The middle-class Americans who were hit worst by the recession are nonetheless the most hopeful about the country’s long-term economic future, according to a major new study of middle-class attitudes by the Pew Research Center.
Almost eight in 10 middle-class blacks and 67% of middle-class Latinos are optimistic about the future economic landscape, compared to Just 48% of middle-class whites. That optimism stands in sharp contrast to economic statistics that show black and Latino families lost considerably more income during the recession than did whites. Similarly, 67% of 18- to 24 year-olds are optimistic, in contrast to 59% of 25-34 year-olds and just 52% of those beyond the age of 35 even though younger people took a bigger recessionary hit.
What accounts for the optimism gap is uncertain, said the report’s authors. Partisanship may be part of the answer. People tend to feel more optimistic when “their guy’s in the White House,” said Paul Taylor, who headed the study for Pew. Minority groups and younger Americans tend to be Democrats.
Another factor could be a greater sense among blacks and Latinos that they’re still doing better than their parents. In the study, 68% of blacks and 70% of Latinos said they were, compared to 56% of whites.
The study, entitled “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class,” describes the economic pressures and vanishing wealth that middle-class Americans experienced in the last four years and many of the continuing strains.
Eighty-five percent of Americans who describe themselves as members of the middle class believe it’s harder for them to maintain their lifestyle than it was 10 years ago – and the numbers back them up. The income for a median three-member family has decreased from $72,956 in 2001 to $69,487 in 2010.
The drop in median net worth for middle-class families was even sharper – a decline of 28% since its pre-recession peak of $152,950. Overall, middle-class families have seen their wealth grow by just 2% since 1983.
“The movement of money, in terms of the national income pie, has gone entirely to the upper class,” said Taylor, executive vice president of Pew.
And who does the middle class blame for this precipitous decline in prosperity? The top choice is Congress, the nation’s punching bag of choice, with 62% placing “a lot” of the blame on those in the Capitol, and 29% placing “a little” blame. Banks and financial institutions and large corporations received a lot of blame from 54% and 47% of the middle class, respectively.
President George W. Bush’s administration, foreign competition and President Obama’s administration all received blame from at least 34% of the middle class. The only group listed that the middle class was significantly more reluctant to blame was itself, with just 8% placing substantial blame on their peers.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s efforts to win over the middle class, so far, still lag behind Obama’s. Fifty-two percent think that Obama’s policies would aid the middle class, compared to 42% for Romney. The two candidates’ policies are viewed as skewed significantly more toward the wealthy, in Romney’s case (71%) and the poor, in Obama’s case (62%).
Pew’s polling was conducted among a sample of 2,508 Americans, 1,287 of whom were self-described members of the middle class. The margin of error was +/- 2.8 percentage points. All monetary figures were adjusted to 2011 dollars.
Additional reports, one on American attitudes toward the rich and the poor and another on the importance of job security in maintaining middle class status, will be released over the next two weeks.
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