Sunday, May 15, 2005

Klassy-with-a-K

According to the interactive graphic on class in the New York Times (click on the "Components of Class" tab), I'm in the top fifth. Of everything. Now, I'm not one of those people who claims to be middle class when really they're not. (Ahem, I'm looking at you, Fred Heineman.) But I can't reconcile what I see around me with my being in the top fifth, class-wise. Upper-middle? Sure, yes. But how can I be top-fifth, a.k.a. upper-class or "wealthy"? I eat microwave popcorn for dinner (not every night, but still...). I cut coupons. My husband and I are more likely to shop at Old Navy or Kohl's than Saks or ... well, wherever rich people shop. It's especially hard for me to accept this NYT label because of where I live, and the people I see around me and read about in the local paper every day. People who send their children to tony private schools and belong to country clubs. People with summer homes.

I don't know what I'm trying to say, other than: Can this graphic possibly be correct? And if it is, how long until the other inhabitants of my supposed class level are on to me, calling me out as a trespasser, and sending me back where I belong?

(Can you tell I was raised by a middle-class mom who came from working-class roots?)

Edited to add: GeekyMom is also having issues with her NYT label, so it's not just me! Whew!

Edited again to add: I forgot to mention it before, but I'm home. The Magical Mystery Tour has ended. Huzzah.

20 Comments:

Blogger liz said...

I'm in Upper Middle on 2 and Top Fifth on 2 and it is hard to swallow, but when our Gov't says that a single-person earning $20K/year is in the middle class, ya gotta think about it.

Not that I agree with the Gov't's assessment.

There are a heck of a lot of poor people in this country. And they're better off generally than the poor of other countries. Ack.

11:47 PM, May 15, 2005  
Blogger liz said...

Oh! And welcome back!

11:48 PM, May 15, 2005  
Blogger Jody said...

This is what I think, late on Sunday night without having yet had time to read the article:

People are doing badly in America. There's a huge, enormous mass of people at the bottom end of the scale, and they're doing badly. The median household income is $55K, more or less: half above, half below. Half below. It boggles the mind.

I get really amazed and uncomfortable when I think about our place, too. Because if we're this wealthy, compared to everyone else, why aren't we saving anything (much)? Why are we shopping Target for clothes? Why do we eat so much frozen pizza?

I have to give this some thought when I'm not so exhausted.

11:52 PM, May 15, 2005  
Blogger Laura said...

I was really shocked that they put people at $20 k in the middle class. I would say our neighborhood is borderline working class. There are a lot of people around here that are struggling. You can tell by the threadbare clothes, the rundown cars, etc. And I'm with Jody, if I'm in the top fifth, where's my summer home and why do I pay attention to every dime I spend at the grocery store. Next installment is today. Maybe we'll find out more.

7:18 AM, May 16, 2005  
Anonymous Andrea said...

Yup, it's right.

If you think about it as a bell curve (and it's probably not; there is probably a lot more weight to the bottom) then you are probably at about the 80th, maybe 82nd percentile. Which, yes, means that you're wealthier than 80% of the population. But because of the way the normal distribution works, most people are stuck very closely together. Adn you probably know all this and I'm making a hash of the explanation anyway.

But basically you can easily be richer than 80% of the population, and not be making a whole lot more money than someone who's at the 60th percentile. You have a slightly nicer car and house and a bit more money in the retirement account, your kids attend a slightly nicer daycare or preschool, and that wipes out your entire salary difference. Leaving you shopping at Target and eating frozzen pizza.

It's when you get to the extremes (in this case, of wealth and poverty) that you start seeing noticeable differences between percentiles. The 75th and 80th percentiles are so close together that it's easy to slip between them from one year to the next. But hte 90th and 95th percentiles are very far apart; and the 95th and 99th will probably be a few hundred thousand or million dollars a year.

I would guess that the picture of "wealth" presented to us in media is probably representative of fewer than 1% of the population.

To use an example I'm painfully familiar with right now, if you think about it as a baby growth chart, the 50th percentile (middle class) is 21lbs and the 80th percentile (upper class) is 23 lbs. It's not a terrifically big difference, in terms of size. It's only when you get up to the 99th percentile or so (28lbs or so) that you start saying, "Wow, that's a big baby!"

