Keeping Up With the Romneys

How is it possible for somebody to earn $100,000 and still feel poor? A friend of mine posted this article, “How to Earn $100,000 and Still Feel Poor,” on Facebook, and I, like many people, was instantly offended. The woman in the article makes more than twice what I do, and she is complaining about how poor she is? Are you kidding me?

Nope, not kidding. She makes a lot of money. She feels poor. “We don’t sip Mai Tai cocktails at resorts or buy pricey tech toys,” she says. Her son had to get a job and might have to take out loans for graduate school. “I may never have money to burn, but I hope to have a chance to enjoy something before the tax man takes his cut.”

Rich and Poor
Image courtesy of Of all places.

My first reaction, and my gut reaction now, is one of disbelief. Oh, poor baby. Your son might have to do what 56% of all four-year students do and invest in himself. My family, on the other hand, maintains a crushing student loan debt that is more than twice our yearly salary. You don’t have money to burn, but you can buy your son a new car so that he can get a job. My family, on the other hand, survives with one car, requiring all sorts of superhuman juggling acts to get the kid anywhere while maintaining my full-time job and my husband’s full-time schooling. Your 1,800-square-foot house, which you had built, could be so much bigger and more luxurious. My family, on the other hand, lives in an 800-square-foot one-bedroom apartment.

Friends quickly chimed in, saying that while the article was somewhat blind to what it means to be rich and what it means to be poor, they knew people who pulled in big salaries but, like the author, spent tens of thousands of dollars on their children’s educations or had medical bills that ate away what sounds like wealth to the rest of us. Whatever your income, you end up spending it. Yes, I agreed. But this is a stunning example of ignorance to privilege. It’s a privilege to be able to send your children to school debt free. It is a luxury to be ahead of payments on your built-to-order house. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be able to put money away for retirement.

The thing is, while I pointed out all of the ways that I am poor just a few paragraphs ago, I really don’t feel poor. We have a car. We live in a nice apartment and can afford to have a dog. When we get sick, we go to the doctor. I haven’t been able to justify buying contact lenses for years, but glasses do the trick. And the things that this woman does that I can’t do, those are things that I see as luxuries. Maybe some day we will have enough money for a second car or to live in a place where the baby doesn’t have to sleep in the closet.

And it’s at this point that a friend of mine set me straight.

My family earns twice the federal poverty level, and yet we are not thriving, according to middle class norms. Reuters discusses a report on the middle class, headed by Vice President Joe Biden,  which defines “typical middle class aspirations as ‘home ownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security, and occasional family vacations.'”

In that same article, we see that “the middle class would be the sixty percent of Americans with household incomes from $20,001 to $100,065 a year.”

Economically, I am squarely in the middle class, and the author of the article above is at the top end of middle class. What her article is saying is that after their home, their cars (arguably necessary for employment), their children’s education, health, and 10% of savings toward retirement, they are strapped. So, economically as well as materially, she meets the definition of middle class. But not by a lot.

My family, on the other hand, which is most definitely middle class economically, falls far short of what we expect middle class to be materially. We rent a small apartment that, according to public housing standards, is over-occupied. We do have a car. One. We cannot afford to buy another one, which means we cannot afford for my husband to get a job outside the home (which we couldn’t afford anyway because of childcare). We have not been able to put anything away for our daughter’s education, we are paying several $25-a-month bills for past medical situations, we can’t afford to put anything into retirement. Frankly speaking, every month we rob Peter to pay Paul and either barely pay the bills or add to credit card debt. We have no cable TV, no home telephone, we cook cheap food for ourselves at home. The one thing that we could cut out is gymnastics class for Sofia, because she has no chance to socialize with kids otherwise; if we end up in credit card debt over that, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

But the point of this is not to out-poor the woman in the article. Instead, it’s an opportunity to look at what it means to be middle class, and what it really means to be middle class. According to the lifestyle criteria, she is middle class. I am not. And yet there are people who make half as much as I do that still supposedly qualify, economically, as middle class. For them, several things that I consider necessities (internet access, a washing machine, a pet) are probably luxuries.

