Can you remember when you first heard about America's endangered middle class?

I can. It was in the 1970s. Double-digit inflation was eroding the average U.S. family's income, and double-digit mortgage rates were making it tough to afford a home.

Just as we baby boomers were entering the workforce and starting families, gloomy pundits were telling us to forget about ever living as well as our parents.

An awful lot has changed since then - but America's middle class is still endangered.

Incomes are flat, benefits are shrinking, families are mired in debt, more and more struggle just to get by.

You've undoubtedly heard this many times; if not, just ask any blogger, talk-show host, or presidential candidate.

Only one problem: It might not be true.

According to a new analysis by a group called Third Way, the American middle class is in better shape than many believe.

Take incomes. Official statistics say that median household income in 2005 was $46,326.

That doesn't seem like much, particularly for a family with kids. If you imagine half of all such families trying to get by on less than that (median means half earn less, half more), it sounds fairly grim.

But as the Third Way paper points out, that median doesn't just include stereotypical nuclear families. It includes everyone - including single people in their early 20s and retirees living off pensions and Social Security, who together make up a third of U.S. households.

Narrow the sample to households headed by people between ages 25 and 60 and the median income is much higher. In 2005, it was $61,269.

For married couples the median is higher still - $72,216. And among couples who both work outside the home, the 2005 median income was $81,365.

Third Way, which is affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, also takes issue with the notion that today's middle class is less economically secure.

Some analysts say incomes today are increasingly volatile, with more families seeing big swings in their earnings from year to year.

But the reason isn't layoffs or outsourcing, according to the Third Way paper. It's motherhood.

When women leave the workforce to have babies, their families' incomes drop. When moms go back to work, incomes rise. This didn't happen as much when fewer women worked, so it shows up in the statistics as increased income volatility.

In the real world, economic growth has brought benefits to nearly everyone. After adjusting for inflation, families in the middle class earn about 22 percent more than they did in the mid-1970s, the paper says.

True, that growth has been uneven. The distance between the very rich and the average U.S. family is much greater today than it was two or three decades ago. And that's a legitimate issue to bring up and debate.

But it doesn't mean those in the middle are losing ground.

If the Third Way paper is correct, it's a mistake to link Americans' economic anxieties to the outsized gains of those at the top. And it would be a bigger mistake to think that blocking trade or undoing globalization will help the middle class.

The Third Way group takes aim at those it calls "neopopulists" - advocates and politicians, mainly from the left, who think global capitalism must be tamed and regulated to protect working Americans from running a "race to the bottom."

But the paper also criticizes conservatives who deny government has a role in making economic growth fair and sustainable.

Government has a major part to play, they argue - protecting rights, maintaining fair markets, investing in health, education and research and assuring opportunity to everyone.

"Middle-class anxiety does not stem from broad dissatisfaction with capitalism," the authors write, "but from the shifting terrain beneath their feet and the increasing irrelevance of an outdated government."