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What Happened to the American "Middle" Class? Class and Consumption in America

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The plight of the “middle class” has been a constant theme in political discourse and business press during the turn of the 20th century. Some argue that the “middle class” has been shrinking, while others contend that it is sinking or losing its ability to maintain its lifestyle. Those in the first camp see the “middle class” as a malleable cohort that can expand/contract in size over time, while those in the second group seem to define the “middle class” as a constant cohort whose income, wealth and consumption patterns vary over time. This lack of a consistent, objective and implementable definition of the “middle class” adds ambiguity to the controversy around this important segment of our society. In this study, we propose a metric for socioeconomic stratification, based on the theoretical concept of Permanent Income, which we use to classify households into the upper, middle and lower socioeconomic classes, using data from the Survey of Consumer Expenditures (CEX), gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics between 1982 and 2010. Our analysis of the three major socioeconomic strata in America over the past three decades produces interesting and valuable insights into how the different strata in our society fared in the last three decades. First, we find that, despite the current debate on the plight of the “middle class” in America, households in the two middle quartiles of our society have seen some improvement in income, wealth and consumption, albeit not in the same extent as the upper quartile. Our empirical results show that the one stratum clearly left behind in the past three decades is the lower quartile, which did not see any significant improvements in income or wealth, and in fact saw a decline in their consumption budgets. We find that the most visible shifts in the past three decades were observed on consumption, particularly on the consumption of positional (conspicuously consumed non-essential) goods and services, where the gap between the upper, middle and lower quartiles of Permanent Income have grown more dramatically. We see these discrepancies as a major source of discontent by the “middle class,” for two main reasons. First discrepancies in consumption are more visible than discrepancies in income or wealth. Second, discrepancies in the consumption of positional goods are exacerbated by their signaling value, which results into welfare gaps not only on the direct utility of consumption but also in terms of positional losses.

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... Yet, despite its importance, there is no agreement as to what happened to the American middle class in the past several decades. Some in the press contend that the middle class is losing its ability to maintain its lifestyle or that the middle class has been shrinking in size (Kochihar and Fry 2015;Kochihar and Morin 2014;Morin and Motel 2012;Pew Research Center 2012), while others argue that the middle class has been doing better or at least not as badly as being portrayed in the popular press (Burkhauser et al. 2011;Kamakura 2014). This disagreement about the middle class is largely due to the lack of a consistent, objective and implementable definition of the middle class, which adds ambiguity to the controversy around this important segment of our society (Kamakura 2014). ...
... Some in the press contend that the middle class is losing its ability to maintain its lifestyle or that the middle class has been shrinking in size (Kochihar and Fry 2015;Kochihar and Morin 2014;Morin and Motel 2012;Pew Research Center 2012), while others argue that the middle class has been doing better or at least not as badly as being portrayed in the popular press (Burkhauser et al. 2011;Kamakura 2014). This disagreement about the middle class is largely due to the lack of a consistent, objective and implementable definition of the middle class, which adds ambiguity to the controversy around this important segment of our society (Kamakura 2014). ...
... A similar operationalization approach was to use the concept "permanent income" as a function of people's expected income over their lifecycle instead of just current income (Friedman 1957). Kamakura (2014) defined middle class as the two middle quartiles of the population in terms of permanent income, estimated via a flexible latent trait model using a variety of indicators including education, occupation, current income, pension, taxes, financial assets, and physical assets. Kamakura found that between 1982 and 2010, households in the two middle quartiles of our society saw some improvement in income, wealth, and consumption, despite the current debate on the plight of the middle class in America. ...
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: 128 Text: 3665 References 4Tables Please direct correspondence to Duncan at the Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, 2040 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208. Telephone: 847-467-1503. E-mail: gregduncan @nwu.edu. We are grateful for financial support from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research (David Williams, PI, grant 026422) and the National Institute on Aging (Benjamin Amick, PI, grant R01AG13036-01A1) and to helpful comments from Benjamin Amick. Excellent research assistance was provided by Louise Tench. OPTIMAL INDICATORS OF SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS FOR HEALTH RESEARCH CSES Measures and Mortality 3 OPTIMAL INDICATORS OF SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS FOR HEALTH RESEARCH ABSTRACT Objectives: This paper examines the relationship between various measures of SES and mortality for a representative sample of individuals. Methods: Data are from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Sample includes 3,734 individuals aged 45 and above ...
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