How is this okay? Instead of looking at an article and saying “Wow, she’s really selfish and greedy,” why not look at what we think the average person in America deserves? I didn’t realize it, but I think of college education as a luxury, and when I read that the author was paying for her children’s education, my immediate thought was, “Well, she’s rich.” But should it be this way? Should education be something that is only affordable to the wealthy, and the rest of the population should be put into crippling debt in order to achieve it? Should I be angry that somebody has the money to build a house? Isn’t that what the American Dream is supposed to be about?

Americans are materialistic, it’s true. And we’ve gotten used to a standard of living that is beyond what most of the world is accustomed to. At the same time, there is a lot of money in this country, and the insanely wealthy just keep getting even more insanely wealthy, while what used to qualify as middle class is full of stress and doubts. From the New York Times: “From 1993 to 2010, the incomes of the richest 1 percent of Americans grew 58 percent while the rest had a 6.4 percent bump.”

Rich get richer
99% of the people are fighting over scraps, while the very few at the very top keep making more and more (image via NYTimes).

Slowly, the idea of the middle class is eroding. I have a PhD, and yet I can’t afford a texting plan on my $10 phone. I went to an Ivy League college, and my daughter is sleeping in a closet. And the thing that really makes me feel like I’m not middle class is that we don’t have a cushion. Another medical bill, and we are screwed. If I lose my job, that’s it, we’re moving in with my parents. That day.

And still, my initial reaction when I see an article like the one posted above is to be angry that the author isn’t grateful for what she has, that she should stop complaining. I feel like her complaints make my life more invisible, just as my complaints make those below me on the income bracket more invisible.

Which is how they win. While we are bickering about whether $85,000 is rich or $20,000 is middle class or $51,399 is the amount you need to feel secure, while we are pointing fingers at each other and talking about how petty one group is or ignoring another, we aren’t looking at the real problem. Why shouldn’t everybody be able to afford to send their kid to college? Why shouldn’t everybody be able to afford medical emergencies? Why am I not furious that Mitt Romney has a 3,600-square-foot basement that he’s renovating while paying an incredibly low income tax, and instead, I get worked up about somebody who is living proof that housing, education, and health care are eating up the incomes of the middle class to the point where none of us are ever going to feel secure?

In Mockingjay, Haymitch tells Katniss to remember who the real enemy is. The real enemy is not the person who is at the top of the income class that you are in the center of. The real enemy is inequality, and that enemy is only getting stronger.

By Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

31 replies on “Keeping Up With the Romneys”

Haymitch said that in Catching Fire.

I don’t understand how “they” decide what  income level is middle class. $20,001 is not middle class. Maybe if you lived in a seriously rural area? But then you are only “middle class” in comparison to your immediate neighbors and not to the rest of the country. I think that what you mentioned about “typical middle class aspirations as ‘home ownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security, and occasional family vacations.'” would be a more understandable way to measure things. Like, if these things sound attainable to you, you are middle class. But it wouldn’t be an easy way to measure things in a government benefit/census/statistic kind of way.

And I REALLY don’t get why people hate paying taxes. Probably because I don’t make any money and just live with my mom while I’m still in school. But I like roads and libraries and museums and hospitals and schools. Why do people get their hackles raised when asked to fund them? Everyone has to do it. The “tax man takes his cut” and then gives it back to us in the form of awesome stuff (and war. but let’s just think about awesome stuff). Perhaps I am just very naive but when people complain about taxes it sounds to me like they seriously believe there is some Tax Man in a mansion on his own private island rolling around in gold coins that he ripped from their hands.

I almost feel lucky that we had lived through such lean times as a family. I do appreciate what we have, and the fact that we can live comfortably without overdrafting the checking account anymore. But I can see where that lady is coming from, in the middle class, there’s always something to worry about financially. I like your idea about focusing on the real enemy of inequality.

