A Brief History Of America's Middle Class | KUOW News and Information

A Brief History Of America's Middle Class

Jul 5, 2016
Originally published on July 7, 2016 12:15 pm

"The middle class is disappearing" has been a standard line during this election cycle. As it turns out, it's not wrong.

Last year was the first recorded year that middle-income families no longer made up the majority in America, according to the Pew Research Center. What this actually means economically is a mixed bag, but "middle class" in the U.S. has historically stood for something less concrete: the American dream.

Between now and the election, All Things Considered will be looking at what it means to be middle class in America today.

Here is a brief timeline of how the concept and foundation of the American middle class has shifted over the past century:

April 1939: For the 1939 World's Fair in New York, the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co. commissions a one-hour film telling the story of a family called the Middletons. The Indiana family visits the fair and is won over by the Westinghouse exhibit's futuristic display of middle-class lifestyle and leisure.

June 1944: The GI Bill (known formally as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act) is signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, providing World War II veterans benefits that include payments for education and loans for starting businesses.

Fall 1947: Stuyvesant Town housing complex opens in Manhattan, intended for workers facing the postwar housing shortage. Rents that year range from $50 to $91 per month.

May 1949: Arthur Miller wins the Pulitzer Prize in drama for Death of a Salesman. The play tells the story of Willy Loman and the failure of the American dream.

November 1954: General Motors celebrates its 50 millionth car coming off the assembly line in Flint, Mich. At the time, Flint is a middle-class boom town and a center of industry.

July 1959: As part of the American National Exhibition in Moscow, the State Department stages a "typical" middle-class home to showcase American comfort. The three-bedroom, 1 1/2-bath house is intended to be "bright, cheerful, and well-furnished," according to the AP at the time.

1963: Folk singer Pete Seeger scores a hit with "Little Boxes," a song written the year before by Malvina Reynolds that satirizes middle-class suburban conformity.

January 1975: The Jeffersons premieres on CBS, running for 11 seasons and 253 episodes. One of the longest-lasting sitcoms in American television, the Norman Lear-created show stars an affluent African-American family adjusting to its shift from working class to upper middle class and beyond.

January 1980: Beginning of the "double-dip" recession, which will last through November 1982 and hit the Midwest and Rust Belt the hardest. The economy is affected in particular by "stagflation," in which high inflation is coupled with low or negative growth.

August 1981: President Ronald Reagan signs into law the Kemp-Roth tax cuts, also known as the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which cuts marginal income tax rates by 23 percent across all income brackets over three years and indexes them for inflation, among other changes.

Dec. 8, 1993: President Bill Clinton signs legislation implementing the North American Free Trade Agreement — NAFTA — which establishes a free trade zone with Canada, Mexico and the U.S.

June 2001: President George W. Bush signs into law a series of tax code changes known as the "Bush tax cuts," including marginal tax rate reductions, increased child tax credits, and a gradual reduction of the estate tax. Some of those changes will be extended in 2010.

December 2007: The Great Recession begins and unemployment rises, eventually reaching 10 percent. The recession lasts through June 2009, but many areas of the country are still recovering today.

2015: The first recorded year since 1970 when people in the middle-income bracket no longer make up the majority of people in the U.S.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.