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What has happened to the middle class?

A White Hall man and his son, an accountant, were overheard recently discussing a subject that normally might be considered a dry topic over morning coffee: Median household income.

The father, a retired educator, apparently considers himself middle class. The son said that is no longer a safe assumption.

The presidential race is heading to a dominant issue: Which political party’s policies will do more to help the financially stressed and stressed out American middle class. The accountant said the latest income data from the Census Bureau indicates the three-and-one-half years of the Obama Presidency have harmed middle-class households. In January 2009, the month Obama entered the Oval Office and shortly before he signed the stimulus spending bill, median household income was $54,983, the accountant said, quoting the income data. By this past June, median household income fell to $50,964. That works out to slightly over $4,000 in lost real income annually.

That’s an unfair comparison, the father countered, because Obama inherited a recession from the George W. Bush administration.

The two men didn’t notice it, but while they were discussing finances of the middle class, the price of a gallon of regular unleaded gas was raised three cents at the convenience store near the restaurant where they were drinking coffee. For the half century following World War II, American families enjoyed rising prosperity in every decade — a streak that ended in the decade from 2000 to 2010, when inflation-adjusted family income fell for the middle income as well as for all income groups, the Census Bureau said.

Since 2000, the middle class has shrunk in size, in income and wealth, and shed some — but by not all — of its characteristic faith in the future, a Pew Research Center survey stated.

More than 4 in 5 Americans (85 percent) who described themselves as middle class adults say it is more difficult now than it was a decade ago for middle class people to maintain their standard of living.

Who does the middle class blame?

The Pew survey found 62 percent said “a lot” of the blame rests with Congress, while 54 percent say the same about banks and financial institutions, 47 percent point the finger at large corporations, 44 percent blame the Bush administration, 39 percent cite foreign competition and 34 percent blame the Obama White House.

Apparently there is a lot of blame to go around, with one exception. Just 8 percent blame the middle class itself very much.

In 2011, the middle-income tier included 51 percent of all adults. In 1971, using the same income standards, it had included 61 percent. The upper-income tier rose to 20 percent of adults in 2011, up from 14 percent in 1971; the lower-income tier rose to 29 percent, up from 25 percent.

However, over the same period, only the upper-income group increased its share in the nation’s household income, Pew said. It now takes in 46 percent, up from 29 percent four decades ago. The middle level now takes in 45 percent, down from 62 percent four decades ago. The lower tier takes in 9 percent, down from 10 percent four decades ago. The middle class might may want to consider blaming the rich, the accountant suggested. It is a more popular option than blaming themselves.

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Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by e-mail at fugatel@sbcglobal.net or at (870) 329-7010.