As Economy Takes Toll, More Americans Identify as 'Lower Class'

Monday, 16 Sep 2013 01:45 PM

By Courtney Coren

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More Americans now view themselves as "lower class" citizens than at any time in the last forty years, marking a growing trend among those who have suffered from the stagnant economy, a survey finds.

According to an ongoing project by the independent research organization Norc at the University of Chicago, 8.4 percent of Americans said they identify themselves as lower class, which is the highest number since the survey began in 1972.

During the recent economic recession unemployment surged and millions of homes were foreclosed on as more and more Americans slipped into poverty, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing what's known as the Norc General Social Survey.

The newspaper noted that social activists and researchers were surprised by the rising number of people who now label themselves lower class, even given the struggling economy, which has never been a factor in the past. In 1983 and 1993, for example, when poverty rates were just as high as they are now, far fewer Americans identified as lower class, the Norc researchers noted.

Michael Zweig, director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at Stony Brook University, told the Times that one difference now compared to previous decades is the feeling more people have "that things are not likely to get better any time soon."

Another contributing factor is the difference in the gap between the rich and poor is widening. More than one half of nationwide income currently goes to the richest 10 percent of Americans — the largest share in almost a century.

As gaps begin to widen between the rich and the poor, people tend to see themselves as worse off, noted Robert Anderson, a social science professor at the University of Toronto.

In the last General Social Survey published by Norc last year, researchers found that fewer than 55 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that "people like me and my family have a good chance of improving our standard of living" — the lowest percentage since the question was first asked in 1987.

Americans have traditionally identified themselves as "middle class" or "working class." In fact, so few Americans referred to themselves as lower class that those that did were usually just combined by scholars into the working class category.

Most people used to consider the term demeaning, but not today, said Michaelann Bewsee, co-founder of Arise for Social Justice, a low-income rights group based in Massachusetts.

"They're just reflecting their economic reality," she told The Times.

There was a time when mostly the unemployed identified themselves as lower class, but now it's also those who work part-time or have been forced to settle for jobs that provide fewer hours and lower pay.

"It's not surprising if the American worker is thinking, 'I'm working harder than I've ever worked, I'm being paid less — and I'm working two or maybe three jobs,'" said Lola Smallwood Cuevas, project director of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center. "It creates a feeling that you're trapped."

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