The Shrinking Middle Class: How We Got Here, And Why

Dissecting the forces behind the growing income gap.
December 24, 2018, 11:30 AM UTC
Jacob Yeung for Fortune Magazine

Most Americans consider themselves part of the “middle class,” but no one can agree on what term that means. The problem? If sizing up the middle class is difficult enough, it’s even harder to say that circumstances within this group have changed. But they certainly have. As you’ll discover in this Fortune special report, life has gotten more difficult for the millions of people within the middle class. We dispatched more than 50 people to discover why the American dream has been fading for far too many.

In this section, we dissect the growing income gap by asking experts how we got here—and why. What we learned: Chasing the American dream was once exhilarating; now it’s exhausting.

The Gig Economy Squeezes Workers

For millions of Americans, work brings income but none of the secondary benefits—such as health insurance, paid holidays, or retirement contributions—associated with employment. Though many folks who forgo benefits do so by choice for the autonomy and flexibility (and some are able to plan for retirement independently), a recent McKinsey survey of 162 million non-payroll workers in the U.S. and Europe classified 23 million as “reluctants,” who would prefer to be in the regular workforce (26 million more were characterized as “financially strapped”).

App-based gig employers like Uber and TaskRabbit have helped drive the ratio of payroll workers to contract or freelance workers from 8.3 to one in 1997 to six to one today. This arrangement often overlaps with hardship. A 2018 study of California gig-economy workers conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 48% struggled with poverty. It also found that gig workers reported higher rates of abusive labor practices and racial discrimination than those who worked as employees.

There is also anecdotal evidence the gig economy is taking a punishing toll on workers. In New York City, eight cabbies have committed suicide in 2018 alone—spurring some to highlight the fact that Uber and Lyft have driven down wages.

As the gig economy has expanded, so, too, have initiatives to improve the labor conditions that go with it. Most notably, there are calls for a “portable benefits” regime that would oblige companies like Uber to make mandatory contributions to a health or 401(k) pool that would follow workers across different gig jobs. There is support for such a regime in Congress, notably a bipartisan bill from Senators Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), but the initiative is currently stalled. According to the Brookings Institution, the best hope for workers is now with state and city governments, including a Washington State proposal that would require companies that rely on workers taxed under 1099 status to make contributions to nonprofit “benefit providers.” Still, there’s a long way to go before these “gigs” equate to jobs. —By Jeff John Roberts

Tim Chen

CEO and Cofounder, NerdWallet

Illustration by Joel Kimmel
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

For the 40% of Americans who don’t have the cash reserves to cover a $400 emergency expense, payday and other high-cost loans may be the only options when they face an unexpected cost. But these loans quickly drain pocketbooks, as interest rates ­balloon into the triple digits.

Fortunately, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has proposed a solution: national banks and federal savings associations could offer short-term, small-dollar installment loans. These loans, for $300 to $5,000, are now a $90 billion market. If banks follow the OCC’s advice, consumers could have new options with trustworthy lenders that enable them to pay their bills, build credit, and return to the road of financial solvency.

Because Being Strapped is Exhausting

Linda Tirado caused a firestorm in 2013 after a blog post detailing her experience trying to make ends meet went viral—and some conservative critics accused her of not being poor enough. It led to the publication of her book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, which details the contradictions that many Americans bouncing back and forth between technically “poor” and barely middle class are facing: You can go to private school and end up not making enough to live on. You can be married to a veteran and not be able to afford dental care. You can work 16 hours a day and struggle to keep the lights on. We asked Tirado what three things she wishes people better understood about this increasingly common existence:

• Low-wage work is Chronically Stressful: “People can very easily imagine having to stand 20 hours in a row one day. But they can’t imagine what it’s like to be on day 14 of that, or then to get a one-day break and go back to another 16 days. The cumulative impact is that you’re more and more exhausted as time goes on.”

