Symposium Recap: The Decline of the Middle Class
November 9, 2014 02:00 PM
By Portia Allen-Kyle, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
This symposium offered expert insight into just how complicated discussions about the middle class and its supposed decline are. Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland-College Park served as the moderator of the panel. The panelists included David Autor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brian Nolan from University College–Dublin, and Andrew Cherlin from Johns Hopkins University.
Autor started off by outlining changes in the income distribution since the mid-twentieth century, providing the audience with a shocking statistic: reverting the income of the top 1% and distributing it to the 99% will increase household income by approximately $7,000. He noted that the household gap between couples who went to college and those who did no increased by $28,000 between 1979 and 2012, but the return to skill has also increased. Autor attributed this widening gap in earning inequality to the decreasing supply of college graduates, which is just compounded by uneven job growth.
Nolan then provided an international perspective on changes in the status of the “middle class” by examining trends across OECD countries. While income inequality increases in these country by approximately two-thirds, this change is not evenly distributed across countries. He noted that both the scale and the timing of increases in income inequality vary, which might be more indicative of episodes than a sustained trend. Looking at the middle deciles (3 through 7), Dolan noted that working age shares of income have decreased, but most of this decrease was 20 years ago; however, there has been a striking squeeze with regards to both real income and living standards.
Cherlin discussed the implications of these demographic changes on families, but particularly children. Looking at marriage information, Cherlin looked to debunk cultural arguments due to ‘lack of industriousness’ put forth by those such as Charles Murray, instead arguing that the cultural change that occurred was due to the acceptability nonmarital births and alternative family structure.
These presentations were followed by extensive audience participation. Towards the end of the symposium, open questions about who the “middle-class” is or how to define it aside, Autor optimistically opined that Americans’ belief in social mobility is one of the healthiest parts of our society, even if it is not necessarily true.