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.”
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.”
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.