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Two numbers that show how badly America’s middle class is hurting

Joe Raedle

Two recent reports show that almost seven years after the economy tumbled into recession, the middle class is a long way from recovery.

At The Upshot, Neil Irwin summarizes new data from Sentier Research, which shows that in June, "the median household income was $53,891, down from $55,589 in inflation-adjusted dollars when the economic expansion began in June 2009." So the middle class is poorer today than they were five years ago.

Scarier yet: that puts median household incomes today below where they were in 2000. "The middle-income American family is worse off, in other words, than it was 14 years ago," writes Irwin.

The numbers are, if anything, grimmer when you turn from income to wealth. A new US Census Bureau report shows that the median household's net worth fell from $106,591 in 2005 to $68,839 in 2011. That's a stunning drop.

census wealth

Census Bureau

Of course, 2011 isn't 2014. The numbers almost certainly look better now, though it will be some time before the data comes in that will tell us for sure. But there's little reason to believe that middle class wealth is anywhere near 2005 levels.

Three points:

1. There is a tendency to talk about the economic aftermath of the recession primarily in terms of the unemployed. And that's for good reason: the unemployed continue to bear the worst of the financial crisis's costs. But it can be easy to forget that middle-class households are still poorer — both in income and in wealth — than they were a few short years ago. In a country accustomed to nearly continuous economic progress, these numbers should shock.

2. In an age of sky-high inequality, averages can obscure more than they reveal. As Irwin notes, "measures of Americans' income that rely on averages paint a sunnier picture. For example, inflation-adjusted per-person disposable personal income is up 4.2 percent from mid-2009 to mid-2014. But averages like that can be distorted by strong income gains among the wealthiest, so looking at the median income can give a better sense of economic conditions faced by the majority of Americans."

3. Pretty much everyone laments how angry, bitter and zero-sum politics is these days. But viewed in light of this data, the surprise might be that American politics isn't much, much worse.