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Amid slow economic recovery, more Americans identify as 'lower class'

A small but surging share of Americans consider themselves 'lower class,' a surprise to some researchers and activists despite the bruising economy.

September 15, 2013|By Emily Alpert

People seem aware of the growing gap. When Americans are asked how much chief executives and unskilled workers make, they have reported bigger differences over time, said Leslie McCall, a Northwestern University sociologist who studies attitudes about inequality. McCall added that the media also paid more attention to inequality during the Occupy Wall Street protests and the last presidential race, making "the 99%" a new catchphrase for the struggling.

High school dropouts are much more likely to call themselves lower class, but the numbers have also jumped among Americans who spent at least some time in college, the General Social Survey shows. From 2002 to 2012, the "lower class" among Americans with one to four years of college more than doubled — from 2.6% to 5.8%.

In many ways, Diana Jimenez is lucky. She has a college degree and a job with a San Fernando Valley nonprofit, and at age 26 she makes more than her mother. Yet as she struggles to pay off college loans, Jimenez can't imagine calling herself middle class.

"I'm still living at home," said Jimenez, who said she would call herself either working class or lower class. "I can't afford to live anywhere else."

Besides facing new stresses and inequalities, Americans might be thinking differently about class today.

University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen, who pointed out on his blog the rising numbers of people identifying as lower class, hypothesized that more struggling twentysomethings were doing so because fewer have been raised in union households. Many people told the Los Angeles Times they had no idea what separated the working class from the lower class.

"Working class used to be a term of pride," said Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director for Class Action, a nonprofit focused on class issues. "That's somewhat faded out."

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