For anyone trying to understand the emergence of Donald Trump as a force in this pre-election year, the Pew Research Center this past week provided some valuable insight. There’s little doubt that what has happened to America’s middle class has helped to create the climate that has fueled Trump’s sudden rise.
The Pew study charts the steady decline of the middle class over the past four decades. It is a phenomenon often discussed and analyzed, but the new findings highlight a tipping point: Those living in middle-class households no longer make up a majority of the population.
There has been a “hollowing out” of the middle class, as the study puts it. In 1971, the middle class accounted for 61 percent of the nation’s population. Today, there are slightly more people in the upper and lower economic tiers combined than in the middle class.
The report is not entirely gloomy. Every category gained in income between 1970 and 2014. Those in the top strata saw incomes rise by 47 percent. Middle-income Americans saw theirs rise by 34 percent. Those at the bottom saw the most modest increases, at 28 percent.
But the share of income accounted for by the middle class has plummeted over the past 4
The past 15 years have been particularly hard on wealth and income because of the recession of 2001 and the Great Recession of 2007-2009. For all groups, incomes rose from 1970 to 2000. In the next decade, incomes for all groups declined. During the past four years, incomes rose 3 percent for the wealthiest, 1 percent for middle-income Americans, and not at all for those with the lowest incomes. For those in the middle, the median income in 2014 was 4 percent lower than in 2000, according to the study.
For most families, the two recessions have wiped out previous gains and widened the wealth and income gap between the wealthiest and all others. “The losses were so large that only upper-income families realized notable gains in wealth over the span of 30 years from 1983 to 2013,” according to the Pew study.
Until the recession of 2007-2009, middle-income earners saw a significant rise in their overall wealth, but the economic calamity mostly wiped away those gains. Today, the median net worth of families in the middle (in 2014 dollars) is barely higher than it was in 1983. Those at the top have weathered the recession far better and, despite losses, have seen a doubling of their net worth over that same period.
Within the overall trends of the middle class, there are winners and losers, according to the Pew study. Winners included people older than 65, whose overall economic standing has increased sharply over the past four decades. In 1971, more than half of all Americans ages 65 and older were in the lowest income tier. Today, nearly half qualify as middle-income.
Those with college degrees have remained fairly stable in terms of their percentages in the lower-, middle- and upper-income tiers. Then comes this telling finding from the Pew study: “Those without a bachelor’s degree tumbled down the income tiers, however. Among the various demographic groups examined, adults with no more than a high school diploma lost the most ground economically.”
This is where the report connects directly to what’s happened politically this year. Pair those last findings from the Pew study with what recent polling shows about who supports Trump.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News survey found Trump leading his rivals overall, with 32 percent support among registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Among white people with college degrees, he was at 23 percent and led his nearest rival by only four percentage points. Among white people without a college degree, however, his support ballooned to 41 percent — double that of Ben Carson, who was second at 20 percent, and five times the support of Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), who were tied for third.
Those without college educations have regressed economically. The Pew study shows that many who have either a high school degree or at most two years of college have fallen out of the middle class over the past four decades. Among those with high school degrees, the percentage in the lowest-income tier has risen from 17 percent in 1971 to 36 percent in 2015. A similar pattern exists for those with some college education but not a four-year degree.
Politicians in both parties have sought for some time to appeal to middle-class voters who are economically stressed. President Obama made his 2012 reelection campaign about appealing to the middle class and casting Republican nominee Mitt Romney as out of touch and insensitive to their concerns.
In the absence of progress during Obama’s presidency, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, and her principal challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), have made issues of inequality and wage stagnation central to their appeals. Clinton’s team long has believed that the election will turn on issues of middle-class economics.
Trump, however, has tapped a vein of frustration and resentment among those who have suffered most from the economic maladies of the past decade and a half, and he has ridden it to the top of the GOP polls. He has done it by eschewing political correctness.
Trump draws strong support from the kinds of voters who see illegal immigration as eroding the values of the country and who might worry that their jobs are threatened by the influx. About half of those Republicans who favor deporting immigrants who are here illegally back Trump for the party’s nomination. These are also the kinds of voters who agree most with Trump’s call to ban the entry of Muslims into the United States until security concerns are laid to rest.
Trump’s campaign slogan is not just “Make America Great” but “Make America Great Again.” He summons a time when the middle class was prosperous and incomes were rising. This was a time when the lack of a college degree was not the impediment to a more economically secure life that it has become — and a time when white people made up a higher share of the population.
Whatever happens to Trump’s candidacy over the coming months, the conditions that have helped make him the front-runner for the GOP nomination will still exist, a focal point in a divisive debate about the future of the country.