Reality Check: America Needs to Pay Attention to the Middle Class

The disappearance of middle-income families in the U.S. will not be a new phenomena caused by COVID-19

On March 24 when many cities had been under stay-at-home orders because of COVID-19 for a little over a week, actor Ryan Reynolds posted on Twitter:

“Until May 1st, for every bottle of Aviation (gin) ordered online, we’ll donate 30% of proceeds as a tip to your bartenders — who REALLY miss you btw.”

Almost every industry has taken a financial blow during the coronavirus pandemic, and people who primarily make their income based off of the tips they receive, like bartenders and servers, have been hit especially hard. Many of the people that work in these industries have felt forgotten, as most of the emphasis and attention has been on the good that wealthy people are doing, like donating funds to different organizations that are helping out, and the need for more help to arrive for individuals of low-income households and the homeless alike.

Oftentimes, economic and political conversations revolve around the extremely rich and the extremely poor, with the rest feeling left out. The middle class in the U.S. is large and although it is assumed by many that they are financially stable, there is one particular group, the low-end of the middle class, that feels forgotten and realistically lives from paycheck to paycheck. These are the people who are not officially considered poor by many people’s standards, but who in all honesty live with financial anxiety on a daily basis.

“Middle class Americans often don’t feel financially secure” an article written June 20, 2019, by Yahoo Finance revealed. “Over 40% of people who put themselves in this demographic report living paycheck to paycheck. And, nearly 50% of them feel financially insecure.” 

If you singled out individuals in the low-end of the middle class, it’s conceivable that those numbers would be much higher.

During this COVID-19 crisis most of these people qualify and are receiving unemployment and also received the $1,200 stimulus check from the government, but they need more than that to survive and keep their bills paid. The likeliness of the U.S. going into a recession or even a depression means that more people will fall into the category of the “low-end middle-class.” This means that the gap between rich and poor people will continue to grow as it has for decades. This is not a new phenomenon that is happening in the U.S. because of COVID-19.

Research published by the Pew Research Center in 2016 showed that 61% of Americans were considered to be middle-income in 1971 and that number had dropped to 52% by 2016. That may not seem like a significant drop to some people because it happened over a long period of time, but the research also shows that more of these middle-income individuals are moving into the lower-income class than the upper-income class. The lower-income class increased from 25% in 1971 to 29% by 2016. This shows a consistent rate over time of more people earning less money in the U.S. than earning more.

It is also hard to lump the middle class together as a whole because so much of who qualifies to be in that category changes depending on where in the country you live and the cost of living compared to income in that place. The same article depicted a middle-income household of two people to be $36,902. For two people living in Los Angeles that would be considered low-income, so if you still want to categorize those people as middle class they’d have to be considered the low-end of the middle class in Los Angeles, and you can clearly see why these people feel financial anxiety and feel forgotten.

It is not hard to see that the gap between rich and poor will continue to grow and that the middle class will slowly disappear over time in the U.S. if our economy and politics continues on the same course because it has already been happening for decades. COVID-19 may accelerate this process because of the financial hardship so many are experiencing, and the reality is that recovery for many families will take years. 

Change will only happen if the powerful people in this country start paying closer attention to the middle class and stop writing them off as being financially comfortable. It may take a long time for the middle class to disappear to the point that it completely changes the fabric of the U.S. Nonetheless, if things continue in this direction, then it is inevitable that the land of opportunity will look very different for later generations.


Jenilee Borek may be reached at [email protected]