It's pretty well known that the middle class is shrinking in this country. Usually, when politicians cite the shrinking middle class, they are implying that most people are getting poorer - possibly that the "elite" are somehow actively campaigning to drain the middle class to turn more Americans into wage slaves. Both parties seem to use this rhetoric - Democrats use the shrinking middle class to justify additional spending on social programs. Republicans use the shrinking middle class to justify stances on taxes and immigration.
The issue has become intensely politicized, but let's take a look at some fundamental data and we may see something really interesting going on!
I am going to cite to this excellent article with regard to "How The Middle Class Is Shrinking." The author worked with an economist and identified approximately 1969 as the high point for the percentage of American population included in the middle class. The middle class is defined as those earning between $35,000-$99,000/year in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars. Admittedly, that's a pretty wide income spread, but it seems like it captures the middle class decently.
Here is the percentage of the population that fell in that income range over the previous years:
2009: 43.7 percent
2000: 45.6 percent
1990: 47.9 percent
1980: 49.3 percent
1969: 53 percent
As you can see, the total percentage of the population that falls in the middle class range has shrunk from 53%-43.7%, a difference of 9.3% of the population.
Our immediate assumption (and the assumption that most politicians push) is that that 9.3% (or at least the majority of it) has now fallen into the lower income brackets and is now destitute and in need of immediate help.
However, take a look at the percentage of households with income over $100K, adjusted for inflation:
2009: 20.1 percent
2000: 20.6 percent
1990: 15 percent
1980: 10.4 percent
1969: 7.6 percent
WOW! We note that the percentage of "high-income" households has risen from 7.6% of the population to 20.1% of the population - a difference of 12.5%!! That means that there are about TRIPLE the percentage of high income households now as there were in 1969.
Further we note that the increase in high income households (12.5%) is considerably larger than the decline in middle income households (9.3%). Now, I recognize that we are talking about percentages here and individual households can go up and down. However, based on these statistics we can see that the decline in the middle class is more than offset by an increase in the high income households. Thus, it would appear to be appropriate to say that the primary reason why the middle class is shrinking is that they are making more money and thus being reclassified as high income!
This would seem to put a whole new light on politician's promises to "restore the middle class" - Frankly, if they were to "restore" the relative percentages of the middle class, then a whole lot of people would have to be making a whole lot LESS money. For example, at least 12.5% of American households that are currently making more than $100K would have to have their income reduced below the $100K mark - considering that there are about 100M US households, that means that about 12.5 M households would have to see a significant reduction in their income to "restore the middle class."
Consequently, when you hear a politician talking about "restoring the middle class," he or she is really not talking about making people richer - they are talking about making 12.5% of US households poorer. That sounds to me like more of a threat than a promise.