updated 4/9/2008 7:34:39 PM ET 2008-04-09T23:34:39

Growing numbers of middle-class Americans say they are not better off than they were five years ago, reflecting economic pressures amid growing debt, a study released Wednesday shows. Their short-term assessments of personal progress, according to the study, is the worst it has been in almost half a century.

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The survey by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based research organization, paints a mixed picture for the 53 percent of adults in the country who define themselves as "middle class," with household incomes ranging from below $40,000 to more than $100,000.

It found that a majority of Americans said they have not progressed in the past five years. One in four, or 25 percent, said their economic situation had not improved, while 31 percent said they had fallen backward. Those numbers together are the highest since the survey question was first asked in 1964. Among the middle class, 54 percent said they had made no progress (26 percent) or fallen back (28 percent).

Middle-class prosperity also lagged compared with richer Americans. From 1983 to 2004, the median net worth of upper-income families — defined as households with annual incomes above 150 percent of the median — grew by 123 percent, while the median net worth of middle-income families rose by just 29 percent.

At the same time, most middle-class people remained upbeat when asked to measure their progress over a longer period, although their level of optimism lagged behind their richer counterparts. Two-thirds, or 67 percent, of middle-class Americans say their standard of living was better than the one their parents had at the age they are now.

In contrast, 80 percent of richer people said they exceeded their parents' standard of living. Among the lower class, only 49 percent reported better conditions.

"It's been a lousy run for the American economy, and people feel it," said Paul Taylor, director of Pew's Social & Demographic Trends project and lead author of the study. He noted that people's pessimism largely tracks annual median household income, which has seen little gain in recent years. Middle-class people also may be disproportionately feeling the pinch because they tend to borrow more heavily against their homes to support their standards of living, Taylor said.

"Still, over a span of a generation, it's been a pretty good run, even as there are some recent pressures that I think people are feeling," he said.

The Pew poll involved telephone interviews with 2,413 adults, conducted from Jan. 24 to Feb. 19. The margin of sampling error was 3 percentage points.

Among the other findings:

  • Nearly eight in 10 of all people, or 79 percent, said they believe it has become more difficult compared with five years ago for the middle class to maintain their standards of living, up from 65 percent in 1986.
  • Among the middle class, no consensus existed on who was to blame for their economic problems. Twenty-six percent blamed the government, while 15 percent faulted the price of oil and 11 percent said the people themselves were responsible. Others faulted foreign competition and private corporations for economic woes.
  • Some demographic groups have improved their income status between 1970 and 2006, while others saw declines. Among the winners were seniors ages 65 and older, blacks, native-born Hispanics and married adults. Losers included young adults (ages 18 to 29), the unmarried, foreign-born Hispanics and people with a high-school education or less.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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