Recession marked by housing crash dealt a heavy blow, the Pew Center said. People blame Congress, banks, others.
WASHINGTON - The middle class is shrinking and is now barely a majority in the United States, underscoring the challenge President Obama and Mitt Romney face as they argue over who can best protect the wealth of struggling Americans.
The proportion of middle-income earners -- those making $39,418 to $118,255 for a family of three -- narrowed as the housing-market crash erased two decades of gains in wealth since 2001 and average incomes fell for the first time since World War II, a Pew Research Center report shows. The middle class shrank to 51 percent of adults in 2011 from 61 percent in 1971.
"We think of ourselves and pride ourselves as being a middle-class society," said Paul Taylor, the center's executive vice president and the editor of the report, released Wednesday. "But there's a sense that the middle class is getting smaller. It's hollowing out."
Middle-class people are reluctant to lay much of the blame on Obama, with Congress, banks, corporations, the Bush administration and overseas competition more commonly cited as the cause of their problems, according to the survey. More than half, 52 percent, say Obama's policies would aid the middle class, a 10 percentage-point advantage over Romney.
The report, "The Lost Decade of the Middle Class," highlights the effects of the longest recession since the Great Depression, leaving 12.8 million currently unemployed and pushing more into poverty. The plight of middle-income Americans in an economy that has yet to fully rebound more than three years after the recession ended is a central theme of the presidential campaign.
Romney, who co-founded the private-equity firm Bain Capital and served as Massachusetts governor, has faulted Obama for failing to spur a stronger recovery. Obama has cast himself as a defender of the middle class and criticized his opponent, who has an estimated net worth of as much as $250 million, for seeking to cut taxes on higher-income Americans.
Obama's pitch may resonate with middle-income voters, the Pew poll indicates. Republicans favor the rich, according to 62 percent of self-described middle-class respondents. That compares with 16 percent who said the same of Democrats. The survey showed 37 percent said Democrats were more likely to favor their interests while 26 percent said that of Republicans
The Pew study is based on an analysis of Census Bureau and Federal Reserve Board data and a phone survey from July 16 to 26 of 2,508 adults, 1,287 of whom identified themselves as middle class. The poll has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, and 3.9 percentage points for the middle-class segment.