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US poverty rate steady at 15 percent, but 'lower class' is booming

The recession-induced slide in income and rise in poverty appear to have flattened out, new census data show. Still, an ‘extraordinary’ share of Americans now describe themselves as ‘lower class.’

By Staff writer / September 17, 2013

A group of boys walk past a partially collapsed row house in Baltimore in April. According to new census data, the nation's poverty rate stood still at 15 percent in 2012, the sixth straight year that it has failed to improve.

Patrick Semansky/AP/File

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Poorer Americans were no better off – and no worse off – in 2012 than in 2011, compared with their richer neighbors, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday. The news may indicate that struggling workers and families whose fortunes have plummeted since the Great Recession have at last hit a financial plateau. 

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But if the slide into poverty has finally stalled out, it appears to have left its mark on the psyches of many American workers. The share of those who identify themselves as "lower class" – at 8.4 percent – now stands at its highest level in four decades, according to separate data released this week from the long-running General Social Survey (GSS). Just as surprising, the share of college graduates who describe themselves as lower class has jumped from 2.6 percent in 2002 to 5.8 percent in 2012.

Sociologists say the true percentage of the lower class may be as high as 20 percent, and primarily includes people who hold low-rung service jobs or are chronically unemployed.

But they are puzzled as to why more Americans are calling themselves "lower class," a derogatory term that until recently was used so seldom that economists routinely lumped it in with the more respectable "working class." The jump in lower class self-identification is “extraordinary,” Dennis Gilbert of Hamilton College in New York, who studies class structures, writes in an e-mail.

One possibility is that they feel stuck. According to the GSS, only 55 percent of Americans these days believe things will get better for themselves and their kids – a rather paltry number for a country built on the notion that everyone has an equal chance to get ahead.

"It's not surprising if the American worker is thinking, 'I'm working harder than I've ever worked, yet I'm being paid less – and I'm working two or maybe three jobs,' " Lola Smallwood Cuevas, project director of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, told Los Angeles Times writer Emily Alpert this week. "It creates a feeling that you're trapped."

Indeed, the Census Bureau report released Tuesday shows that the Great Recession and its aftermath have been hardest on the poorest one-fifth of Americans. Their mean income fell 3.3 percent, while the mean income for the top one-fifth of earners dropped 0.5 percent. That means inequality has increased since the recession, and that income losses among the poorer is primarily responsible for the wider gap. 

Class consciousness, moreover, might have been at a high when University of Chicago researchers conducted their General Social Survey. It was an election year, and "class warfare" was a theme of the presidential contest – with GOP candidate Mitt Romney saying, famously, that “47 percent” of Americans saw themselves as victims in need of handouts, and with President Obama defining the election as “a make-or-break moment for the middle class.”

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