In politics, long live middle class voters

The disappearing middle class in America
The disappearing middle class in America

The 2016 presidential election cycle has brought with it a noticeable shift in how the average American talks about the economy, says Charlie Kirkwood, owner of the Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort in Delaware, Pennsylvania.

That changed rhetoric likely stems from a much more significant demographic shift away from the historically dominant middle class that could rewrite the rules of the road for political campaigns going forward.

Kirkwood – a business owner and two-time Republican National Convention state delegate who has closely followed this year's race – recently found himself sitting at a local bar when a political news program appeared on the television.

"Within five minutes, two guys who I don't know – laborer type of guys – were talking to me about income inequality," Kirkwood recalls. "There is a conversation out there, not amongst particularly sophisticated people, that the average guy is not benefiting and that the Wall Street guys are making zillions of dollars."

That conversation is not without merit. Study after study has recently shown that America's traditionally strong middle class has eroded and that the share of citizens living at the bottom and the top of the income scales have grown considerably in turn.

The Pew Research Center, for example, published a report last week indicating that the share of adults living in middle-income households – with collective annual earnings between about $42,000 and $125,000 for a household of three – dropped in nearly 89 percent of the more than 220 metropolitan areas studied between 2000 and 2014.

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The share of Americans living in what would be considered lower-income households, meanwhile, climbed in nearly 70 percent of metro areas. And more than 75 percent of regions studied saw an uptick in the share of those living in upper-income households.

"With relatively fewer Americans in the middle-income tier, the economic tiers above and below have grown in significance over time," the Pew report said. "Among American adults overall, including those from outside the 229 areas examined in depth, the share living in middle-income households fell from 55 percent in 2000 to 51 percent in 2014."

A separate Pew study published in December estimated the median net worth of an American middle-income family in 2013 was up only about 2.3 percent from 1983. The median net worth of upper-income families, meanwhile, more than doubled, while lower income families actually saw their net worths drop more than 18 percent.

These statistics collectively suggest the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, and the share of Americans counted in the middle class has ultimately gotten smaller over the last few decades. The implications of this demographic shift are far reaching and could influence economic growth models, health care policies, minimum tax requirements and federal subsidy issuance going forward, among other things.

But the fall of America's middle class could also force politicians and presidential hopefuls to shift focus away from a group that has historically been a safe bet. While it's not necessarily news that demographic groups traditionally considered minorities – women, latinos, African Americans – have expanded both their numbers and their political influence considerably in the last few decades, the nation's increasingly prominent income inequality is an interesting and less-discussed piece of the voting puzzle.

As a growing number of Americans are being pulled toward wealth extremes, are candidates naturally forced to cater to a more economically diverse voter base?

"The current constellation of support that the two parties receive from different demographic groups can't hold going into the future," says Robert Griffin, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. "If a group gets smaller, generally, its power gets smaller."

Griffin notes that individuals' income levels won't necessarily dictate which party they'll vote for or which social issues or foreign policy initiatives they'll support. But one would expect candidates to shift their economic message, at the very least, to appeal to the growing share of lower- and upper-income Americans – especially considering how important the economy is to so many voters.

For four consecutive months, the "economy in general" has topped Gallup's monthly open-ended poll asking Americans which single issue they view as the most important problem facing the country today. Nearly one in five respondents in May said the economy was their primary concern, according to the poll. Unemployment, poverty and the "gap between rich and poor" also featured prominently among Americans' concerns.

Capitalizing on this economic focus, candidates' rhetoric and proposals during this election cycle seem to reflect an understanding that catering to the middle class isn't the only way to go nowadays. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' anti-Wall Street rhetoric has hit home with millions of voters, and his interest in funding college education appeals to the steadily rising percentage of historically lower-wage young adults beleaguered by student debt.

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, likewise, has vowed to bring thousands of low-wage factory jobs back to U.S. soil while touting a tax proposal that is predominantly skewed to favor the country's wealthiest. Very little of Trump's campaign is aimed directly at the American middle class, yet he's almost certainly going to be on November's ballot as the Republican nominee.

One has to wonder, then, if the shifting demographics in America toward the more extreme ends of the income spectrum has naturally given rise to more extreme candidates like Trump and Sanders. Are Trump and Sanders having success because there's a smaller chunk of wage earners down the middle?

Not necessarily. Griffin says it's true that Trump, in particular, could be called a "reactionary candidate" to the demographic reshaping of the U.S. voter base. He also concurs that candidates can no longer cater exclusively to white middle-class males and expect to win elections. But he says it would be unwise to count the middle class out just yet.

"Of the three categories, it's still the largest group," Griffin says. "It may be shrinking, but it's still the largest."

Indeed, although Pew estimates only about 51 percent of American households could be considered middle class, that's still significantly larger than the 29 percent of households considered lower-income or the 20 percent of households considered upper-income.

It's also worth keeping in mind that voter turnout has traditionally been skewed toward wealthier households. Demos public policy organization estimates less than half of eligible voters who made less than $30,000 each year actually showed up at the polls during the 2008 presidential election. More than 78 percent of those who made at least $150,000 each year, meanwhile, were sure to cast their ballot. So targeting low-income households at the expense of more wealthy demographics may not prove to be a winning strategy in the long run.

Griffin also notes that "the idea of middle class identity is stronger than the actual middle class." He says many lower-income Americans more readily identify with the middle class than they do with the bottom tier of the country's earners, even if they don't necessarily belong in the middle.

"Most people will tell you they're middle class, perhaps inappropriately," he says, suggesting many lower-income Americans more readily identify with the middle class than they do with the bottom tier. "This is partly just because the middle class is rhetorically an important class to be a part of."

The bottom line is, though, that the middle class is far from being irrelevant despite its precipitous and long-lasting decline. Candidates may need to adjust their message to catch changing age and racial demographics, but the country's increasingly prominent income divide hasn't shaken the middle class's importance. And although Trump and Sanders have both found success at the extremes, neither has abandoned the American median wage earner. Both have repeatedly promised to rebuild what statistically appears to be a crumbling middle class.

"I think there's a bit of resiliency that goes beyond a pure numeric descriptive account for this group," Griffin says. "The general story is that the demographic landscape in the U.S. is changing and changing relatively radically."

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