Several weeks ago I mentioned the New York Times/CBS poll that found that 81 percent of Americans believe that "things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track" in this country. A few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center released a poll that goes deeper into the specifics, with some disheartening figures about how, well, disheartened Americans are these days. The poll that found that fewer Americans now than at any time in the past half century believe they're moving forward in life. A quarter of respondents said they don't feel as if they have moved forward in life in the past five years, and 31 percent feel they have moved backwards. It's not surprising; since 1999, middle-class Americans have not made economic gains.

The more interesting data in the study, though, is on those who consider themselves middle class. Forty percent of Americans with incomes below $20,000 say they are middle class, as well as a third of people with incomes above $150,000. That's a mighty big middle. There are also interesting race distinctions: 50 percent of African Americans, 54 percent of Latinos, and 53 percent of whites say they are middle class, but members of minority groups who classify themselves as middle class have far less income. For whites, the median income of those who self-identified as middle class was $56,295. For blacks, it was $46,849, and for Latinos, it was $39,363.

The racial disparities continue: though similar percentages of blacks and whites call themselves middle class, a third of African Americans identify as "lower class" -- compared to only 23 percent of white Americans. White Americans are also much more likely to to identify as "upper class" – 23 percent as compared to 15 percent of African Americans.

Indeed, both the actual disparities and the perception of those disparities are are shaped by longstanding inequality in this country. But what's most interesting is how strongly Americans of all races and incomes identify with the middle class, even in increasingly difficult times.

--Kate Sheppard