CHICAGO — DESPITE robust economic growth, millions of middle-class Americans today are watching their incomes stagnate or shrink.
The ''Misery Index'' -- the sum of joblessness and inflation -- is unusually low, with prices rising at less than a 3 percent annual rate and unemployment at 5.4 percent.
More than 5.5 million new jobs have sprouted since 1992. Also, the nation's economy is steadily growing and is the most competitive in the world, according to the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland. The blue-ribbon rank for the US suggests that companies are highly productive and workers are, in turn, well paid.
But the statistics gloss over some subtle, but significant, inequalities:
*Although the economy is steadily growing, more than 1 million Americans fell into poverty in 1993, and the median income of the typical American household has stagnated, according to the United States Census Bureau. For the first time in more than half a century, an expanding economy has failed to raise household income.
*Average hourly pay for all employees, when adjusted for inflation, has risen 2.5 percent so far this decade. But the gains have gone largely to highly skilled professionals. Workers with skill levels putting them in the bottom half of the labor force continue to see their incomes sink.
Most blue-collar workers cannot rely on unions to help protect their jobs. Today, only about 11 percent of the private-sector labor force is unionized.
Consequently, America's work force is becoming increasingly polarized along the lines of skill and education.
The distribution of income has become more uneven in America than in any other industrialized country. The top one-fifth of US households earn 48.2 percent of the nation's income, the Census Bureau reports, while the bottom one-fifth takes in just 3.6 percent.
Moreover, men without college education have seen their average incomes, adjusted for inflation, decline by 12 percent since 1979.