Grim Economic Data Illustrate the Severe Decline of America's Middle Class

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Posted Oct. 12, 2011

Interview with Andy Kroll, Mother Jones Magazine reporter and associate editor at, conducted by Scott Harris


As if waking up from a deep three-year slumber to find their standard of living and future prospects shattered, tens of thousands of Americans are now taking to the streets to express their outrage at the reckless and unaccountable behavior of Wall Street and big banks that hurled the nation and world into the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Despite the official end of the U.S. recession in June 2009, a new study conducted by two former Census Bureau officials found that household income declined by 6.7 percent since the recession’s end, more than double the 3.2 percent decline seen during the recession itself.

To better understand the anger seen in the new Occupy Wall Street movement, provoked by the steep economic decline being experienced by millions of middle class working families, Mother Jones magazine reporter Andy Kroll researched income and wealth data from the last decade, which paints a grim picture of the harsh reality of today’s U.S. economy. Among Kroll’s findings were that middle class families saw a 7 percent drop in annual income in 2010 compared with earnings ten years earlier. He also found that poverty increasing overall, is not just concentrated in the nation’s inner cities, but the numbers of poor people are now exploding in suburban neighborhoods as well. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Andy Kroll who discusses the grim economic statistics he gathered which illustrates the severe decline of America’s middle class, a condition that may be very difficult to recover from any time soon.

ANDY KROLL: What I did was look at data from the census about household income, what the average middle class family was taking home in just one year's span. And what I found was that between 2000 and 2010, the type middle class family was taking home about $4,000 less than they were 10 years earlier. The poverty numbers which absolutely exploded in the past decade, and really just in recent years with 46 million men, women and children who are now officially declared poor, and it's 15 percent of the population. If we want to borrow the language of the Occupy Wall Street folk, the other 99 percent has had a really tough go not just in the last 10, the last 20, the last 30: All this information we're doing right now continues to reinforce that point.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Andy, what can you tell us about the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the inequality not just since 2008, and the start of this Great Recession, but the inequality that's been creeping along, and growing wider and wider over recent decades.

ANDY KROLL: The incredible income inequality we have now is by now means a result of just this past decade. this lost decade that I describe. We're talking about going back to like 1979, as a place where economists like to begin their charts showing us how the inequality between earners in the American population has really become so drastic. For the top one percent, their wealth, the average income that they bring home has grown from about half million dollars to nearly two million, which is quite an impressive increase since about 1979. But when you look at everyone else, the other 99 percent, if you will, or the bottom 80 percent, the line is flat. Incomes have barely increased, if they have at all. In fact, for middle-class earners and working class earners, the change in how much money they're making is actually decreasing. So this gap has been growing for 30 years, and it shows no signs, really of narrowing at all as a result tax policy, as a result of changing American economy and jobs being offshored or jobs disappearing in general, manufacturing jobs. There's a lot of factors at play here. But that gap's not getting any narrower.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Let's talk about tax policy, because since 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president, we've seen a steep decline in the amount and percentage of money that the wealthy of this country has paid in taxes. The same holds true with major corporations in this country, to the point where we some have companies like General Electric, that pay no taxes at all, while we see the burden falling disproportionately on the middle class and other working families. What can you tell us about that?

ANDY KROLL: The general trend since the Carter administration and then the Reagan administration really, is lower taxes for the top 1 percent, the top .1 percent even. And as result, we've seen a growing concentration of wealth in those very, very wealthy elites; I mean everyone else seems to be losing their share of the pie while the share keeps growing among a very small, small piece of the population.

BETWEEN THE LINES: As you look at all the young people who are attracted to the Occupation Wall Street movements that are sprouting up all over this country, what is it that drives that activism, in your view? And does it have something especially to do with dimming prospects for young people who are trying to gather up money to go to college or have graduated from college with huge debts and really see no prospect for a career, for jobs in their future?

ANDY KROLL: Absolutely, absolutely. It's the things that you describe and much more. I spent the weekend in Manhattan and a lot of time at Occupy Wall Street down in Zuccotti Park and I talked to young people, I talked to old people, I talked to Liberatarians, liberals. Yeah, they may not have a clearly defined set of demands as they have been criticized for, and, as a lot of people pointed out, which actually is a good thing. But the drivers of Occupy Wall Street, of all their other Occupy protests springing up around the country, and also of the protest we saw in Wisconsin earlier is dimming of prospects; it's income inequality, it's graduating with $120,000 in debt and having to work at a call center or busing tables. It is the loss of opportunity and not just having someone hand you a job, but having the chances to go out and find something. The jobs aren't out there for young people and middle-aged people, of course. It really is the sense of drift; it's a sense of disillusionment that the economy doesn't work for 99 percent of the American population. The issue of income inequality and the things I wrote about in this article -- those for me have always been the most fascinating stories and something that people need to home in on. Because, since the 1980s, this has been the real issue, the widening gap and crushing student loan debt and economic opportunity. And that is really the foundation of Occupy Wall Street, it's on the signs, it's in the speeches, it's in the The "Occupied" Wall Street Journal, their official newspaper, and it's really taking the issues that I present in this article and turning them into action.

For a link to Andy Kroll’s recent articles on the struggle of America’s middle class and Occupy Wall Street coverage, visit

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