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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.’

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“People perceive that [class advancement] has become a zero-sum game, and that’s corrosive,” says Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, in College Park. “The overall economic uncertainty exacerbates some of the problems we’re having. Look at this intensive parenting mania … that’s partly because we see inequality widening and we don’t want our kids to end up on the wrong side of that line.”

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Those most likely to describe themselves as lower class are high school dropouts, blacks, the unemployed, and single parents.

Overall, the poverty rate held steady 15 percent in 2012, the same as the year before, and roughly the same as other tough economic eras such as the early 1980s and early 1990s, census data show. The median income last year was $51,017 – about the same as in 2011. But the share of people who qualify as middle class has been steadily shrinking for a decade, and since 2007, when the US economy began to contract, median income remains down 8.3 percent. 

But there are hopeful statistics to report. The number of Americans without health insurance dropped slightly in 2012, as did the percentage of single mothers in poverty – possible signals that the fortunes of some Americans are no longer sinking. 

“Even though unemployment and long-term unemployment continues, we’re not seeing a deepening in poverty outcomes, and that’s good,” says Mr. Cohen.

For all its constitutional egalitarianism, America is class conscious and puts great stock in the merits of breaking through class ceilings through hard work. 

That’s another reason the rising self-identification with the “lower class” is notable. “Working class” has always been the admirable way to frame a life of self-sufficiency and grit, if not great riches. The question now is whether people who see themselves as "lower class" accept the permanence of piecemeal or nonexistent work – and have waved goodbye to the middle class.

“If these trends continue, and most evidence suggests they will, one of the central ironies of the Obama years will be that a Democratic administration committed to pushing back against the unjust distribution of resources and to the promotion of morally cohesive communities will in fact have overseen an eight-year period of social disintegration, inequality and rising self-preoccupation,” New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall wrote in June.

Other commentators say surveys of American workers suggest that many are waiting for political redemption and new leadership to help them replace creeping resignation with a sense of opportunity.

“A besieged middle class is increasingly aware that the rules are rigged against them,” writes Robert Borosage in a recent article for Slate. “They are increasingly skeptical of politicians and parties, and believe – not incorrectly – that Washington is largely bought and sold. But they are looking for champions.”

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