Can Middle Class Get Ahead?

After years of struggling just to make ends meet, many Americans who describe themselves as middle class say they feel like they are barely hanging on, rather than getting ahead.

That’s no surprise, given the years of economic data showing just how hard it has been for many people in the middle of the income spectrum to improve their economic situation.

The latest evidence:  The U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday that the nation’s real median household income — or the midpoint of American income levels — was essentially unchanged in 2012 at $51,017. That compares with $51,100 in 2011, after adjusting for inflation.

Last year’s stagnation followed declines in 2011 and 2010. The latest data also showed that Americans at the midpoint of the income spectrum still aren’t doing as well as they were in 2007, the year the nation went into recession.

“The recovery’s just been awfully slow,” said Dennis Gilbert, a sociology professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., who studies class structure and income inequality.

In fact, after adjusting for inflation, median household income is back to where it was in 1996, said Richard Fry, a senior economist with Pew Research Center.

“There is a sense that in middle-income America … they’ve been treading water for 15 years,” Fry said.