.

% of U.S. aggregate household income held by lower-, middle- and upper-income households

Note: Shares may not add to 100% due to rounding.

3. There is a sizable and growing income gap between adults with a bachelor’s degree and those with lower levels of education. 

% of adults in each income tier

Note: Adults are assigned to income tiers based on their size-adjusted household incomes in the calendar year prior to the survey year. “High school graduate” refers to those who have a high school diploma or its equivalent, such as a General Education Development (GED) certificate, and those who had completed 12th grade, but their diploma status was unclear. “Some college” includes those with an associate degree and those who attended college but did not obtain a degree. Shares may not add to 100% due to rounding.

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