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Central Standard

Shrinking Middle Class Paints Difficult Picture For Kansas City, Nation

Ford Motor Company
Wikimedia Commons

The middle class is seemingly ever-present in American politics and ideals. President Obama pushed for what he calls "middle class economics" in his State of the Union address, and according to a Pew research study in 2012, nearly half of all Americans identified themselves as being part of the middle class.

Some even refer to themselves as middle class despite making as much as $300,000 a year, while others may claim to be middle class but struggle to pay for basic needs. So what is the middle class and how do Kansas Citians factor into it?

First, defining what the middle class is can be tricky. Jeff Pinkerton of the Mid-America Regional Council says he defines middle class by a Pew Research study that classifies anyone who makes 67 to 200 percent of the median household income for a metropolitan area as part of the middle class.

Credit Jeff Pinkerton / MARC
Between 2000 and 2013, many of Kansas City's suburban households took big hits to income, while some made more money.

For Kansas City, the median household income is $56,248, which would put anyone who makes $37,686- $112,496 a year in the middle class.

Kansas Citians seemed to agree with that broad definition, which would put people who are potentially struggling to pay for basic needs and those who can afford luxury vacations and goods in the same category:

In her 2013 article "Kansas Bleeds the Middle Class," New America fellow Monica Potts looked at rising poverty in Kansas City's suburbs. When Kansas City, Kansas was taken out of the equation, poverty levels rose by 134 percent since the recession.

Potts says much of that is due to the income disparity within the middle class itself, which breeds a mindset of spending that might be unrealistic.

"People actually stretch to try to afford the things that make them feel middle-class, even if they're not really within their budget," Potts said. "So they might go into debt or buy a car where the monthly payments aren't reasonable just to feel middle-class."

Pinkerton says that bad spending habits combined with wage stagnation and a general lack of job growth create hard conditions for middle-class workers in the metro area. 

"You used to be able to get a job at a manufacturing plant and you could work your way into the middle class very easily," Pinkerton said. "Those days are really gone. The jobs we're adding a lot of in the region, and in the nation, are skewed towards lower paying jobs and higher paying jobs."

Pinkerton says that with shrinking middle-class job numbers, higher education becomes crucially important for individuals to compete for higher paying jobs. But Potts says even getting an education to rise into the middle class has become a risk that many can't afford to take.

"In the same period where we've seen middle-class incomes shrink, we've also seen risk shift more toward the individual," Potts said. "In the 1960s and 70s, in many states, higher education was almost free, and now it's much more [expensive] than it used to be."

Central Standard economyjobsmoney
Cody Newill is part of KCUR's audience development team. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill or email him at cody@kcur.org.