After years of struggling simply to make ends meet, many Americans who describe themselves as middle class say they feel that, rather than getting ahead, they are barely hanging on.
That's no surprise, given the years of economic data showing how hard it has been for many middle-income people to improve their economic situation.
The latest evidence: The Census Bureau reported Tuesday that the nation's real median household income—the midpoint of income levels—was essentially unchanged in 2012, at $51,017, after adjusting for inflation. It was $51,100 in 2011. Last year's stagnation followed declines in 2011 and 2010.
In total, data show that Americans in the middle of the income spectrum still aren't doing as well as they were in 2007, the year the nation went into recession.
"The recovery's just been awfully slow," said Dennis Gilbert, a sociology professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., who studies class structure and income inequality.
In fact, after adjusting for inflation, median household income has returned to its 1996 level, said Richard Fry, a senior economist with Pew Research Center.
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"There is a sense that in middle-income America … they've been treading water for 15 years," he said.
Jill Fulk, 56, still considers herself part of the middle class. But after six years of economic turmoil, she said she also feels like the middle class itself has changed.
"I feel like it is a whole different class," she said. "It's a class of survivors, scrapers."
Fulk was happy with her jobs and pay until around 2007, when the insurer she worked for began a series of reorganizations, she said. That resulted in her switching positions several times and even taking a pay cut to try to get into a job with some advancement potential.
About a year ago, she and her husband moved from Florida to Montgomery County, Md., to share a house with her 29-year-old daughter and her son-in-law. Fulk was able to take a job making the same amount of money, as a customer service representative with an insurance agency.
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The move was aimed at helping the young couple shore up their finances while her daughter started a pet-sitting business, Fulk said. It also allowed her 27-year-old son, who served in the military and is getting ready to start police training, to move into the home she owns in Florida.
"We don't have money to give them, but I want to try to give them support," Fulk said of her children.
Fulk said her wages have been stagnant since 2007, but at least she feels like she has more job security than she did down in Florida.
Still, her husband spent a year in part-time, low-paying jobs before finally landing a full-time position last week. The years of struggles have left the couple so strapped for cash that when her father died earlier this year, they couldn't afford for her husband to fly down for the funeral.
"We're budgeting every single thing we do," Fulk said.
Harder to maintain standard of living
There's no set definition of the middle class, but 42 percent of Americans identify themselves as part of it, according to a Gallup poll released late last last year.
It appears that many of those people are, like Fulk, feeling squeezed.