The Middle Class Continues to Struggle as Union Density Remains Low
Workers’ incomes may finally be slightly above the level they were in 1999, but the share of income going to the middle class remains low. New data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the middle 60 percent of households, by income, took home just 45 percent of national income in 2018, basically unchanged from 2017, when they earned a record low 44.7 percent. In contrast, the share of income going to the highest-income households remains at a near record high. This decadeslong trend of growing inequality is closely related to the decline of American unions. As union membership rates dwindle, prospects for the middle 60 percent of American households shrink as well.
Figure 1 shows this trend. In 1967, when 28.3 percent of American workers belonged to a union, 52.3 percent of national income went to middle-class households. (see Figure 1) But over the past five decades, both those numbers have steadily declined. In 2018, just 10.6 percent of American workers were unionized, a record low, and only 45 percent of income accrued to the middle class—less than in 1967.
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Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project