When Will the Middle Class Recover?

During the past 10 years, the U.S. middle class has taken a tremendous hit as the net worth of the average family, wages and our standard of living sank.

Yet as bad as things are now, many middle-income earners think they could get worse. As the middle class grows angrier by the day, an increasing number of its members are placing the blame squarely on U.S. lawmakers, who, they feel, are more beholden to big business and special-interest groups than the voters who put them in office.

Carolyn Butler is one such person. “I think the middle class has been left out in the cold,” says the registered nurse, 46. “We are stuck... we make too much money to get help but not enough to live a really comfortable life.”

Her husband, Timothy Butler, a factory worker at a South Carolina car-parts manufacturing plant, agrees. He believes that despite the amount of lip service, no one is really looking out for the middle class. “It’s like every man and woman for himself and herself,” he says.

Their feelings are backed by a Pew Research Center (PRC) report titled The Lost Decade of the Middle Class that found the 2000-to-2010 period was the only decade in which real incomes fell for all families, erasing many of the gains of the previous decade. The 2010 median household income, $50,831, when adjusted for inflation, is less than it was in 2000 when it was $54,841, according U.S. Census figures.

The PRC report found that middle class voters feel they don’t have a political champion. Slightly more than one-third believes that Democrats favor the middle class, while only one-fourth says the same about the GOP. For Blacks, roughly nine-in-ten believe the GOP generally supports the rich. And about half of all Blacks say the Democrats favor the rich, too.

Although President Barack Obama created a Middle Class Task Force in 2009, by most accounts, it has done little to improve the condition of the middle class. The task force pushed for health care reform, green jobs, increased funding to retrain workers and more ways to make college affordable. But the unemployment rate is still hovering around 8 percent, and the super rich have gotten richer.

For their part, Republicans in Congress have no specific plan to bolster the middle class. In fact, they put forth a plan last summer that would sharply cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans by instituting a two-bracket tax structure—25 percent and 10 percent—and cutting the top rate, currently at 35 percent. If passed, the plan, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Institute, could leave middle-income households paying much larger tax bills, especially if popular tax breaks, such as the mortgage-interest deduction and the earned income tax credit, are cut.

There is, however, reason for optimism. Many economists believe that down the road, the country’s economic advantages and educated workforce, combined with the rising costs of doing business in countries such as China, will compel more companies to bring jobs back to the United States and help raise the middle-class standard of living.