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This One Statistic Shows Why Middle-Tier Retailers Are Flailing

Hayley Peterson
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Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Household spending rose in the fourth quarter at the fastest pace in three years, and yet dozens of retailers have recently reported declining sales and planned store closures. 

So where's the disconnect?

The retailers that are struggling are those serving the middle class, including Sears, JCPenney and Macy's.  Meanwhile, top-tier retailers, as well as many discounters, are enjoying a robust recovery. 

A statistic published Sunday by The New York Times puts this trend into perspective. 

According to The Times' data, since 2009, inflation-adjusted spending by the top 5% of earners in the U.S. has risen 17%, compared with just 1% among the bottom 95% of earners.

"As politicians and pundits in Washington continue to spar over whether economic inequality is in fact deepening, in corporate America there really is no debate at all," T he Times' Nelson D. Schwartz wrote of the data . "The post-recession reality is that the customer base for businesses that appeal to the middle class is shrinking as the top tier pulls even further away."

Spending by the top 5% of earners now accounts for nearly 40% of personal consumption expenditures, which is up from 27% in 1992, according to the report.

The Times data is from research by economists Steven Fazzari of Washington University in St. Louis and Barry Cynamon of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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