I apply to University in September. I will have to take out loans of roughly £9,000 a year for four years (depends on the school, but that’s what all of the ones I’m applying for ask), and plan theoretically to do a Master’s in Continental Europe (free at the Universities I want to apply to). The loan I take out here in the UK will only require payment if I make over a certain amount and has a time limit after which it lapses. The amount I pay scales with my income.

There were widespread riots over this system, significantly more expensive to the student than the previous incarnation of it. Americans observing will note how comparatively low-cost that system is compared to $30,000 a year costs at exclusive American Universities.

I can’t help but look at the US University system as it stands as one of the single greatest impeding factors to social mobility in the US. It saddens me that an institution which has the potential to be a magnificent social leveller (meritocratic and qualifying for a much higher-paid standard of job) stands as an obstructing wall preventing the best and the brightest from advancing. It’s funny, because the rhetoric of the American right is so often akin to that of Thatcherism – letting poppies grow tall, letting the best of society succeed and “win” – but all a system predicated on the carnivorous obstruction of prosperity to the poor does is prevent millions of potential poppies, millions of people, from having the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Socialism, in the real sense, not the hollow right-wing straw-man socialism, is about investing in those people.

tl;dr, to let your poppies grow tall, you have to water them. Or they wither.


PS: I don’t view a University education as a luxury – I view it as a vital social leveller that allows those born without the privilege of familial wealth to attain careers that can offer themselves that wealth. In the context of a nation with the narrative of opportunity, like the US, I would sincerely hope that that ideal of University would remain the case.

I think that’s part of the stupidity of it all – that we (in America) have been trained to think that university, and definitely quality university, or debt-free university, is a luxury.  I really had to challenge myself to even see how that might not be true, and my profession is education.  We’ve been brainwashed to believe that there is no other way, and if there is another way, we call it socialism and run screaming for the hills.

I’m going to echo some of the other comments on how I have no idea how Americans manage without the infrastructure I, as a Canadian, take for granted. My sister is a high school teacher, and has a low income but she cant still afford the occasional trip, her own (rented) apartment, and a car.

One of the things that still blows my mind is how expensive education is in the states, as well as the hierarchy that the universities there have; in my experience, it doesn’t really matter what university you attended for your undergrad, it is the post-grad ( if you need one for your field) that matters.

Being middle class is a struggle.  It as a struggle to maintain what we do have. So many around us have lost their homes or are threatened to lose their homes.  I have a butt load of student loans and hope that my children won’t have to deal with the same problem.  I pray they can get scholarships….they won’t qualify for grants because of my husband and I.

Working with the low income families I know that what I have seems like a TON and I try not to talk about it. It is totally unfair and rude to discuss the shoes I bought online for 5 bucks when the person doesn’t have access to the internet, or is wearing their only pair of shoes.  I feel like I have too much in those moments.

The income level for “middle class” is a huge range.  I would suspect it depends on where you live.  $30,000 a year in some areas would go a lot further than in others like New York City or LA.  Perhaps that is why you have Upper Middle class and Lower middle class to better define where people fit.

The gap between middle class ( I would not consider a 20,000 a year income middle class since the cost of living eats that up in a second) and poverty is large. But the gap between Wealthy and everyone else is huge.


Every time I’m reminded that most people in the US are just one major-ish medical issue away from pretty much losing everything, I feel I should be thanking my lucky stars for being born in the Soviet Union.

Somehow there doesn’t seem to be much discussion over how poorly and unsustainably the US is managing their human resource – as in, with healthcare being prohibitively expensive and capable people missing out on good-quality education, what exactly is the plan for maintaining a competitive edge in the world? (I mean, besides that really bad one that just banks on producing more cannon fodder by outlawing abortion and such…)

I think there is some discussion on it, but it tends to take backstage in comparison to the universal health care issue. In some ways, I wonder if people in the US just think healthcare costs that much, and that’s just the way it is. It’s true that feeling that way is probably the lived experiences of people throughout the country. But a lot of times, if we go, “Why is this costing this much??” no one really knows how to answer it.