•It’s Expensive: “If you’re buying a roll of toilet paper for 99¢, you’re paying an insanely inflated price. But upfront, you only have to pay 99¢. Now if you’ve got $50 and you can go to Target and get a multipack, you’re buying it at 19¢ a roll. And that same economy of scale applies to everything else.”

•It Defies Labels: “There’s this genteel poor that we’re seeing more and more of. This middle-class poor where they don’t have $400 in the bank for emergencies. But they do have access to $50,000 on a credit card, so they’re keeping up appearances, and they wouldn’t think of themselves as poor.” —By Lisa Marie Segarra

Our Neighborhoods Are Failing Us

Dying business corridors hurt the middle class.


In Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, residents have to travel an average of 2.9 miles for groceries.Jacob Yeung for Fortune Magazine
Jacob Yeung for Fortune Magazine

The South Shore neighborhood boasts a lakeside park with commanding views of Chicago’s skyline. It’s only a 25-minute commute by train from the downtown Loop, the kind of short hop that young professionals crave. It features stately brick homes that sell for $500,000 and up, magnets for academics and doctors.

What South Shore doesn’t have, however, is a supermarket. It hasn’t had one since 2013, when grocery giant Safeway shuttered its Dominick’s subsidiary and closed all its stores. More than five years later, the hulking storefront at Jeffery Plaza that neighbors still call “the Dominick’s” remains vacant. For many residents, its emptiness is a dual affront: It’s a symbol of the hollowing-out of the local middle class and an obstacle to working people struggling to get ahead.

An empty retail location along 71st Street in Chicago’s South Shore. The space has sat vacant since 2013.Jacob Yeung for Fortune
Jacob Yeung for Fortune

“This has always been a ‘first house’ neighborhood,” says Carlo Rotella, a Boston College professor and South Shore native whose history of the area, The World Is Always Coming to an End, will be published in April. Its orderly brick bungalows were financial ­cornerstones for thousands of middle-income families—including those of Oracle cofounder Larry Ellison and Michelle Obama. But ­Rotella estimates that 3,000 South Shore residents lost factory jobs in the 1960s and 1970s. And more recently, the Great Recession hammered the area’s teachers, managers, and service workers, leaving many upside-down on their mortgages.

As families left town or slipped down the economic ladder, household income in South Shore dropped; among residents with jobs, incomes now sit about 40% below the national average, according to Census data. That helps explain why the Jeffery Plaza location is the only one of 11 former Dominick’s in Chicago that hasn’t been acquired and reopened by another grocery chain. Not coincidentally, South Shore residents travel an average of 2.9 miles to buy groceries, a greater distance than residents of any other Chicago neighborhood, according to research by the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

Window of a vacant retail space for rent, reflecting an art deco facade along 71st Street.Jacob Yeung for Fortune
Jacob Yeung for Fortune

That’s a modest inconvenience for upper-income professionals. But it’s been “the biggest disruption to our ­middle-class and working families, and our poor families,” says Val Free, lead steward of the Neighborhood Network Alliance, a community activism group. A six-mile roundtrip can be a prohibitive time suck for hourly-wage earners, especially if they’re juggling childcare or depending on public transit. So more households shop at local bodegas, where selections are small, and where higher prices eat into lean budgets. Among the few reliable local sources of good produce: the charity food pantry at St. Philip Neri, the Catholic Church around the corner from the Dominick’s.

This summer, a city ­commission approved a $10 mil­lion tax subsidy to bring a retailer to South Shore, but a deal remains elusive. To local activists, getting a grocer is an existential necessity. “We have a lot of smart people in the community, we have some of the best transportation in the city, and we have the amenities we need to attract younger families,” says Free. But to nurture the middle class, she adds, “you need strong business corridors.” —By Matt Heimer

