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Animation: The Collapse of the Middle Class in 20 Major U.S. Cities

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When future historians look back at the beginning of the 21st century, they’ll note that we grappled with many big issues.

They’ll write about the battle between nationalism and globalism, soaring global debt, a dysfunctional healthcare system, societal concerns around automation and AI, and pushback on immigration. They will also note the growing number of populist leaders in Western democracies, ranging from Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump.

However, these historians will not view these ideas and events in isolation. Instead, they will link them all, at least partially, to an overarching trend that is intimately connected to today’s biggest problems: the “hollowing out” of the middle class.

Visualizing the Collapse of the Middle Class

The fact is many people have less money in their pockets – and understandably, this has motivated people to take action against the status quo.

And while the collapse of the middle class and income inequality are issues that receive a fair share of discussion, we thought that this particular animation from Metrocosm helped to put things in perspective.

The following animation shows the change in income distribution in 20 major U.S. cities between 1970 and 2015:

Animation: The Collapse of the Middle Class in 20 Major U.S. Cities

The differences between 1970 and 2015 are intense. At first, each distribution is more bell-shaped, with the majority of people in a middle income bracket – and by 2015, those people are “pushed” out towards the extremes as they either get richer or poorer.

A Broader Look at Income Inequality

This phenomenon is not limited to major cities, either.

Here’s another look at the change in income distribution using smaller brackets and the whole U.S. adult population:

Income distribution

Courtesy of: FT (h/t Metrocosm)

It’s a multi-faceted challenge, because while a significant portion of middle class households are being shifted into lower income territory, there are also many households that are doing the opposite. According to Pew Research, the percentage of households in the upper income bracket has grown from 14% to 21% between 1971 and 2015.

The end result? With people being pushed to both ends of the spectrum, the middle class has decreased considerably in size. In 1971, the middle class made up 61% of the adult population, and by 2014 it accounted for less than 50%.

As this “core” of society shrinks, it aggravates the aforementioned problems. People and governments borrow more money to make up for a lack of middle class wealth, while backlashes against globalism, free trade, and open borders are fueled. The populists who can “fix” the broken system are elected, and so on.

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Money

Charted: Who Has Savings in This Economy?

Older, better-educated adults are winning the savings game, reveals a January survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

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A cropped chart visualizing the percentage of respondents to the statement “I have money leftover at the end of the month” categorized by sentiment, age, and education qualifications.

Who Has Savings in This Economy?

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Two full years of inflation have taken their toll on American households. In 2023, the country’s collective credit card debt crossed $1 trillion for the first time. So who is managing to save money in the current economic environment?

We visualize the percentage of respondents to the statement “I have money leftover at the end of the month” categorized by age and education qualifications. Data is sourced from a National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) report, published last month.

The survey for NEFE was conducted from January 12-14, 2024, by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. It involved 1,222 adults aged 18+ and aimed to be representative of the U.S. population.

Older Americans Save More Than Their Younger Counterparts

General trends from this dataset indicate that as respondents get older, a higher percentage of them are able to save.

AgeAlways/OftenSometimesRarely/Never
18–2929%33%38%
30–4436%27%37%
45–5939%23%38%
Above 6049%28%23%
All Adults39%33%27%

Note: Percentages are rounded and may not sum to 100.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those aged 60+ are the age group with the highest percentage saying they have leftover money at the end of the month. This age group spent the most time making peak earnings in their careers, are more likely to have investments, and are more likely to have paid off major expenses like a mortgage or raising a family.

The Impact of Higher Education on Earnings and Savings

Based on this survey, higher education dramatically improves one’s ability to save. Shown in the table below, those with a bachelor’s degree or higher are three times more likely to have leftover money than those without a high school diploma.

EducationAlways/OftenSometimesRarely/Never
No HS Diploma18%26%56%
HS Diploma28%33%39%
Associate Degree33%31%36%
Bachelor/Higher Degree59%21%20%
All Adults39%33%27%

Note: Percentages are rounded and may not sum to 100.

As the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, earnings improve with every level of education completed.

For example, those with a high school diploma made 25% more than those without in 2022. And as the qualifications increase, the effects keep stacking.

Meanwhile, a Federal Reserve study also found that those with more education tended to make financial decisions that contributed to building wealth, of which the first step is to save.

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