Middle-class incomes have biggest year to year rise – with a catch

New data suggests middle-class incomes rose in 2015:

The incomes of typical Americans rose in 2015 by 5.2 percent, the first significant boost to middle-class pay since the end of the Great Recession and the fastest increase ever recorded by the federal government, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

In addition, the poverty rate fell by 1.2 percentage points, the steepest decline since 1968. There were 43.1 million Americans in poverty on the year, 3.5 million fewer than in 2014…

The 5.2 percent increase was the largest, in percentage terms, ever recorded by the bureau since it began tracking median income statistics in the 1960s. Bureau officials said it was not statistically distinguishable from five other previous increases in the data, most recently the 3.7 percent jump from 1997 to 1998.

Rising incomes are generally good. But, note the catch in the third paragraph cited above: officials cannot say that the 5.2% increase is definitively higher than several previous increases. Why not? The 5.2% figure is based on a sample that has a margin of error of at least 1.5% either way. The data comes from these Census instruments:

The Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement was conducted nationwide and collected information about income and health insurance coverage during the 2015 calendar year. The Current Population Survey, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is conducted every month and is the primary source of labor force statistics for the U.S. population; it is used to calculate the monthly unemployment rate estimates. Supplements are added in most months; the Annual Social and Economic Supplement questionnaire is designed to give annual, national estimates of income, poverty and health insurance numbers and rates.

According to the report (page 6), the margin of error for the percent change in income from 2014 to 2015 is 1.6%. Incomes may have risen even more than 5.2%! Or, they may have risen at lower rates. See the methodological document regarding the survey instruments here.

The Census has in recent years moved to more frequent reports on key demographic measures. This produces data more frequently. One of the trade-offs, however, is that these estimates are not as accurate as the dicennial census which requires a lot more resources to conduct and is more thorough.

A final note: it is good that the margin of error is hinted at in the article on rising middle-class incomes. On the other hand, it is mentioned in paragraph 12 and the headline clearly suggests that this was a record year. Statistically speaking, this may or may not be the case.

Neither presidential candidate says much about helping the poor

This has become common in recent election cycles: candidates focus on the middle class and ignore the poor.

The United States, the wealthiest nation on Earth, also abides the deepest poverty of any developed nation, but you would not know it by listening to Hillary Clinton or Donald J. Trump, the major parties’ presidential nominees.

Mrs. Clinton, speaking about her economic plans on Thursday near Detroit, underscored her credentials as an advocate for middle-class families whose fortunes have flagged. She said much less about helping the 47 millions Americans who yearn to reach the middle class.

Her Republican rival, Mr. Trump, spoke in Detroit on his economic proposals four days ago, and while their platforms are markedly different in details and emphasis, the candidates have this in common: Both promise to help Americans find jobs; neither has said much about helping people while they are not working.

So why don’t they address lower-class Americans? A few tentative guesses:

  1. More undecided voters are in the middle class.
  2. Candidates want a singular message and so they go with the largest group of Americans – a vast majority of Americans, even ones who are legitimately rich or poor, consider themselves middle class – as to not have to complicate their rhetoric.
  3. The efforts in the 1990s to limit welfare – changes to programs and public housing – were very effective in halting conversation about poverty on a national level.
  4. Candidates want to be associated with people who think they have made it on their own.
  5. Lower-class Americans don’t have as much money to give to campaigns.
  6. Even with growing inequality, Americans have settled on the idea that we are a middle-class country. Candidates want to go with what the country thinks.

Regardless of the reason, it does say a lot about the ability of Americans to even converse about being poor.

Middle class declines in the majority of US metropolitan areas

A new study from Pew shows that the middle class did not do well in many metro areas between 2000 and 2014:

The report by Pew Research Center found that the share of the middle class fell in 203 of the 229 U.S. metropolitan areas examined from 2000 to 2014, including major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, which saw a relatively sharp drop in its middle class.

