RIP, Middle Class. It Was Nice While It Lasted
July 25, 2015

I'm old enough to remember when it was okay not to want to be a zillionaire, but still have a comfortable life with some measure of security. As we all know by now, those days are long past.

A new study shows that even those considered to be solidly middle class can expect to spend at least one year in poverty.

By the time we're 60, three in five Americans will have spent at least a year at the bottom. If that sounds like a surprisingly high number, it's worth noting that an awful lot of us will spend at least some time at the top, too. This next chart, using data from the same project, shows the share of Americans who will spend at least one year by age 60 in the top 20 percent — or even the infamous top 1 percent.

"The story of the American life course is marked by a surprising degree of economic movement and volatility," Rank says.


That means that the poor (or even the wealthy) are not some abstract other. The poor are, well, us — or us 10 or 15 years from now. If more people recognized this, Rank suggests, it's reasonable to think there'd be greater public support for programs that aid the poor. If you don't like food stamps because you think you'll never need them, maybe these probabilities would change your mind.

"A lot of people tend to experience a year or two of economic insecurity, then get back on their feet, then maybe experience another year down the road," Rank says. "This movement in and out of economic insecurity is a more typical pattern than somebody who is there for 10 years in a row, although there is a part of the population that is."

His data can tell us a lot too about these long-time users. In his study, only 7 percent of people relied on government programs for the poor for 10 years in total between the ages of 25 and 60. Half as many — 3.8 percent — relied on them for 10 years straight. A lot of us, in short, need a little help; only some of us need a lot of help for long stretches of time.

This data, though, is based on what happened to Americans between 1968 and 2011. So the poverty figures may well be a conservative estimate for what someone who's 25 today could expect in the coming decades as incomes continue to stagnate and job security worsens.

The only sure thing is this: Billionaires will continue to be billionaires. And we will all continue to slide down the economic scale. Wheeeee!

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