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Why Is the Middle Class Shrinking?

Economic inequality continues to be a major political issue even as the headlines scream about terrorism and climate change. Bernie Sanders has made it a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, and other candidates have addressed it along the way. And a recent study by the Pew Research Center has added new, though misplaced, fuel to the fire of those concerned about inequality.

The Pew study has been discussed in the media, and one key point has been grossly misunderstood. Among other things, the study found that the American middle class is shrinking and is now just under half of the population. Commentators quickly began to refer to the “hollowing out” of the middle class and to tie this study to the concerns about growing inequality.

However, a close look at the data shows that the middle class has shrunk since 1971 because more members of the middle class have moved up the income ladder than down it.

Don’t believe me? Look for yourself at the terrific graphic that the Financial Times created to illustrate the data:

You can watch as the folks on the left slowly slide to the right over 44 years. When you compare the 1971 distribution with the 2015 one, what do you see? A growth in households earning around $80,000 or above, adjusted for inflation, since 1971 and a significant decline in those making less than that amount (with the exception of the folks right around $0). It’s true that there’s not a fat middle class anymore,…

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