New data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that in 2017, the share of income earned by the middle 60 percent of households, by income, remained near record lows. In contrast, the share of the nation’s income going to high-income households has increased sharply over recent decades, and in 2017, it remained at record highs. A revitalized union movement could help reverse this decadeslong trend of growing inequality and a shrinking middle class.
The fate of the middle class is directly tied to the strength of American unions. Figure 1 shows how union membership rates have fallen over the past 50 years, along with the share of income that goes to the middle 60 percent of American households. In 1968, this group of households brought home 53.2 percent of national income. That same year, 28.2 percent of American workers were union members. As union membership rates began to slide downward, so too did the share of income accruing to the middle class. In 2017, just less than 11 percent of American workers were unionized, and the middle 60 percent of households now earn just 45.5 percent of national income, barely up from 45.4 percent in 2016, a record low share.
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Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project