The New York Times had a story the other day about how presidential candidates are avoiding the term "middle class" in favor of terms like "everyday Americans," "working families," etc. The idea was that they are trying to appeal to a growing group of people who think of themselves as a little below the middle (what Australians would call "battlers"). Leaving the question of whether candidates' language has changed, I wondered whether people's views about their position in society have changed. Since the 1970s, the General Social Survey has regularly asked "Compared with American families in general, would you say your family income is far below average, below average, average, above average, or far above average?" Over the whole period, 1.8% said they were far above average, 17.0% said above average, 45.5% said average, 22% below average, and 5% said far below average.
As an aside, I'll mention what's perhaps the most ridiculous claim about public opinion that I've ever heard, which was made by David Brooks in the New York Times and picked up by other media outlets: "the most telling polling result from the 2000 election was from a Time magazine survey that asked people if they are in the top 1 percent of earners. Nineteen percent of Americans say they are in the richest 1 percent and a further 20 percent expect to be someday." The figures were actually from a question about something else--whether people expected to benefit from George Bush's proposed tax cuts (it mentioned in passing that Al Gore had said the cuts would benefit mostly the top one percent).
Returning to the main point, if we count far below average as 1, below average as 2 ... far above average as 5, the means are:
Something really has happened: Average perception had gone up and down with no clear trend, but since 2006 has dropped to its lowest levels ever. Looking at the distribution of individual responses, there seems to have been some shift even before then. In the 1970s, less than 5% said far below average, less than 2% said far above average, and about 55% said average. By the early 2000s, about 6% said far below, about 3% far above, and less than half said average. The last few years have seen a shift from average to below average.