* Wealth, standard of living drop for middle income group
* Middle class see more help from Obama than Romney
* Americans blame Congress, banks for their woes
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, Aug 22 The U.S. middle class has
shrunk drastically over the last 10 years as Americans' net
worth has plunged, wages declined and standards of living
slipped away, according to a report released on Wednesday.
Middle-income earners, long seen as the solid center of the
country, are pessimistic and place the blame squarely on U.S.
lawmakers, banks and big business, the findings by the Pew
Research Center showed.
"There's been a very steady, long-term shrinkage" in the
number of people in the middle class, said Paul Taylor,
executive vice president for nonpartisan research group.
"There's also less money in the middle."
Since 2001, median household income has fallen from $72,956
to $69,487 in 2010, the report said.
The median household net worth, which is the value of assets
minus debt, dropped from $129,582 to $93,150 over the same
10-year period, according to Pew, which analyzed U.S. data along
with its own survey of nearly 1,300 adults who consider
themselves middle class.
The center's snapshot comes in the midst of a close
presidential campaign that has become in part a referendum on
whether President Barack Obama's policies have helped Americans
as the nation struggles to recover from deep economic woes.
Republican rival Mitt Romney, a multimillionaire former
private equity executive who is one of the richest men ever to
run for president, has based his campaign on his pledge to build
jobs and boost the economy.
Pew's survey found more of the middle class support Obama's
policies than Romney's.
More than half (52 percent) of those polled said Obama's
policies would help the middle class in a second term, while 39
percent say they would not. Forty-two percent said Romney would
benefit middle income Americans if elected, while 40 percent say
his policies would not help, the survey showed.
That may not be surprising given that the poll also found
half the middle class adults polled leaned Democratic while 39
percent said they identified more with Republicans. Eleven
percent said they were not drawn to either political party.
Still, researchers said they found that "neither candidate
has sealed the deal with them, but that President Obama is in
somewhat better shape than his Republican challenger, Mitt
Polls have shown Obama with a growing lead over Romney.
A GROWING TREND
The plight of the middle class has become a bellwether of
the U.S. economy in the wake of the recent Great Recession that
officially ran from December 2007 to June 2009, ending just six
months into Obama's first term.
According to the poll, 62 percent of respondents said
Congress deserved "a lot" of the blame for the nation's economic
troubles over the past decade, while 29 percent blamed lawmakers
"a little." Banks and financial institutions as well as large
corporations were also largely at fault, respondents told Pew.
Various surveys have shown Americans - particularly women,
minorities, children and young adults - are still struggling
amid the slowest economic recovery since the 1980-81 period.
The shifting middle class over the last decade is just part
of a longer trend, Pew researchers said.
About half (51 percent) of U.S. adults fell into the middle
class in 2011 compared to 61 percent 1971, as more Americans
either moved into upper or lower income groups, the center said.
Over time, the wealthy have also seen their share of total
U.S. household income rise, it found. Upper income earners held
46 percent of the nation's household income in 2010 compared to
29 percent in 1970. In comparison, the middle class' share of
income fell to 45 percent from 62 percent over the same period,
and lower income earners share stayed flat at about 10 percent.
Most middle class adults polled last month also said it is
tougher to maintain their standard of living now than it was 10
years ago, Pew researchers said, even though respondents said
overall they felt better off than previous generations.
"Any way you slice it, every group in this society has over
the long-haul experienced rising prosperity," Taylor said in a
conference call. "But over the last decade they have not."
Pew's analysis is based on data from the Census Bureau as
well as the Federal Reserve Bank and is broadly in line with
separate reports from the two government entities that were
released in June.
According to the Census Bureau, household wealth declined by
35 percent to $66,740 between 2005 and 2010 as home values and
share prices plummeted. The Fed report showed median family net
worth plunged to $77,300 in 2010 from $126,400 in 2007.
For its report, Pew defined middle class as households with
incomes from $39,000 to $118,000, a range that is between
two-thirds and double the national median.
Its survey is based on telephone interviews from July 16 to
July 26 with 1,287 U.S. adults who identified as middle class
and has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.