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% of Americans identified themselves as either middle or upper middle class, while 38% chose working class and lower class. Only 1% put themselves in the upper class.
The 2008-09 financial crisis and the Great Recession demolished these long-standing class patterns, according to the same self-identifying Gallup polls. 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%) and those in the working and lower classes (48%).
No more. In its latest poll on class identity, done in June, Gallup found that 62% put themselves in the broadly defined middle class, while only 36% 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.