For many areas, a big culprit in the declining middle was the falloff in manufacturing jobs during that 14-year period, when factories shed about 5 million workers from their payrolls nationally…

The news was not all downcast, especially for metro areas in coastal and border regions that have benefited from the boom in technology, trade and resources…

Among the 229 metro areas, which constitute about 76% of the U.S. population in 2014, there were slightly more areas that saw a bigger increase in the share of upper-income population than lower-income adults. Still, Pew’s Kochhar did not view that as a big win for the American economy. The median incomes of the lower, middle and upper tiers all shrank between 2000 and 2014, he said.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The continued effect of losing manufacturing jobs cannot be overstated: this has hurt numerous cities for decades. It is not easy for any large city to transition from such jobs to opportunities in new sectors.
  2. Looking at this data at the level of a metropolitan region is helpful because it hints at broad patterns within regions that are often segregated by social class and race. The phenomenon of the rich and poor living right next to each other as well as trendy and wealthy communities getting a lot of attention is not exclusive to cities; similar patterns can be found in suburban areas.
  3. Connected to the second point is that solutions to income issues could come at the level of the entire region rather than within individual communities. How might entire regions help the middle class? Why don’t more large cities and surrounding suburbs work together on these issues? (I know why they don’t but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t benefit many local residents.)

Middle-class Americans pay a higher proportion of expenses for transportation

Driving and a suburban lifestyle comes with a price: recent data suggests the middle-class pays more for transportation that wealthier and poorer Americans.

In this case, the numbers show that middle-class Americans spend a much higher share of their total household annual expenditures on getting around, compared with the poorest and richest groups. Instead of gentle downward slopes, the transportation shares are closer to a bell curve (with the sixth decile added in for emphasis):


The same surprising distribution holds true when we drill down into a subset of transportation costs. The middle-class pays an outsized share on gas, vehicle maintenance, car insurance, and “other” related expenses—with the fifth decile above the medians (4.9, 1.6, 2, and 5.1 percent, respectively) in every case…

The data don’t say why transportation is taking a disproportionate toll on middle-class wallets, but it’s not hard to target a confluence of factors: sprawling development, city housing affordability, poor transit investment, and the result of them all, car-reliance.

I wonder if this then means that driving is an aspirational activity: it offers independence and access to private suburban property but it can be quite costly. If you don’t have a certain level of income, such a lifestyle may not make much sense. But, after a certain point, one can aspire to join the wealthier people who can better afford it (and probably have nicer cars and bigger houses).

Can sociologists be the ones who officially define the middle class?

Defining the middle class is a tricky business with lots of potential implications, as one sociologist notes:

“Middle class” has become a meaningless political term covering everyone who is not on food stamps and does not enjoy big capital gains. Like a sociological magician, I can make the middle class grow, shrink or disappear just by the way I choose to define it.

What is clear and incontestable is the growing inequality in this country over the last three decades. In a 180-degree reversal of the pattern in the decades after World War II, the gains of economic growth flow largely to the people at the top.

I like the idea of a sociological magician but this is an important issue: many Americans may claim to be middle class but their life chances, experiences, and tastes can be quite different. Just look at the recent response to possible changes to the 529 college savings programs. A vast group may help political parties make broad appeals yet it doesn’t help in forming policies. (Just to note: those same political parties make bland and broad appeals even as they work harder than ever to microtarget specific groups for donations and votes.)

Given some recent conversations about the relative lack of influence of sociologists, perhaps this is an important area where they can contribute. Class goes much further than income; you would want to think about income, wealth, educational attainment, the neighborhood in which one lives, cultural tastes and consumption patterns, and more. The categories should clearly differentiate groups while remaining flexible enough to account for combinations of factors as well as changes in American society.

USA Today says American Dream costs $130k per year

Living the American Dream isn’t cheap, according to calculations from USA Today. Here is what went into the cost:

•Home ownership is central to the American dream. So, we took the median price of a new home ($275,000), subtracted a 10% down payment, then projected the annual cost of a 30-year mortgage at 4% interest. We also added annual maintenance costs of 1% of the purchase price. Total: $17,062 a year.

