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[personal profile] tiurin
An excellent list of how the other half lives, ganked from [livejournal.com profile] akiko.

May as well cut/paste the first thing I scrawled out this summer regarding Americans and class.

Poverty is both relative and absolute. In America, we have comparatively little absolute poverty. In other words, the bodies aren't piling up in the streets of every major city. However, we do have a great deal of relative poverty, and that's growing yearly.

I see two main problems with getting some focused effort to remedy class inequalities in this country. The first, and most obvious, is that the people in power tend to prefer the status quo. If it were otherwise, we wouldn't be having tax cuts which benefit the rich over the poor, the cap on FICA would be increased, and any number of other things, including the decoupling of health insurance and employment. The second is that class is such poorly defined term, resulting in all sorts of ludicrous claims.

Forbes recently had an article which discussed the "Upper Middle Class Dream" and what it costs to live well in the U.S. Their estimates for the Northeast ranged from a household income of $215k/year to $500k/year.

That's right, folks. Half a million dollars a year. Their idea of "upper middle class" includes 2005 Lexus and BMWs, ownership of a beach house, and yearly vacations to Palm Beach, Paris, and Val d'Isere. The kids attend private colleges and a private junior high.

Upper middle class? Yeah, right. According to my copy of _Statistical Abstract of the United States 2004-2005: The National Data Book_, the 80th percentile of household income in 2002 is $94,469. The 95th percentile is $164,323. The 97.7th percentile is $200k. This means that the Forbes range for upper middle class ranges from the 98th percentile to the 99th percentile after adjusting for inflation. I'd suspect that $500k/year may exceed 99.7% of the households in this country, considering that 1.3% of households exceed $250k.

Let's call a spade a spade, folks. $215k a year is upper class. That's a level of wealth 90% of the familes in this country can't even realistically dream about.

But this illustrates what I think is a problem to any class dialogue in this country. Everybody and their dog is middle class in this place. It lets rich people think that they're not like those aristocratic European nobility snots across the pond, and it lets poor people think that they're part of the mainstream. A lack of dialogue on class also allows the poor white to blame affirmative action for their woes, which really shouldn't come as a surprise considering how much of this country's politics have relied on playing off the poor white against the black.

If we're talking about class in terms of money, I propose starting off with a much easier basic definition. Let's call the bottom 20% lower class, the next 20% lower middle class, the third 20% middle middle class, the fourth 20% upper middle class, and the highest 20% upper class. The upper 5% is clearly rich. As of 2002, the percentiles were as follows:

20th: $24,000
40th: $41,440
60th: $63,000
80th: $94,469
95th: $164,323

Keep in mind that this is class by income, not assets owned. Those in the bottom 40% tend to own comparatively few assets such as stock, real estate, etc., while those in the upper 20% may well have extensive assets they could draw on besides their job salaries.

These numbers don't adjust for cost of living. If we put in a cost of living adjustment of +/- 10% on the salaries, we can probably get some reasonable level of locality adjustment. However, that's a very blunt adjustment.

Out of my high school friends, I know only one who(adjusting 2002 dollars and salaries back to 1990 dollars and salaries) would be considered lower middle class on this scale. Everyone else, including me, was at least middle class(my family would move from middle to upper middle about the time I was a sophomore). Most of my friends were upper middle class or better, and over half would be considered upper class by this standard. A nontrivial percentage- perhaps a quarter- would clearly qualify as rich.

In other words, we led a charmed life in more ways than one. Next post tomorrow: My attempt at looking at class by more than a simple income-related measurement, or, why I think I should be considered upper class, even now when I'm between jobs and looking at a yearly income of maybe around $25-35k. And why most of my friends should be considered the same regardless of their current income and debt status.

Date: 2005-09-07 12:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zandperl.livejournal.com
The most important thing I learned in grad school was that it's possible to live comfortably on $14,000 per year.

I grew up in NYC with parents making around $90k together, and we were solidly middle class. I thought that sorta income was normal. Today I'm making more than the $14k and less than the $45k and I would say my lifestyle is somewhere around lower-middle or upper-lower class, living in a lower class neighborhood. Of course, "lifestyle" is hard to quantify, as people making much less than I have much better entertainment centers and cars. Being in the Education sector, I've heard various other ways to quantify class, including education earned or goals, or just job type - working class or manual labor instead of lower class; skilled professions instead of middle class. Not sure what we'd call the rich in that scheme.

Date: 2005-09-07 01:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] eirias.livejournal.com
I think if you split people up into skilled and unskilled professions, you'd wind up with a different parsing of people than you get with the monetary classifications. There are some manual trades that are quite skilled (woodworking, for instance, or electrical repair - though come to think of it I've no idea what these salaries are like), and in general my view of office workers, who are usually middle-class or higher in terms of salary, is that their jobs are pretty much unskilled. Sure, you need to know how to turn on a PC and maybe alphabetize, but in the modern world those skills are about as rare as the sorting and whatnot you used to see in factories... when this country had factories that weren't on the verge of closing.

(Incidentally, one of my most pressing questions of the day is why a college education is even required or preferred at all for entry-level office jobs. I'm not knocking education, don't get me wrong, but it seems in a lot of cases like that requirement is an unnecessary barrier to class mobility.)

Date: 2005-09-07 01:19 pm (UTC)
feuervogel: photo of the statue of Victory and her chariot on the Brandenburg Gate (Default)
From: [personal profile] feuervogel
Skilled manual labor can be rather lucrative. My uncle is a mechanic at EuroMotors Bethesda, his wife is a hairdresser at an Aveda salon, and they own a big house in Germantown (which, granted, they bought about 15-20 years ago, new construction) with an in-ground pool. They're probably the most well-off of my mom and her brothers, since they're the ones who would take vacations to Cancun and the like. And they own 3 or 4 Mercedes. (Not new, mostly; Karl bought some trade-ins with good bodies but maybe needing some mechanical fixing and fixed them up himself. My cousin got one for his birthday.) My cousin is going to school to be an HVAC tech.

