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The drumbeat has been steady for months: State Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) and other Democrats in the Legislature have repeatedly said that Wisconsin has the "most diminished middle class" in the United States.
"We have the most diminished middle class in the entire country," Barca said at a Capitol news conference in response to Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017 "state of the state" speech. "Let me say that again: We have the most diminished middle class in the entire country."
Barca later added: "We believe we should be focused on the most diminished middle class in the country."
Other Assembly members have echoed the line. State Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) said in a December radio address that Wisconsin "is still home to the most diminished middle class in the country." The same month, state Rep. Leon Young (D-Milwaukee) wrote that Wisconsin "has the dubious distinction of having the most diminished middle class in the country."
That repeated assertion piqued our interest. So we investigated: Does Wisconsin really have the "most diminished middle class" in the United States?
New data, different outcome
We asked Barca for evidence to support his claim that Wisconsin has the "most diminished middle class" in the country. A spokeswoman pointed to a 2015 analysis by the Pew Research Center — a nonpartisan research organization — that showed middle class households in Wisconsin shrank the most of any state between 2000 and 2013.
The analysis found that in 2000, an estimated 54.6 percent of households in Wisconsin were considered middle class. By 2013, that figure fell to 48.9 percent, a 5.7 percentage point drop and the largest decline of any state, according to Pew.
To conduct that analysis, Pew used data from the American Community Survey, a national survey administered by the U.S. Census Bureau as well as IPUMS-USA data compiled by the University of Minnesota. Pew defined "middle class" as those households earning between 67 percent and 200 percent of the state’s median income.
But here’s the problem: Pew’s analysis only went through 2013, and more recent numbers are available. So we performed the same analysis as Pew but included data for the latest year available, 2015.
We found that in 2015, an estimated 50.1 percent of households in Wisconsin were considered middle class by Pew’s standards. That’s 4.5 percentage points smaller compared to 2000, when an estimated 54.6 percent of households in the state were considered middle class.
It was the 10th steepest decline in percentage of middle class households between 2000 and 2015 of any state, with Nevada’s drop the most significant at 5.6 percentage points.
So, by the latest numbers, Barca is not correct.
What’s behind the numbers?
Wisconsin was one of 18 states where the share of middle-class households grew slightly from 2010 to 2015. In that time period, the percentage of households in Wisconsin considered middle class increased to 50.1 percent — a 0.7 point gain. Overall in 2015, Wisconsin ranked fifth in the nation in percentage of households that were middle class.
Thus, while Wisconsin had the biggest decline of middle class households between 2000 and 2013, its performance in recent years shifts the outcome.
Barca said Wisconsin has "the most diminished middle class" in the United States.
An analysis by a respected, nonpartisan research organization found the percentage of middle class households in Wisconsin declined the most of any state between 2000 and 2013. But in the latest version of that analysis — comparing the years 2000 and 2015 — middle class households in Wisconsin did not shrink the most of any state.
We rate the claim False.
Rep. Peter Barca, "Rep. Barca: Statement on special session," Jan. 5, 2017
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Gov. Scott Walker takes actions on heroin addiction," Jan. 5, 2017
Wisconsin Public Television, "State Assembly Leaders Preview Upcoming Session," Nov. 18, 2016
WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio, "Could Doing Away With Wisconsin's Prevailing Wage Fix The Transportation Budget?," Dec. 5, 2016
Rep. David Bowen, "Rep. Bowen: Democratic weekly radio address: ‘Happy holidays, Wisconsin’," Dec. 22, 2016
Wisconsin Assembly Democrats, "Democratic Weekly Radio Address 'Happy Holidays, Wisconsin!'" Dec. 16, 2016
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Walker promises to lower UW tuition, touts tax cuts," Jan. 10, 2017
Rep. Leon Young, "A Depressing Sign of the Times," Dec. 10, 2016
Stateline, "The Shrinking Middle Class, Mapped State by State," March 19, 2015
Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, University of Minnesota, last accessed Jan. 11, 2017
Email exchange, Rep. Peter Barca staff, Dec. 12-14, 2016
Email exchange, Rep. David Bowen staff, Jan. 9, 2017
Email to Rep. Leon Young, Jan. 9, 2017
Rep. Peter Barca, "Rep. Peter Barca Response to the State of the State," Jan. 10, 2017
PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Rachel Maddow says under Scott Walker middle class in Wisconsin is shrinking fastest among states," Aug. 24, 2015
U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, median household income
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