Why Does the New York Times See Upward Income Mobility as a Tragedy?


Courtesy of Alan Vanneman (blogger, novelist, and film critic extraordinaire), comes word that The New York Times is horrified by the "shrinking middle class." The odd thing about the concern is that the Times' own research shows that fewer people are poor than they were 40-odd years ago and more people are rich.

In the late 1960s, writes the Times,

more than half of the households in the United States were squarely in the middle, earning, in today's dollars, $35,000 to $100,000 a year….

But since 2000, the middle-class share of households has continued to narrow.

So here are some of the charts accompanying the story:

NY Times

Vanneman writes:

If you actually read the article (closely) and look at the graphs, you'll notice that the percentage of American households with an income under $35,000 (in current dollars) fell from 40% in 1967 to 31% in 2000, before pushing back up to 35% in 2011 and then down to 34% in 2013. One can suspect that it's slid another percentage point, or even two, as of today. At the same time, the percentage of households with an income exceeding $100,000 a year rose from 7% in 1967 to a high of 25% in 2000 before sliding to 22% in 2013…. In very large part, the "shrinking" of the middle class (from 53% in 1967 to 43% in 2013) has been good news rather than bad.

But that, unsurprisingly, isn't good enough (or newsy enough) for the New York Times. The data the Times shows us show that, since 1969, the middle class has been shrinking because people have been moving up and out of the middle class even faster than formerly low-income people have been moving up and into it, which in fact is very good news. This long-term trend was pushed into reverse by the Great Contraction but is now being reversed again (back to "normal") as we slowly (too slowly) regain our economic health…. In the long run, the middle class has been shrinking because people are getting richer, not because they have been getting poorer.

Read his whole critique here.

Vanneman reading comports with data on income mobility from people such as the Manhattan Institute's Scott Winship. Formerly of Pew and Brookings, Winship has found no change over the past 40 years in the rates by which individuals move from one income quintile to another. He's not alone in that conclusion, either. Harvard's Raj Chetty, for instance, concludes (in the Wash Post's summary):

Children growing up in America today are just as likely — no more, no less — to climb the economic ladder as children born more than a half-century ago, a team of economists reported Thursday.

That's good news, of course, but it always seems to be a conclusion that is resisted mightily by the media. Part of the reason, I think, is simply dispositional—many journalists, even conservative ones—believe the world is always getting worse and falling farther and farther from a Golden Age that typically corresponds to a given journalist's childhood. And part of me thinks, a long the lines Vanneman suggests, that worsening economic conditions is simply a variation on the old "if it bleeds, it leads" formula. Who the hell wants to read about good news? Even the comics pages thrive on bad outcomes. And part of the reason is a lack of social and historical context. I'm always amazed at how few people I meet have much interest or knowledge in just how awful living standards even in recent times have been, and how quickly the ascent of most Americans (not all, but most) into a stuff-filled middle-class lifestyle has been. But surely anyone over 50 or so is more likely than not to be just one generation removed from the broad-based poverty that characterized the country prior to World War II.