After more than four decades of serving as the nation’s economic majority, the American middle class is now matched in number by those in the economic tiers above and below it. In early 2015, 120.8 million adults were in middle-income households, compared with 121.3 million in lower- and upper-income households combined.
In this Pew research study, which examines the changing size, demographic composition and economic fortunes of the American middle class, “middle-income” Americans are defined as adults whose annual household income is two-thirds to double the national median, about $42,000 to $126,000 annually in 2014 dollars for a household of three.3 Under this definition, the middle class made up 50% of the U.S. adult population in 2015, down from 61% in 1971.
The share of U.S. adults living in both upper- and lower-income households rose alongside the declining share in the middle from 1971 to 2015, the share in the upper-income tier grew more.
Over the same period, however, the nation’s aggregate household income has substantially shifted from middle-income to upper-income households, driven by the growing size of the upper-income tier and more rapid gains in income at the top. Fully 49% of U.S. aggregate income went to upper-income households in 2014, up from 29% in 1970. The share accruing to middle-income households was 43% in 2014, down substantially from 62% in 1970.
And middle-income Americans have fallen further behind financially in the new century. In 2014, the median income of these households was 4% less than in 2000. Moreover, because of the housing market crisis and the Great Recession of 2007-09, their median wealth (assets minus debts) fell by 28% from 2001 to 2013.
Meanwhile, the far edges of the income spectrum have shown the most growth. In 2015, 20% of American adults were in the lowest-income tier, up from 16% in 1971. On the opposite side, 9% are in the highest-income tier, more than double the 4% share in 1971. At the same time, the shares of adults in the lower-middle or upper-middle income tiers were nearly unchanged.