A Brief History Of America's Middle Class What does it mean to be middle class in the U.S.? Over the past century, the idea of the "middle class" has gone through a number of drastic transformations.
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A Brief History Of America's Middle Class

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A Brief History Of America's Middle Class

A Brief History Of America's Middle Class

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The middle class has been shrinking steadily for four decades, and not just in the nation's Rust Belt, Appalachia or the Deep South. The picture we've found is more complex.


So between now and the election in November, we'll be asking the question, what does it mean to be middle class in America today?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think middle class is you can pay your bills comfortably. You're steady.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I mean, my sleeves only roll up so far (laughter). There's got to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Be able to afford a place to live and enjoy life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You know, we do the entertainment, but we work hard for it, you know? And so it means more to us when we're able to do that.

SHAPIRO: We're calling this series The New Middle.

Before the city of Flint, Mich., was in the news for poisoned water or high crime rates, Flint was a middle class boom town.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It looks like an ordinary day in the USA, but in the city of Flint, Mi., all is excitement. Even the small fry are buzzing.

SHAPIRO: This video was produced in 1954 to celebrate the 50 millionth car rolling off the General Motors assembly line. It shows streets crowded with well-dressed people beaming and waving flags.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) Teamwork, teamwork. The nation's secret was teamwork.

SHAPIRO: The video ends with this teamwork song. The last line is you ain't seen nothing yet.

JENEYAH MCDONALD: So we're going to hang a left here.


MCDONALD: So this is the neighborhood I grew up in.

SHAPIRO: Jeneyah McDonald's grandparents were in that wave of people who moved to Flint during the boom times to join the growing middle class. More than 60 years later, she drove me around to look at what the city has become.

MCDONALD: That's the school me and my husband met at. We've known...

SHAPIRO: ...Oh, wow. So you guys have known each other since you were kids?

MCDONALD: First grade. I used to chase him home from that school.

SHAPIRO: You're kidding me.


SHAPIRO: Today, she's a substitute teacher and her husband is on disability. They have two young kids. The government recently tore down a bunch of abandoned houses in their neighborhood. Now the street looks like a mouth with just a few teeth. And that elementary school where Jeneyah met her husband?

MCDONALD: Our old school is closed and abandoned, which is pretty much the story here in Flint.

SHAPIRO: This is not only the story of Flint.

RAKESH KOCHHAR: Each decade since 1970 has ended with fewer people in the middle class than at the start of the decade.

SHAPIRO: Rakesh Kochhar studies the middle class for the Pew Research Center. He recently found that for the first time since economists started keeping track in the 1970s, the middle class is no longer a majority in the U.S. That is, rich and poor people combined now make up half the population. This is not purely bad news. Kochhar says more people are moving up the income ladder than down.

KOCHHAR: There is actually more progress than regression.

SHAPIRO: About two-thirds of the people who've left the middle class have gone up. They've become rich. Around one-third have dropped down and become poor. To hear today's presidential candidates talk about it, America's identity depends on having a strong middle class.


BERNIE SANDERS: The middle class is disappearing.


DONALD TRUMP: The middle class has been forgotten.


HILLARY CLINTON: The middle class needs a raise.

SHAPIRO: America's middle class pride has always come with a healthy dose of middle class anxiety. In 1939, Westinghouse commissioned a one-hour movie to celebrate the World's Fair. It tells the story of a family called the Middletons. In the opening scene, the father turns on the radio news and his son reacts to a report about young Americans looking for their first jobs.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As radio announcer) Will they find welcome or closed signs on the gateways of opportunity?

JIMMY LYDON: (As Bud) Blah, blah, blah. How can you stand that before breakfast?

HARRY SHANNON: (As Father) Wait a minute, Bud.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As radio announcer) What hope is there for youth in the world of tomorrow?

SHAPIRO: A decade later, in 1949, Arthur Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for his bleak portrayal of the American middle class. In "Death Of A Salesman's" final scene, Linda Loman stands at her husband's grave.


MILDRED DUNNOCK: (As Linda Loman) I made the last payment on the house today, and there'll be nobody home.

SHAPIRO: Even people who achieve the dream of middle class life often seem discontent to be there.


PETE SEEGER: (Singing) Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little -

SHAPIRO: Pete Seeger had a hit with this satire on suburban life in 1963.


SEEGER: (Singing) There's a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one. And they're all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same.

SHAPIRO: So what does it actually mean to be in the American middle class today? I recently asked a bunch of people that question in New York's Times Square, and the answers were all over the place. Here's what being in the middle class means to 44-year-old Erin Kennedy. She runs a gym in the Bronx.

ERIN KENNEDY: You're struggling, like, paycheck to paycheck. And you're going, oh shoot, I want to go into H&M. But no, you know what? I'll do it next week when I get paid again.

SHAPIRO: Compare that to Bob Berger's definition. He's a couple decades older and works as a building manager.

BOB BERGER: To be middle class means that I never have had to make a budget. I have never wanted for anything. I pretty much did what I wanted.

SHAPIRO: Economists, at least, pretty much agree on how to define the middle class. For a family of three, it ranges from income of about $40,000 to $120,000 a year. That is a wide range. And it says something about America that outside of that range, people still tend to describe themselves as either upper middle class or lower middle class no matter how rich or poor they are. Of course, the cost of living also varies widely across the country. Over the next several months, we'll look at this issue all over the U.S. through the lens of economics, arts, politics, history, health and more. Tomorrow, what happens when you make a middle class income in an upper-class town.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: To me, this is just a higher-end project (laughter) when you think about the amount of money we pay every month.

SHAPIRO: That's tomorrow on our series, The New Middle.

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