The Disappearing American Middle Class

Money, Politics

The middle class is as American as baseball, apple pie, and Ford pickup trucks. The U.S., particularly post-WWII, was built on the middle class—on the promise that anyone who works hard enough can make a decent living and raise a family in relative comfort. America has primarily been a country not of haves and have-nots, but of opportunity and upward mobility, where everyone has the same rights and is created equal.

Or, it was. Though we would all like to think that dream is still alive, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the middle class in America is disappearing like hot dogs at a 4th of July picnic.

Some Americans—a lucky few already in the right sectors before the economy did its nosedive—are still upwardly mobile, but over the past decade the split between the wealthy few and the struggling many has grown astronomically. What was once the standard economic picture for the American family is now becoming extinct.

So, what happened to the middle class?


Manufacturing was once the major source of middle class income—Americans across the country were able to support entire families by working in clothing, auto, and electronics manufacturing. Beginning in the 1970s, cheap labor and lax labor laws caused many companies to relocate factories to Asia, where they beefed up profits for shareholders by paying workers far less than they would have to in the U.S.

The U.S. was once one of the biggest exporters in the world, but now we import almost everything we consume. Despite what Wal-Mart would have you think, it’s not the average American who benefits from this arrangement—it’s the corporate owners, executives, and major shareholders.

Though jobs in retail and food service have opened up, thanks to the focus on consumerism, debt, and America’s obsession with junk food, these positions generally pay minimum wage and do not offer benefits or any type of pension. As a result, the United States now has the highest number of people below the poverty line since the government began tracking—and that’s with extended unemployment benefits. Over the past 10 years, the real median income in America has actually fallen.


There is no question that the advancement of technology has cost the middle class many of its jobs. Administrative tasks are now easily accomplished with computers, rather than by the clerical staff who once performed them. Industry—what’s left of it in America—is now highly mechanized. Technology and the Internet have allowed American companies to outsource customer service and other administrative jobs to places like India, where the cost of living is dirt cheap and highly educated, motivated people are willing to work for pennies. Technology is a good thing, but new sectors haven’t opened up to replace what’s been lost.


For most of American history, education was one of the best ways to jump ahead of your parents in terms of class and lifestyle. Determination was the key to the American dream.

Now even those with graduate degrees are struggling for jobs, and many are settling for work that falls well beneath their knowledge and skill levels in order to pay the bills. It takes an average of 8 months for a college graduate to find a job, and for every job, six qualified people apply.

The cost of education, which has doubled in the past 30 years, saddles young people with ever-growing levels of debt before they even have the chance the enter the work force. At the same time, those without an education are doomed to the ranks of the poor, so young people can no longer afford not to go to college.

Politics and money

Meanwhile, political power is often dependent on huge infusions of cash, which is usually donated by corporations and the rich in exchange for policies that help their bottom lines. As deregulation and privatization have grown, so has the disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Right now, the bottom 50% of working Americans own only 1% of the country’s wealth. The middle class was once the majority—now we are a country of economic extremes. And the gap is growing.

The middle class—what’s left of it—now consists of the educated underemployed, who can no longer count on being able to catch up or even pull ahead, thanks to a gutted economy and economic policies that primarily benefit those who need it least.