Robert J. Samuelson: The middle class rocks — again

Gino Rigucci, Adobe Stock

Row of new homes in Willsonville, Oregon.

WASHINGTON — The middle class is back — or so it seems.

That’s the message from the Census Bureau’s latest report on “Income and Poverty in the United States.” The news is mostly good. The income of the median household (the one exactly in the middle) rose to a record $59,039; the two-year increase was a strong 8.5 percent. Meanwhile, 2.5 million fewer Americans were living beneath the government’s poverty line ($24,563 for a family of four). The poverty rate fell from 13.5 percent of the population in 2015 to 12.7 percent in 2016.

The Census report reinforces Gallup polls — reported here a few weeks ago — that Americans have re-embraced their middle-class identities. The Great Recession made people feel economically vulnerable and betrayed. Nearly half of Americans self-identified as belonging to the “working and lower classes” — a huge shift from the nearly two-thirds that, before the recession, had classified themselves as “middle class.” Now, Americans have reverted to tradition. Almost two-thirds again call themselves middle class, Gallup finds.

People are reassured, because the economy’s steady, if plodding, performance seems to embody middle-class virtues: order, predictability and hard work. The critics of the recovery as slow and disappointing (me and many others) may have missed the point. By plodding along for eight years, the recovery allowed people to reclaim jobs and confidence. The Census calculates that there were 14 million more year-round full-time workers in 2016 than in 2009, the recession’s low point.

Still, the middle-class revival story can be overdone. The “Income and Poverty” report is crammed full of statistics that define and speak to some pressing national problems. Not all the evidence is upbeat. Here are three sobering takeaways.

First, men’s median wages for full-time, year-round work have stagnated.

As astounding as it seems, men’s median earnings haven’t really increased since the mid-1970s. Here are the figures. In 2016, the median was $51,640 for year-round, full-time workers. In 1975, the comparable figure was $51,766. (Note: All dollar amounts are adjusted…

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