Does this make any sense, or do I sound as tired as I think I do? Basically you are really upper class but there isn't that much difference between upper and upper-middle, until you start getting to the farther extremes of upper-classdom.

8:33 AM, May 16, 2005  
Blogger Angry Pregnant Lawyer said...

Andrea, thanks for the explanation. Yes, that makes sense. I guess maybe the way I think of the bell curve, there should be more delineations as you get farther to the right of the curve (e.g., upper-middle class, upper class, super-upper class, and never-even-thinks-about-what-things-may-cost).

And having just finished Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed," I don't see how the government can say someone making $20K a year is middle class. It's damn near impossible to get by on that.

8:46 AM, May 16, 2005  
Blogger SuzanH said...

Glad you're back!

I just looked at the chart, and I agree, it seems odd, although I know, particularly with Andrea's breakdown, that it's probably right. I just don't understand how, having been upper middle income for so many years, we have such a hard time making ends meet. I know people make less and live on less, and I find that hard to fathom (read Nickel and Dimed, too, and am still sick about it). Ack. Don't know what to add, but it's just aggravating to see.

9:16 AM, May 16, 2005  
Anonymous Andrea said...

Oh, for sure. It's criminal. $20g/year is not a living wage. I remember reading a few articles about "invisible homelessness" where basically people don't make enough money to get their own place--so they indefinitely camp out on the couches of family and friends. They're homeless--they don't have their own home--but they're not on the street, so they're never counted. I think a lot of people in the lower and lower-middle classes are probably in this category. And in such rich countries, it shouldn't happen.

I wonder, too, how much of it is like media images of women. YOu know. You read magazines for long enough and you end up thinking that every woman is supposed to be 6'2" and 105lbs. So because the "image" of the middle class portrayed in tv, movies, books etc. is the single-family-detached-home-in-the-burbs-with-two-cars ideal, we all end up thinking that's the way the middle class looks. Though realistically, that's upper-middle class these days, or upper. I'm not up on American financial stats, but I know the average individual income in CAnada these days is about $30g, and the average family income is about $60g. For sure you would not be able to buy a single detached home anywhere in the Toronto area with an annual income of $60g. YOu could get a condo, or maybe a townhome. So I think in my area, the middle classes are the ones who are struggling to buy any kind of home at all, and once they do, they struggle to keep it.

Just blathering my cold germs all over your blog here. I'll stop now.

9:32 AM, May 16, 2005  
Anonymous Kristen said...

I had the same initial reaction, I called my husband over and said, "Look honey! We're rich!"

We don't feel rich. We clip coupons too and have trouble saving too.... But look at what we have: graduate degrees, a basic ranch house in a nice neighborhood, safe cars, plenty of food to eat, a good doctor, health insurance, a TV, a computer, internet access....and so on and so on.

I think if you looked at our country, we would in fact be in the top 5th. Even though we really don't think we are.

12:38 PM, May 16, 2005  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

I would like to know where in this country a family could feel middle class on $20,000 a year.

I averaged 83%, but I had to fudge it. There was no job category for "housewife," so I used "writer," though I haven't been paid to do so for over a year. That was my only "upper-middle-class" category. The rest was top fifth.

I have to note, though, that just about any property owner in the Northeast would rank in the top fifth for wealth. You can't even buy a condo here for less than $100,000. But the outrageous value of our homes doesn't make it any easier for us to pay our grocery bills.

Thanks for the clear explanation, Andrea. Love the baby growth chart analogy.

6:01 PM, May 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I made $21K at my first job in 1991. Sure, I had no kids, but I was able to live pretty comfortably as a 21-year-old single guy in a cheap apartment in North Carolina, in a nice town in which the rent is STILL under $500 for livable places. (Last I checked, maybe three years ago.)

Hard to break people down into classes. Just too many variables, particularly the cost of living wherever you happen to be. In Northern Virginia, $21K means you're living in someone's basement.