I think office jobs may require a bit more creative skill than you give credit for. Or maybe I'm prejudiced, because all the females in my family (except me) are office workers. I can tell you that my sister makes a lot more as, well, whatever it is she does at that fancy jewelry shop in DC, with her fancy BA in musical theater than my mom does as a church secretary with no college education. My sister also has a bit more lateral mobility. I think getting a college education is evidence that you can learn new or different tasks.

Date: 2005-09-07 01:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ukelele.livejournal.com
I do think education throws a whole other monkey wrench into the mix. As a teacher at a prep school, I find that I and my colleagues have a lot more in common in terms of tastes, assumptions, lifestyle, etc. with our students' families than with other people in our income bracket. By no means everything -- I visited exactly zero foreign countries over the summer, for instance. My students' families by and large have staggering amounts of money and that makes a difference, cultural as well as practical. But in terms of, well, cultural capital, in terms of understanding of and to an extent access to cultural and educational institutions (and networking), in terms of ideas of a good time...yeah.

I suspect a similar thing is true, but to a lesser extent, in the world of public school teaching.

(Of course, I'm also living near Boston, where the housing market has a whole other set of things to say on what constitutes middle or upper class...You're from NYC; you understand.)

Date: 2005-09-07 01:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tiurin.livejournal.com
Cultural capital is one of the things that I'll be posting about today. Also, even though there are a lot of costs which don't scale linearly with the number of people in the household(rent, utilities), I think there's been too much about household income without taking into account just how many people there are in the household. The reason why I didn't post it yesterday was that I had some half-finished thoughts then which are now closer to 3/4 finished.

Date: 2005-09-07 03:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dolohov.livejournal.com
Cost of living is bigger than you think. According to the percentiles, I'm well into the lower class -- I have more debt than assets and make about $20k per year. However, I support only myself on that salary and live in a relatively cheap area of the country; I would put myself firmly in the lower middle class -- I can easily afford a cell phone, a (crappy) car, cable, heating bills, and even the odd medical expense (though that bout with kidney stones would have tanked me if I hadn't had insurance) If I lived in Boston or New York, I'd consider myself much poorer than a change of 20% would indicate.

Lifestyle have a huge effect on class (or at least the perception of class). I lived very well without cable, high-speed internet, and a cell phone, particularly when I still had the time and the desire to cook. In a lot of ways, I was living better than my parents, who make more than five times what I do (though partly supporting my two brothers).

Date: 2005-09-07 04:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tiurin.livejournal.com
The problem with factoring in cost of living is that it seems to fail at the low end. The trend of that bottom 20% is either to congregate in burned out areas of the inner city, or else to live in a backwoods area. For example, housing can be had in NYC's Chinatown for under $250/month. You'd live four to a bedroom in a tenement above a restaurant.

Date: 2005-09-07 11:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] leora.livejournal.com
There are a lot of other factors. I grew up somewhere between upper middle class and upper class... my father didn't talk about his income. We were probably upper class. Of course, having 5 kids took something out of that, but we were still quite well off.

I'd now fall under the category of poor. And I think that's valid even given other assets such as a college education, since disability prevents me from using it, and it doesn't look likely that I will ever be able to hold down a good job or possibly any job. However, there's a huge cultural advantage from growing up upper class, even in subtle ways like my ability to talk to doctors and such. Also, while at times I have been dangerously poor, come close to homelessness now and then, I do have an advantage in having well off family who have helped out when I desperately needed it. Right now, I am fairly convinced I am not at risk for not being able to have a home, pay basic bills, or buy food. That's a huge difference from living month to month trying to figure out when you can pay which bills. And that difference divides being poor and okay from living in hell. But I do consider myself poor, because I can't afford what I consider should be all of the basic needs, as I can't get all of the medical care I ought to and have had to accept sacrifices to my health because of finances.

I'd really divide things up more by basic needs, living month to month versus having reserves, can you buy things you want sometimes, or the not having to think about how going out with friends affects your budget and so forth.

Date: 2005-09-08 01:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tiurin.livejournal.com
Yeah. As you probably know, I'm a big fan of Amartya Sen's ideas. I define class in terms of capabilities...and yours are clearly limited at the moment, unfortunately.

Date: 2005-09-08 04:32 am (UTC)
ext_9394: (Default)
From: [identity profile] antimony.livejournal.com
215K as the threshold for upper class? The mind boggles. My parents thought of themselves as "upper middle class" when I was growing up, and my father (the breadwinner) made then about what I do now, adjusted for inflation. (I'd call myself just-barely upper-class at this point -- my salary is way more than plenty for someone who has no kids, but I have no investments to speak of.)

Maybe they're just really defining "upper class" as what I'd call "serious money" or "rich" -- upper class to me means living in a McMansion, driving a nice car, being able to eat out without worrying about the price, buying nice things, and not being worried about sending your offspring to college.

Ditto on grad school as life experience -- it is perfectly possible to live pretty well as a single person sharing an apartment on 1500/month (1150 after taxes) in Greater Boston, and even save up for a new bike and a new computer. Okay, so there were some months that the last week of the month, I didn't have any money and had to eat whatever was in the pantry, which basically meant biscuits and miso, but whatever.

Date: 2005-09-08 05:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tiurin.livejournal.com
They're not defining that as "upper class". They're defining 215k as "upper middle class"!

Really, it makes the term "upper middle class" meaningless if someone who makes 500k/year- the upper portion of the top percentile- can use that term.


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