Blame Private Equity

Since 2008, Private equity has quintupled to $5 trillion. As with the opioid crisis, America is addicted to its quick fix of financial painkiller—despite the pain it also causes. “Their superpower is obscurity,” says Diane Standaert of the Center for Responsible Lending. Apartments, colleges, hospitals, prisons—it’s often “private equity behind the curtain,” borrowing heavily to buy companies, then wringing cash from holdings to repay the loans and pay dividends to investors. That can leave workers last in line. Toys “R” Us, Claire’s, Radio Shack, and Sears were all gutted by private equity this year. Indeed, labor leaders made headlines for securing a $20 million severance fund for Toys “R” Us’s 30,000-plus workers, but that was out of $75 million owed. “It’s not a condemnation of profit,” says Standaert. “It’s a condemnation of the basic business practice.” Adds Jim Baker of the Private Equity Stakeholder Project: “These are people’s lives reduced to lines in ledgers.” —By Richard Morgan

Rashida Tlaib

Democratic Congresswoman-elect for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District

Illustration by Joel Kimmel
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

The rate at which leaders roll over and beg corporations to set up shop is alarming. Just four years after Detroit’s bankruptcy, we’ve had two billionaires and one mega corporation ask for millions of dollars in public money for private developments.

So more working-class communities are creating community-benefits movements requiring corporations that want public handouts to enter into legally binding agreements demanding sustainable resources for host communities. From capitalizing housing trust funds, which allow low-income people to fix up and stay in homes, to creating job training programs in schools, these economic stimuli will give families the opportunity to thrive.

Blue-Collar Woes…

Since the recession of 2008, blue-collar work has been booming. One problem: These workers are still mostly men. Men hold three-quarters of the 15.4 million U.S. manufacturing jobs, leading to what economists refer to as “occupational segregation.” Meanwhile, women are overrepresented in other “middle-skill” industries that don’t require a degree (such as health care and eldercare) and that provide less security and fewer opportunities for full-time work. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that in 2016, women represented 83% of workers in middle-skill jobs paying less than $30,000 a year—but only 36% of workers in occupations requiring similar levels of training and paying at least $35,000 a year. Experts say societal bias plays a part in this type of job segregation, but a study from the National Partnership for Women and Families also reported that 74% of low-income (non-welfare) women said childcare was a barrier to employment—one factor among many leading women toward part-time, lower-security work. —By Emma Hinchliffe

…Healthcare Worries…

43.3 million. That is the number of working Americans living in families that struggled to pay medical bills in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And while that figure is actually an improvement over many previous years, it still means that some 16% of U.S. residents under the age of 65 had trouble paying their medical bills—including more than 12% of people classified as “not poor” by the government.

Consider: Employer-sponsored private health plans—which covered 56% of Americans younger than 65 in 2017���saw average premiums rise 5.5% for family plans last year, while out-of-pocket deductibles now siphon off 4.8% of all workers’ median income.

That last bit might be the most revealing when it comes to the health care crunch. Premiums, deductibles, and medical costs generally have been rising, but income hasn’t kept pace for the middle class. With Obamacare under fresh attack in the courts, experts don’t see downward pressure on costs for individual consumers anytime soon. The bottom line? Even if you’re lucky enough to be covered by an employer plan, you’re still feeling the squeeze. —By Sy Mukherjee

…Housing Concerns…

The charming image of a house ringed with a white picket fence has long been synonymous with the American Dream. But for many Americans, home ownership remains just that: a dream.

Rising interest rates, tougher access to credit, increasingly high levels of debt, and slowing construction of new houses are all making it tougher for some Americans to own their home. “Homeownership is not just about owning a home; it’s the best way to build future wealth,” says Jung Hyun Choi, research associate at Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, which studies economic and social policy. “If it stays this way, it’s going to exasperate inequality for future generations.”

That’s the case for Millennials in particular, many of whom carry crippling college debt and still-fresh memories of the 2008 recession. As twenty- and thirty-somethings seek opportunities in urban areas, they confront steep housing costs. Some price tags are extreme: The median home in San Francisco or New York City costs more than $1 million, according to Zillow. But data show the problem is hardly limited to major metros. “If you want to bring prices down, you have to increase the supply,” says Eric Sussman, senior lecturer at the Ziman Center for Real Estate at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The solution has to be a relaxation of regulations and building codes.”