- NSAH

6:06 PM, May 16, 2005  
Blogger Angry Pregnant Lawyer said...

OK, Mr. Devil's Advocate/SmartyPants NSAH, sure. When I was first out of college making $22K and living in a low-cost-of-living-area in NC, I was doing fine. But I had no kids to take care of, and feeding and clothing myself took hardly any money at all. BUT I also graduated with no loans, no debt or any other burdens often weighing down other folks at that stage of their lives.

Do you think that employer still pays its right-out-of-college copy editors $22K? I'm betting it's a bit higher now.

(Yes, I'm still at work--coming home asap!)

6:22 PM, May 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

AW -

Yep, that's what I mean about "too many variables."

Of course, one thing I had at the $21K job that I don't have now -- really, really good benefits. I paid $15 out of pocket for an "expensive" pair of glasses in 1992. The ones I just ordered ... um ... don't ask.

- AH

7:08 PM, May 16, 2005  
Anonymous Lisa V said...

I was 84%.
I hate stuff like this, because then I feel even guiltier than usual that we have no money. I understand that I have it better than so many people in the world, indeed this country. But really I have to agonize over buying myself something new that isn't from Target, a thrift store or drastically price cut. We eat out rarely. Vacations sink us, so we rarely go- and according to this poll I am living a charmed life. Again I know it's relative. I wish there was a component in there for number of kids. There are 6 of us living off that low six figure income. With braces, meds, dentists and emergency room visits I pay $300 a month in medical. That doesn't count insurance. Forget milk- we drink 10 gallons a week. We do few lessons because of constraints of time and money. Most of our friends do far more. I can't even consider private school. Luckily I love our public school. Thank goodness I have in-laws who have so far contributed enough for each of my kids to attend college debt free for the first year.
Gee I hijacked your blog. I'm such a whiner.

9:57 PM, May 16, 2005  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Great discussion. I also have been writing about this.

FYI, the official poverty level for a family of 4 is just under $20,000.

http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/05poverty.shtml

APL -- Any chance you could make it to the book event on Sunday? It would be great fun to meet you.

10:06 PM, May 16, 2005  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Oh, Andrea's overall point is totally right, but the baby growth curve is a misleading way to think about the income distribution, because income is not at all normally distributed -- the usual assumption that economists make is that the LOG of income is normally distributed. So the curve is very flat for most of the way, and then takes off in the last couple of percentiles. Here's a (politically motivated) graphical representation:

http://www.lcurve.org/

10:04 AM, May 17, 2005  
Anonymous Andrea said...

Oh, I know. I'm just a bit obsessed with baby growth charts since, well, forever. I'm sure it's not normally distributed.

1:35 PM, May 17, 2005  
Blogger KibitzingShiksa said...

During college I worked 4 part time jobs, made 8K a year, and I could have easily been considered middle class compared to most of the other people in that area. (I lived in my own place, paid all my own bills, and had no loans or credit card debt.) THAT is how bad the economy is in rural America.

11:56 AM, May 18, 2005  
Blogger halloweenlover said...

Wow, 20K is middle class. I am going to call my parents now and let them know that we weren't as poor as we all thought growing up.

I wonder about clipping coupons and shopping at target or making sure to buy all staples at costco. If we are in the top bracket like this chart says we are, then why do I feel like we can't afford a second car?

I agree with Phantom, though. The prices of homes in the Northeast, or in lots of places these days, are so outrageous that I pay half of my salary just to the mortgage company. It is crazy.

I haven't read nickel and dimed, I think I'll go get it this weekend. Do you recommend it?

5:32 PM, May 18, 2005  
Blogger parodie said...

It seems to me that one main problem in this discussion is what being in the "Upper Fifth" actually represents: does it really mean that you should automagically be able to afford a summer home/second car/private schools/etc?
Or does it mean you have a decent education, could find a job pretty easily if you needed it, can afford to get health care when you need it, and can eat three solid meals a day? The expect level of luxury is really high - just look at the "middle class" lifestyle portrayed on Desperate Housewives, for example. Is that really middle class and not upper-upper-upper-class?

/rant

11:07 AM, May 19, 2005  

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