In that earlier survey, only 25 percent of Americans adults, age 18 to 64, classified themselves as lower class.
The study continues a parade of grim statistical jeremiads from Pew signaling a long-range economic downward slide, one that isn’t stopping after two years of supposed recovery.
Last month the research center released a report titled “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class”; today it reviewed U.S. Census Bureau data showing that median income has dropped by 4.1 percent since we’ve been in recovery, only a tenth of a percentage point less than it fell during the recession.
Economists generally include the middle 60 percent of the country in the middle class, a definition that encompasses households bringing in between $25,000 and $100,000 a year. The rest of us tend to stretch the distinction even further. “Most people tend to think of themselves as middle class unless they're Warren Buffett or really poor," economist J.D. Foster of the Heritage Foundation told Reuters last year.
Even President Barack Obama draws the line at those making less than $250,000; above that, and you are a target for his proposed tax hikes on the rich. (Read more: What's It Take to Be Middle Class?)
To compensate for the statistical drift toward the middle class, Morin and his co-author, Seth Motel, grouped those who identified as “lower class” or “lower-middle class” into a single designation, as the 2008 Pew study did.
If measuring people’s self-perceptions seem fuzzy, what surveys about economic classes tell us are not, Morin says. People respond according the actual facts of their paycheck, he says, but how they respond also reveals how you are engaging with the economy. “It is truly the way you feel about yourself and you define yourself,” says Morin.
That’s why, Morin says, we should be particular concerned about younger Americans. “That’s a real worry,” he says, noting that “the eternal optimism of youth” usually is enough to get 20-somethings through a few down years. “An increase to 39 percent [from 25 percent] in just four years is a remarkable finding.”