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Middle-class Americans are falling behind

A version of this story first appeared in CNN Business’ Before the Bell newsletter. Not a subscriber? You can sign up right here. You can listen to an audio version of the newsletter by clicking the same link.

New York CNN —

America’s middle class is feeling the heat from sky-high interest rates and persistent inflation.

Middle-class income growth has lagged behind that of the upper class since 1970, according to a Pew Research Center report published May 31. The report defines middle-income households as having incomes that are two-thirds to twice that of the US median household income. The income figures are adjusted for household size.

Now, the cost-of-living crisis is exacerbating that long-term squeeze.

“The economy is booming, and yet many Americans are still gasping for air financially. They simply don’t have the breathing room to plan beyond their present needs,” said Jennifer Jones Austin, co-chair of the National True Cost of Living Coalition, in a release.

There are signs that middle-class Americans are dialing back their spending. Fast food joints, a mainstay dining destination for middle-income consumers, areleaning into discounts to placate frustrated diners. That comes after restaurants raised their menu prices as inflation soared, betting that customers would still be willing to spend. But that wager soured as diners tightened their purse strings, leading to less foot traffic and lower sales for fast food chains.

Target, which has a core middle-class customer base, reported in May that sales at stores open for at least a year dropped 3.7% during its latest quarter from the prior year. That marked its fourth consecutive quarter of sales declines. Kohl’s that same month reported weak first-quarter