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The ‘Missing Middle’ in American Life: Can We Get It Back?

A term that once referred only to housing now encompasses everything from politics to economic life to the disappearance of community. But the center is still out there somewhere.

An automobile assembly line in Kenosha, Wis., in the 1950s. The loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs since then is just one symbol of the hollowing out of the middle class. (Alden Jewell/Flickr Commons)
In the lexicon of urban thought, ideas tend to mutate so thoroughly that before long it’s not clear what they mean at all, if anything. In the 1980s, “yuppies” made up a definable category of young city dwellers with education, good jobs and an attraction to a high-spending consumerist existence. Yuppies were replaced by “hipsters,” a term that had a precise meaning in the 1950s but by the 21st century seemed to apply to almost anybody under 40 who lived in Brooklyn, or anyplace remotely like it.

But the attenuation of once-definable terms doesn’t just apply to descriptions of people. “Gentrification,” coined in the 1960s as a pretty straightforward description of neighborhoods that had simply become more affluent, has morphed into a taboo word that refers pejoratively to any negative consequence of neighborhood change. It’s something you may not want to defend in polite company.

Now we are witnessing, almost at warp speed, the dilution of “missing middle” into a concept used loosely to describe a whole variety of urban conditions. When first introduced a few years ago, it was a relatively clear reference to the absence of moderately priced housing in an urban or suburban setting. But it soon came to mean not just the absence of low- or moderate-income residents but the pricing out of families with children, regardless of income, from changing neighborhoods. Then we started to talk about the missing middle as a lack of racial and economic diversity. Now it is sometimes used to refer to the disappearance of the sense of community and consensus that used to derive from the presence of the middle class in comfortable cities and suburbs.

There’s some truth in each of these characterizations. We might be able to forestall the eventual meaninglessness of “missing middle” by trying not to use it at all. But I would suggest something entirely different: the recognition that the term refers to a much broader problem that prevails throughout present-day American life, one that extends far beyond the realm of housing.

It isn’t just the absence of the middle class from increasingly unaffordable neighborhoods — it’s the erosion of the middle class altogether. We have all heard about this; a raft of statistics can be used to flesh it out. A study conducted this spring by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that, using income as a standard of measurement, the middle class had shrunk from 61 percent of Americans in 1971 to 50 percent in 2020. In 1970, Pew reported, adults in middle-income households accounted for 62 percent of aggregate income. In 2020, the corresponding number was 42 percent. During that half-century, the share of U.S. adults identified as upper income rose from 14 percent to 21 percent, while the lower-income share rose from 25 percent to 29 percent. It is the middle class that has gradually been hollowed out, as I am far from the first person to recognize. We might broaden “missing middle” as applied to economic life and call it the decline of the center.

Virtually everyone in the country understands this. It has meant a multitude of changes in everyday life, with perhaps the most iconic victims being the blue-collar residents of Rust Belt cities and towns who have lost well-paying factory jobs and are working for much smaller compensation in relatively menial service employment, or are out of the workforce altogether. It is just one symbol of a hollowed-out middle class; there are many others. But it is as much a “missing middle” phenomenon as anything that has happened in the field of housing.

JUST AS THE CENTER, OR THE MIDDLE, HAS ERODED in housing and income, it has eroded in politics as well. When I was covering Congress a generation ago, there was an identifiable center that determined the outcome of most close votes. The center was made up of pragmatic conservative Democrats, most of them from southern states, and moderate Republicans, largely representing districts in the suburban Northeast and Midwest and open to working across the aisle to get what they wanted. Now both of these blocs are almost entirely gone. Democrats and Republicans are deeply ideological, highly partisan and out of ordinary contact with each other. Another recent Pew Research survey found that the number of members of Congress it labeled as moderate had declined from 160 in 1971 to about two dozen in 2020.

The same transition is painfully obvious at the presidential level. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter won the presidency in a close vote, the margin in most states was narrow. Carter got at least 40 percent in all but six of them. In other words, there was a center. Both candidates stayed pretty close to it. In 2020, when Joe Biden won a close election, he wasn’t even competitive in nearly half the states. Just about every state was deep red or deep blue. The political middle had all but disappeared.

It is difficult for a presidential candidate in either party to campaign in the middle these days and get anywhere. The abysmal failure of Michael Bloomberg’s bid for the Democratic nomination in 2020, a venture that cost him more than a billion dollars, is only one piece of evidence for that.

It is almost as difficult for presidents to govern from the center. This has been true for a long time. Carter’s failed presidency is Exhibit A. No president has really attempted anything similar in the decades since then. Bill Clinton’s highly publicized triangulation in 1995 and 1996 is cited as an example of successful centrism, but in the end it is not a very convincing one. Clinton was a conventional liberal Democrat who took a few steps to the center to get himself re-elected, but it is a mistake to view him as a consistent centrist. Barack Obama made well-meaning attempts to work with Republicans when he got to the White House in 2009, but he soon found it was a waste of time.

Every presidential election year brings explorations of a moderate third-party insurgency, and no doubt there will be one in 2024, but they never proceed very far. There is a good reason for that. They have no significant constituency, even among voters disillusioned with the current polarization. Every reputable poll demonstrates that.

There is also a missing middle in journalism, and perhaps a bit less obviously, in popular culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, the three television networks, the major national newspapers and local media were a centralizing force in establishing public opinion and societal values. Walter Cronkite, the iconic CBS anchorman, was at the center of the center. When Cronkite came out against the Vietnam War in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have remarked that when he lost Cronkite, he had lost the country. Johnson may or may not have said that, but there is no question that Cronkite’s centrist authority was crucial in turning the American people against the Asian war.

IF THE MIDDLE HAS BEEN DISAPPEARING from American society over the last half-century and more, it is fair to ask when and where it actually existed. At the risk of alienating some readers, I think one has to consider the 1950s. I have no intention of minimizing the inequalities and discrimination that existed in that decade, but the fact remains that America had a societal middle that began to erode not long afterward.

In the 1950s, the gap in income and wealth between the affluent and the working and middle classes was many orders of magnitude smaller than it is today. The difference between the paychecks of corporate executives and those of their mid-level employees was tiny compared to what prevails now. “The rich,” Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “are very different from you and me.” There may be some truth to this, but it was far less in 1957 than it is in 2022. The middle-dominated American society of those years was presided over by a president who not only practiced centrism in his policies, but believed in it sincerely as a public good.

For all the inequities of the Eisenhower decade, it contained a middle that provided an umbrella of continuity and stability for those who lived under it. That middle is now missing. This is much more than a housing issue, and it is much more deeply rooted and intractable. It’s no small irony that as most of the world is growing its middle class and severe poverty is declining even in the Third World, our own middle is shrinking and our center is eroding away. Is there anything practical that we can do about it?

Well, there certainly are a few things that will help. We need to build a lot more housing, big apartment buildings along commercial corridors more than the duplexes in residential neighborhoods that we keep arguing about. We need to find a way to make sure that wages don’t continue to erode in real terms as they did for decades after the mid-1970s. We can make moves to jump-start domestic manufacturing. But more cosmically, we need to accept that we are living in an era of broad social polarization. These don’t last forever. This country endured one in the late 19th century, and it was in large part ameliorated by the Progressive Era, the Depression and World War II. If history is any guide, this one will eventually soften up as well, though it may take some societal crises along the way. The missing middle is out there somewhere. One day we are likely to find it.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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