Middle class Americans have one thing on their minds as 2023 ends and the country prepares to enter an election year: the economy. More specifically, their own personal finances.
More than their families, work pressures, health care costs, or politics, the top concern for 39% of Americans making $50,000 to $150,000 was money, according to a survey published Tuesday by investing app Stash. Survey respondents had to work at least 30 hours weekly and self-identify as either “hard-working,” “industrious,” “ambitious,” or “self-made.”
The notion that people prioritize their own financial status over any other political or social issue was immortalized in the well-known quip by former political strategist James Carville, who said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The line, which he said while working on President Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992, became a staple of American politics, meant to remind political candidates to focus on voters’ financial well-being above all else.
Only 4% of respondents said political and social issues were their top concern. The survey was conducted over two weeks in October, when the country was consumed by various political crises. The House lacked a speaker at the time because of Kevin McCarthy’s ouster and the war between Israel and Hamas erupted, which risked dragging the U.S. into another foreign policy quagmire.
The apparent strength of the U.S. economy, after the Fed had reduced the runaway inflation of 2022 without increasing unemployment, did little to assuage the fears of many respondents. Sixty-one percent said they were very concerned about the economy. But the growing number of positive economic signs created some optimism. Thirty-five percent said they thought the economy would improve over the next few months.
“People are both uneasy about the economy now, even though consumer sentiment ticked up this month, while being optimistic about the future for themselves and their families,” Sarah Spagnolo, Stash’s managing editor and head of brand, told Fortune. “While the data doesn’t speak to this, one might infer that the stabilizing of prices and inflation, and possibly lower interest rates in the future, are helping to shift consumer sentiment. Prices rose so quickly, it’s also possible that people simply need time to adjust and recalibrate.”
That sentiment is starting to become more widespread among major financial institutions as well, after a year and a half of fears a recession was imminent. In October, the U.S. economy grew at its fastest rate in two years, signaling if not outright strength, at least significant resilience.
Even those rosy forecasts did little to dampen the concerns among the most middle class Americans. Millennials and Gen X remained particularly worried about the economy, with 57% and 71% respectively saying they were pessimistic about it improving in the coming months. “Both groups are likely burdened with tremendous family and personal responsibilities,” Spagnolo said.
Gen X reported having their finances consumed by credit card debt and the need to save for retirement. Millennials, on the other hand, faced the same financial challenges while adding that they also had to take care of aging relatives and save for the elusive dream of buying a home.
As middle class Americans fret over their own finances, they’re well aware of those who are better off than they are. Overwhelmingly, middle class Americans thought about the wealthy. Eighty-nine percent of respondents reported spending some time thinking about how rich people earn a living. For younger generations, like millennials and Gen Z, that number was even higher—a practically unanimous 95% said they thought about the topic. That trend might not be entirely surprising as middle class households saw their median income grow slower than that of upper income households over the past 50 years. As a result of these trends, the income gap between the two is larger than it has been in decades. Today a household in the top 1% earns at least $650,000 annually, or four to 13 times what the people surveyed make a year.
Spagnolo argues the reason people are preoccupied with the wealthy is because they hope to emulate them. “Money is something we know people have a lot of anxiety about, and they want ways to lessen that anxiety and to achieve the success they see in other people,” she said.