Middle class shrinks to barely half of U.S. adults

Meredith Reilly, a 37-year-old social worker in New Jersey, used to think of herself as middle class.

"It was the good life. It was wonderful. And now if I don't go to work, I don't get paid."

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Meredith Reilly is a single mother of two trying to make ends meet CBS News

Her county job, which paid about $50,000 a year, was eliminated in the recession. A single mother of two, Reilly now works three part-time jobs and makes less money.

"I think the toughest part is not preparing a future for my children that my parents prepared for me."

Barely half of adults are now middle-income earners, defined as a household making between $42,000 and $126,000 annually. The percentage has been falling steadily since 1971.

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Richard Fry, who co-authored a new Pew research study, says that as the middle class has hollowed out, the upper income bracket has grown from 14 to 21 percent of Americans. That "upper class" now takes home nearly half of all annual income in the United States -- 49 percent, up from 29 percent in 1970.

"It's not that the middle Americans are worse off, it's that they're falling behind relative to upper income adults," Fry explained.

The lower income tier has also grown from 16 to 20 percent since 1971. Reilly has been among them since she was laid off. She has a college degree and a masters, but little hope.

"I just don't feel like the jobs are out there that are gonna put me back to where I was," said Reilly.

The great recession hit the middle class especially hard. Their median wealth fell by 28 percent between 2001 and 2013.

  • Anthony Mason
    Anthony Mason

    CBS News senior business and economics correspondent; Co-host, "CBS This Morning: Saturday"