First Chicago, now the nation, sees a shriveling middle class

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Chicago’s middle class has shriveled under decades of Democratic mayors — and the same trend is accelerating nationwide while President Barack Obama is in the White House.

Since 2008, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as middle class has lurched down from 53 percent to 44 percent, while the number of people who see themselves as lower class has rocketed up from 25 percent to 40 percent, according to a January report by the Pew Research Center.

The change in national attitudes has been particularly sharp among younger Americans, who have been hit hard by the recession. In March 2014, for example, the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds climbed from 11.9 percent to 12.2 percent.

“In 2008, a quarter of all young adults identified as being in the lower or lower-middle class; today about twice as many do (49%), a 24-point increase,” Pew reported. “In contrast, the share of adults 65 and older who say they are in the lower classes increased by 10 points to 31%.”

In previous recessions, which were shorter and slighter, there was little change in Americans’ optimism about their economic situation, and more willingness to trust the free market.

An alternative 2012 Gallup poll showed more stable attitudes. Forty-two percent reported in November 2013 they view themselves as middle class, the same level as in 2006. But the number of people who see themselves as upper middle class dropped from 19 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in late 2012.

Still, Gallup noted a significant drop among college grads. In June 2008, 83 percent described themselves as middle class or upper middle class. That rating fell to 71 percent in late 2012, marking the lowest level recorded.

“The percentage of college-educated Americans now judging themselves to be a part of the middle class is down significantly from before the recession. This may be a result of declining job opportunities, ballooning student debt that diminishes future living standards, or both,” Gallup reported.

The national direction is a larger version of Chicago’s story, where a 1960s city of middle-class Americans has since split into a mix of wealthy and poor neighborhoods.
Chicago’s transformation is graphically displayed in a series of maps prepared by a Chicago graduate student.

The map of middle-class Chicago starts in 1970, and it shows wide gray swaths of middle-income people across the city. There were only a few blotches of red poverty and green wealth.

By 1980, the poor red areas have splashed out from the center, toward the south.

By 1990, the poor and near-poor red and orange colors cover more than half of the southern side of the city, and the green is growing quickly in the north.

In 2000, the red’s growth had slowed, but the green wealthy zone is growing larger and greener as wealthy people segregate themselves into the upmarket districts just north of the downtown area.

During the 65-year period from 1955 to 2011, the city had six elected Democratic mayors, including a father-and-son team that guided the city for 32 years. The last Republican to run the city left office in 1931.

By 2012, the Chicago map shows there were only a few gray middle-class patches in the south. The poor red areas had advanced northwards into the few remaining middle-class areas, leaving only a few gray patches on the border between Chicago and the surrounding counties.

The author of the chart doesn’t suggest a cause for the increasing stratification in the all-Democrat town.

“I feel relatively comfortable telling the story of how Chicago came to be so segregated by race; I’m much humbler about my ability to explain this, except inasmuch as the ever-widening ghetto of the affluent could not exist without, yes, radically exclusionary housing laws,” said the student, Daniel Hertz.

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Neil Munro