Politicians here don’t seem to be talking much about it either, and my guess is it’s because of how big of an industry healthcare is in the US. I saw some statistics just earlier today, and healthcare makes for about 18% of the US GDP or something like that. That’s some crazy shit right there.

It’s such a big fat quagmire, and its one of those huge systemic issues that makes me wonder if I should try to leave the country once I finish my degree.

I found this article (Atul Gawande in the New Yorker) really interesting – not being from the US I’m still not very clear on how the system works, but his analysis is that costs are due to “across-the-board overuse of medicine” was eye-opening. There is less of a culture of weighing costs and benefits, and more of  ‘let’s do it just in case (I get sued)’, and I think you can see that in screening programmes, too.

There’s been a recent move away from this idea of ‘throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks’ method of medicine. Like no longer ordering unnecessary tests or a bunch of medicines. And I think we’re finally starting to talk about the extensive and (expensive) end of life care that is directed towards the very elderly  that doesn’t really improve quality of life.

But at the same time, a lot of these costs would also go down if we had adequate preventative measures in place. Which is not a conversation people are willing to have, because it’s so multifaceted.

I can’t get over the fact that two cars or more is ..pretty ordinary in The States. I know the country is many more times bigger than any European country and that public transport isn’t all that, but still. We share one car with three people and maybe use it four times a month. But that’s not precisely the point you’re trying to make.

I think people at the high end of your group are more ‘touchable’ than those that make 100 and 1000 times more than you. We all know that we will never see billionaires as our equal (probably) but someone with ‘only’ ten percent more than you?  The bastard!

Yeah – it’s a cyclical cultural problem.  We only have one car but it is a huge pain in the ass.  There is no public transportation (well, taxis), we don’t live close enough to walk anywhere.  Which means I use the car during the day, and my husband takes it in the evenings to classes – but if we need anything in the meantime (groceries, for example), it takes a lot of planning.  We either have to go everywhere together, or one person goes and one person stays home, or lots and lots of planning is involved.

I mean, “huge pain in the ass” isn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of things.  But it’s definitely not the norm.

I believe that’s due to a large number of people living outside of urban infrastructures and a poor public transportation infrastructure. For instance, when we bought our house (in a suburban area) a major factor was the walkability into town, walkability to the train, and close access to a grocery store. But these aren’t options in many places — hell, the grocery store closed, so if we didn’t have access to a car, we’d be stuck getting a limited selection of very expensive foods from a corner store. My dad lives in the same town, but far enough away that he can’t walk to town, public transportation, or the grocery store. Cars are a necessity, especially in dual income households.

We have two cars and it’s a major expense- but it would be really hard to function any other way. We live in an area with poor public transportation (inside the city limits, but only an “express line” bus, that runs 2x per day is within walking distance), and we designed our lives before the price of fuel doubled. Short-sighted, yet SO American. Gah.

I generally found the article extremely myopic- she bought a new car for her son to deliver pizzas, that’s sort of where my sympathy ended. But, by the same token, I think she is expressing what you’re expressing to an extent- the lack of feeling like there’s a financial cushion. And it’s weird, because Canadians are poorer than Americans ($9000-10,000 less GDP per capita depending on the year) and when I lived in the US, I definitely felt poorer  than my american counterparts… I couldn’t afford a car, I lived with a roommate when most people lived alone, my clothes for teaching were from goodwill rather than Kohls, I worked like a fiend during the summers and a second part time job on top of my ta-ing to supplement my school funding package because my parents simply couldn’t subsidize my living expenses during grad school which seemed atypical of my american counterparts (this was before and during the early parts of the economic downturn). But, while I think we generally have less in Canada, we also have a cushion- it’s provided by the government.  If I get hit by a car on my bike ride to school tomorrow, I know I won’t be trying to pay off the bill for the hospital stay ten years from now, if my boyfriend and I were to get pregnant (totally not in the plan btw!!) we would qualify for government subsidized daycare which would be essentially free, there are community activity programs and tax rebates for sports and music lessons for kids so something like gymnastics or ballet classes aren’t out of financial reach. My family was solidly in the low end of the middle class during my childhood, but my younger brother and I were able to go to community league soccer and dance classes because they were affordable. I know this would take huge systemic change in the US because so much is constructed around the private sector, but I really believe that government subsidy is the only thing that can give people equal opportunities or an equal sense of financial security.

