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America’s Middle Class Has Gotten Smaller Since the 1970s


Nicole Bengiveno


A new analysis by the Pew Research Center shows the American middle class, once the largest in the country, has steadily contracted over the past five decades.


Analysis highlights:


The share of U.S. adults living in middle-income households has fallen from 61% in 1971 to 50% in 2021, according to data gathered by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.


As the middle class has shrunk, the share of adults living in upper-income households has risen from 14% in 1971 to 21% in 2021.

  • The share living in lower-income households has also increased, from 25% to 29%.


Pew also found that while overall household incomes have risen since the 1970s, earnings for upper-income households have outpaced middle-income households.

  • The median income for middle-class households in 2020 was 50% greater than in 1970 ($90,131 vs. $59,934), while median incomes in upper-income households have risen by 69% over that time (from $130,008 to $219,572).


Aggregate income:


The middle class’s share of aggregate U.S. household income has also steadily fallen since the 1970s, according to Pew.

  • The share of U.S. aggregate income held by adults in middle-income households has fallen from 62% in 1970 to 42% in 2020.

  • At the same time, the share held by adults in upper-income households has risen from 29% to 50%.


The share of income held by lower-income households has also fallen from 10% to 8%, despite the proportion of adults living in lower-income households increasing over that period.


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