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Latest data show middle class going nowhere

Jim Seida | NBC

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.

A Pew survey released last year found that 85 percent of people who describe themselves as middle class think it's harder to maintain their standard of living than it was a decade ago.

"When people say it's harder to maintain their standard of living, another way to look at it is, 'Do you have the same amount of money as a decade ago?' And many people don't," said D'Vera Cohn, a senior writer with Pew Research Center. "So in that sense their beliefs about falling behind align with what the data show."

The nation's median household net worth, another key measure of financial comfort, also was lower in 2011 than it was in 2000, according to the Census Bureau.

Gilbert, the sociology professor, said he doesn't think the middle class is disappearing but that more people could feel "that they're middle class hanging by their thumbs—barely middle class."

Worried about setbacks

The uncertainty of the past six years also has left many people worried that they could fall down the economic ladder.

Rachel Wettering, 34, and her husband consider themselves middle class because they have decent jobs, two cars and their own home. Still, Wettering said expenses such as her student loans and their toddler daughter's daycare leave little room for extras.

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Wettering, who lives in Fulton, N.Y., and works for a large insurance company, also said she fears that just one setback—a health scare, job loss or other emergency—could be their downfall.

"I feel like, yes, I consider us middle class, but sometimes I feel like we're just hanging on there and it could very easily change," she said.

Many also worry about their children's future.

Paula Taillant, 39, makes a good living as a nurse in the San Francisco Bay Area. But as a single mom to two boys—one in elementary school and one in college—she said it still feels as if there's never any money left over. High rent, child care, her son's tuition and her own student loans are eating it all up.

She considers herself middle class but has become more anxious lately about whether her children will be able to say the same thing, she said.

"What's it going to be like for them" she said she asks herself. "Will they be able to support themselves?"

—By CNBC's Allison Linn. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn and Google or send her an email.

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