Politics, Moderate



The middle-class comeback is real

Robert J. Samuelson on

WASHINGTON -- On this Labor Day, the American middle class survives. Indeed, it's expanding. That's not the conclusion of some arcane scholarly study. It's the judgment of Americans themselves, though it hasn't received much attention from politicians or the media. Most Americans have moved beyond the fears bred by the Great Recession. The middle-class comeback may be the year's most underreported story.

Public opinion polls depict the change. In its surveys, Gallup regularly asks people to report their social class. They are given five choices: upper class; upper middle; middle; working; and lower class. In 2006, before the recession, 60 percent of Americans identified themselves as either middle or upper middle class, while 38 percent chose working class and lower class. Only 1 percent put themselves in the upper class.

The 2008-09 financial crisis and the Great Recession demolished these long-standing class patterns. The middle class shrunk dramatically amid high unemployment, home foreclosures and heavy debts. As late as 2015, the country was almost evenly split between those in the middle and upper middle classes (51 percent) and those in the working and lower classes (48 percent), according to Gallup.

No more. In its latest poll on class identity, done in June, Gallup found that 62 percent put themselves in the broadly defined middle class, while only 36 percent classified themselves as working class or lower class. The shifts, said Gallup, began in 2016 and demonstrated "that subjective social class identification has stabilized close to the prevailing pattern observed before 2009."

This is no fluke.

The temptation is to dismiss the Gallup results as an outlier. Don't. Karlyn Bowman, the polling expert at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, spends her time searching for opinion trends. She finds that countless polls tell a similar story. People are more optimistic. Many polls have, like the survey on class, returned to pre-crisis patterns. "We're back economically" is how she puts it.


Consider trends from three corroborating polls:

--Jobs are more plentiful. A Gallup poll in August found that 59 percent of respondents thought it was a "good time to find a quality job." In 2009 and 2010, this rating hovered around a meager 10 percent.

--More people feel they're getting ahead. In July, 42 percent of respondents to a Fox News poll reported personal gains, up from only 23 percent in 2008 and beating the previous peak of 41 percent.

--Most workers do not believe their jobs will be outsourced abroad, contrary to much commentary. A Gallup poll this year reported that nine of 10 workers feel unthreatened by outsourcing.


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