•We used the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s April 2014 figure of $12,659 for a moderate-cost grocery plan for a family of four.

•In May, AAA estimated it would cost $11,039 a year to own one four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle.

•The Milliman Medical Index pegged annual health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket medical expenses at $9,144.

•We used various estimates for the costs of restaurants and entertainment; one family summer vacation; clothing; utilities; cable or satellite; Internet and cellphone; and miscellaneous expenses (see table).

•Total federal, state, and local taxes were pegged at 30% for households at this income level, based on a model developed for Citizens for Tax Justice.

•USA TODAY calculated current educational expenses for two children at $4,000 a year and college savings (all of it pretax, we assumed) at $2,500 per year per child, based on various rules of thumb.

•Finally, the maximum annual pretax contribution to a retirement plan for people under 50 is $17,500. That’s slightly less than 15% of this American dream household’s annual earnings, in line with financial planners’ recommendations.

Total: $130,357.

It sounds like a lot — and it is in a country where the median household income is about $51,000. Add one more child and another vehicle and you could easily reach $150,000.

I can see some places where costs could be trimmed, particularly with the car and a more minimalistic approach to retirement savings. I wonder if the emphasis here should be on the overall cost – which is high and the article notes it can vary quite a bit from region to region – or the assumptions about what the middle class is about. I was recently looking at a classic sociological study Working-Class Suburb written by Bennett Berger in 1960. There is a point in the book where Berger juxtaposes the suburban critic frowning at the ills of suburban life and the suburbanite who is happy with his relative comfort of a car, refrigerator, house, and little patch of lawn. In the decades since, expectations about the good life have increased, as Juliet Schor showed in The Overspent American. If Americans need $130,000 a year to have the basics, many of which are good things, then is being middle-class something completely different today?

Canada’s rising middle class the result of a housing bubble?

In eclipsing the American middle-class as the world’s richest, is the increasing wealth of the Canadian middle-class largely due to a housing bubble?

One word that doesn’t appear in the article, however, is housing. The U.S. is emerging from a catastrophic collapse of the housing market that obliterated household wealth for millions of middle-class families. Canada, however, is in the midst of a delirious housing boom and a personal debt craze that reminds some economists of the U.S. market exactly a decade ago (before you-know-what happened)…

One year ago, Matt O’Brien calculated that Canada’s price-to-rent ratio was the highest among advanced economies, making it the “biggest housing bubble” in the world. Canada’s historic housing boom (and our historic bust) comes at the precise moment in history that they pass us to grab the title of World’s Richest Middle Class. Just a coincidence?

Maybe. As the LIS data in the Upshot article shows, Canada’s median earner has been gaining on America for decades, powered by a strong service economy, supported by a disproportionately large energy industry. Remarkably, U.S. GDP-per-capita has been more than 15 percent richer than Canada’s for the last 25 years (see graph below), even as the median American worker has fallen behind the median Canadian earner. That’s a pretty clear indictment of U.S. income inequality…

Still, as many economists like Atif Mian and Amir Sufi have have argued, strong housing markets support middle-class income growth just as housing busts wreck middle-class income growth. The effect can be direct (more houses means more construction jobs*) and indirect (when families feel richer from rising housing prices, they spend more across lots of industries, raising incomes). As Reihan Salam writes, “the central driver of the decline in employment levels between 2007 and 2009  was the drop in demand caused by shocks to household balance sheets.”

Housing is an important factor in a middle-class lifestyle from being able to own a house (more important in certain places like the United States as a sign that “we’ve made it” as well as providing for one’s family) to affording a good neighborhood (which is often associated with lots of other good outcomes like better schools, less crime, more local resources) to paying relatively less for housing than those with lower incomes.

All that said, there is no guarantee that housing will be a significantly positive financial investment in the long run. And what happens in Canada if such a housing bubble does burst?