Myopic, yes.  Very much so.  But I also think that the knee-jerk reaction to it (at least from me) is to be pissed off that she’s not grateful that she doesn’t struggle, when maybe we should be figuring out how to make it so that there is less struggling overall.

And I’m totally, totally jealous of the Canadian cushion.  Like, I can taste my jealousy right now.

Definitely! There should totally be some figuring out done as to how to make things more equitable. It really bothers me that it is a struggle for your family to live on $50,000, but after living in the US, I can also totally see how it is that way with a lack of reasonable public transportation, expensive healthcare, and all the other stuff. I can see too, how the woman in the article can feel like she’s struggling- trapped in a mortgage for a house that’s probably halved in value and with two kids in school when their education may not actually get them work beyond Starbucks. I just feel like Americans are getting screwed by a government comprised solely of the super rich who cannot possibly understand their needs. And not to be overdramatic, but it’s shit like this, this utter sense of despair and impossibility at succeeding that started the french revolution.

I think I’ve mentioned that my mother married a Canadian and moved to Canada some years ago. My new step-sister-in-law just had her first baby and it was a real eye opener. Just that little bit of help would be incredible for us — just getting the maternity leave and guaranteed job back would actually enable us to have another child, which is actually out of reach for our family.

Jesus, maternity leave.  If I get my wits back, I want to talk about what bullshit maternity leave is in America.  In Ukraine, you get three years of paid leave, and then another three years if you want to stay home that is unpaid, but your job is kept for you.

Because it makes sense for parents to be able to raise their children.

Oh please do, Susan! Maternity leave? What maternity leave? With adoption #1 I cashed in my banked six weeks of sick time. With adoption #2, I didn’t have any banked sick time (you know, because I’d only been back to work for two years & used every day of sick time/vacation for child #1’s assorted illnesses)- so I took eight weeks- unpaid. Crap I tell you, crap.

It’s all part and parcel of the idea you’re already talking about. Having to pay for health care, having to pay for childcare, literally being unable to afford to have children, but if you’re lucky, maybe your insurance (if you have it) will cover birth control or the local PP hasn’t been closed yet. We get into these fights about these things instead of focusing on the bigger picture.

This was really interesting to read. The Post Office tells me that $100,000 is around £64,000 which adds some more perspective to what you’re posting. Hmn. Perhaps what is tripping me up is that income isn’t automatically the same as class here. Anyway! Those are some really interesting points you’ve raised.

It isn’t automatically the same in the US either, because there’s a lot of factors, such as if you have kids (and how many you have if you do have them), that affect your overall assets. There’s also various pockets of cultures in all parts of the socioeconomic spectrum, and just because you find yourself in the same financial boat as people in that bit of culture doesn’t mean you’d be accepted as “one of them.”

I don’t know how it is for you, but here, at least, there’s this big obsession with being “middle class.” I think this is one portion of the issue. Last I heard, 80% of Americans call themselves middle class. And maybe that has to do, in part, with a lot of people who are higher on the spectrum not feeling very rich because there’s all this stuff they feel like they just can’t do, as well as a lot of people who are lower not thinking they’re *that* poor.

It’s actually rather complex, and I’m too tired to try to go into a lot of it right now. But it is interesting.

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