Look no further than Minneapolis for an example of such progress. To combat rising costs, the city announced a plan in December to end single-family home zoning and allow three-family homes in residential areas. Whatever the path, experts agree: Change is needed. By Danielle Abril

…A Credit Crunch…

In November, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that total household debt in the U.S. had risen to a record $13.51 trillion in the third quarter of 2018. It was the 17th consecutive quarter in which that number had increased, and it meant that the total debt burden on American households was now $837 billion above its previous peak exactly 10 years earlier—in the third quarter of 2008, when the global financial system was on the brink of collapse.

Consumer debt has become as big a burden as ever. The Fed pegged total U.S. credit card debt at $844 billion at the end of the third quarter; other studies have placed it even higher. “Americans began the year with more than $1 trillion in outstanding credit card debt, which broke all previous records,” according to WalletHub anaylst Jill Gonzalez. “Although consumer confidence is high, wage growth is not. And yet we’re overextending ourselves anyway.”

Consumer debt isn’t an entirely bad thing. Consumer spending represents more than two-thirds of the national economy, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. But rising levels of credit card debt also reflect some unsavory realities about the finances of the average American. “The amounts that people are paying on a monthly basis in terms of debt are really striking,” said Emily Holbrook, director of planning at Northwestern Mutual. The firm’s 2018 Planning & Progress Study shows that Americans are now allocating virtually the same percentage of their monthly income toward debt repayment (36%) as they are for discretionary expenses such as dining, clothing and leisure (37%).

What happened? According to Emory Nelms, a senior behavioral researcher at the Common Cents Lab at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, “changes in the way that we use and think about money in the last 30 to 40 years have led to a world in which we’re living with much more consumer debt.” New digital payment methods, for example, have made it easier than ever to spend money without having to incur the psychological “payment pain” that comes with spending physical cash. “The easier and faster it is to spend, the less encumbered our spending decisions are,” he says.

Just as the last recession forced Americans to pump the brakes on spending, another downturn would likely prompt people to think twice before swiping their cards or tapping “pay.” But the consequences could be devastating. Economic changes could leave people “in worse financial standing” with less means to pay off debt and less credit available from banks, Nelms says. And “that will restrict people’s ability to make things work.” —By Rey Mashayekhi

…And Student Loan Burdens

The student debt crisis may soon force another generation to subsist on ramen: parents. Given the elimination of caps for federal Parent PLUS loans, rising college tuition, and changes in the tax code, typical parent borrower liability rose from $6,200 in 1990 to $38,800 in 2014. For 3.4 million Americans, PLUS loans can fund the dream of higher education, but if the parent or student can’t repay, they can cascade into a nightmare of accruing interest, ruined credit, and depleted emergency funds. PLUS borrowers can be approved even if they have existing debt, and payment plans are eligible to be capped monthly at 20% of the parents’ discretionary income—so that can mean more money, for now, and a bigger burden later. Another minus: Under Trump administration changes, if your child withdraws, the loan will be forgiven, but the balance is taxed as income. Sadly, parent loan repayment tends to be the worst at shady, for-profit institutions, which often over-promise and under deliver when it comes to giving kids degrees that pay off in the real world. —By Dan Reilly

Josh Hoxie

Director, Project on Opportunity and Taxation, Institute for Policy Studies

Illustration by Joel Kimmel
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

Even black and Latino families who have achieved the traditional markers of middle-class life—a good-paying job and a college degree—still lag far behind their white counterparts in terms of wealth. Changing our priorities around tax incentives, as well as investments in bold new programs like Children’s Savings Accounts (CSAs) and a federal jobs guarantee, could reverse the decades-long rise in the racial wealth divide. Had Congress instituted a robust universal CSA program in 1979—seeding small savings and investment accounts for all children, which could mature—the white-Latino wealth gap would have disappeared by now, and the white-black gap would have dropped by 82%.

Read part III of III. “How We Can Fix It.

A version of this article appears in the January 2019 issue of Fortune, as part of the story “The Shrinking Middle Class.”