This is no longer the political story du jour thanks to Mitt Romney’s 47% speech, but it’s the topic on which I’ve been ruminating, so here are my ruminations after the fact.
Last week, on Good Morning America, Romney was asked by George Stephanopoulos what he meant by the phrase “middle income.”
Stephanopoulos: ‘‘Is $100,000 middle income?”
Romney: ‘‘No, middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less.”
What was the Jezebel headline? “Mitt Romney Thinks Middle Income Is Between $200K and $250K.” Sigh. No, that’s not what he said at all, and you are willfully misinterpreting his words to make them sound worse than they are. Prepositions matter, okay? “Between” is not the same as “or less”. He couldn’t remember the exact ceiling (either $200K or $250K) but that and less, was what he considered middle income. The incorrect headline feigns outrage over something he didn’t say, instead of substantiating outrage at what he actually says and means. Claiming that $200K is still middle income is problematic enough without twisting words.
So what should “middle income” mean anyway? As a non-economist, non-sociologist, I would say that middle income would be the middle 50% of American households. According to the Census, the median household income is just over $50,000. Less than 2% of households make over $250,000 a year. Wait, what? So we’re saying “middle income” is the bottom 98%? I’m no mathematician but that makes very little sense.
What I find more interesting is the middle class mindset. To me, that’s when you can cover the basics, rent, food, clothes, but the big things, health care, dentistry, car maintenance, education, always keep you a little worried. You feel good about your finances, unless something unexpected happens, and unexpected things usually happen. For the middle class mindset, as opposed to the hard numbers, context matters. In a town full of millionaires, the $250K household feels like they’re falling behind. In a town with 40% unemployment, the guy making $19K is doing pretty well.
Everyone likes to think they’re middle class. It’s how we sleep at night knowing that 15% of the population lives below the poverty line. Thinking we are just on the other side of it, or at least not that far from it, makes it easier to spend money on luxuries and feel okay about it. I think it every time I spend $20 on a manicure, I’m middle class and this is just the occasional, ahem weekly, treat…But if we really wrap our heads around what average American families survive on, many of us have to admit that we live comfortably on the far side of middle income. That’s not to minimize the struggles of the $100K households–shit is expensive, y’all–but perspective is important.
Related Post: 99% or what? Why I don’t identify with OWS.
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