The Median Income Might Not Be Enough

The NYT highlights stories from people living at median incomes across the country.

Colorado Springs. Photo credit: Jason Cipriani, CC BY 2.0.

What’s it like to earn $44,000 in Colorado Springs? Or just under six figures in Los Angeles?

Yesterday, the NYT published a longread detailing the financial stories of twelve individuals and families across the United States. These stories represent a variety of ages, races, educational backgrounds, and careers. The one thing they all have in common? Each story is about a person or a family earning the median income in their area.

Basing Life on What You Can Afford

As a reminder: the median income isn’t necessarily what most people in the area are earning (that’d be the mode). Instead, it’s literally the middle income in the range of incomes offered in that particular town/city.

Theoretically, “median income” should correlate to “middle class.” But, as Ron Lieber notes in his introduction:

Meeting the most basic of needs is usually not a problem for these people, but it’s a challenge to figure out how often to allow themselves things they want and to weigh those desires against longstanding debt or the contributions they probably ought to make to their futures.

Avalon Manly, a 27-year-old teacher in Colorado Springs, works side hustles to bring her $44,000 salary closer to the area’s median income of $54,000—and I love that the NYT writes “She calls them ‘side hustles,’” as if they weren’t familiar with the term. Manly has not yet gotten herself out of the debt she accrued after losing her job in 2014.

46-year-old Alonzo Adams is a pastor and father of four in Florissant, Missouri (four miles away from Ferguson, where his church is); he and his wife have a combined income of $76,000, but haven’t yet been able to save for retirement. They can’t even afford to buy all of the groceries they want.

But it is not the hustle [of working 80-hour weeks while his wife manages a home-based business] that bothers him. It is the feeling that no matter how hard he works, no matter the choices and sacrifices he makes, he barely keeps his head above water — after a lifetime of watching white classmates, friends and co-workers excel, seemingly with ease.

As you read the twelve stories, you’ll probably find a few ways to criticize the individuals involved. (“Why did Manly go into credit card debt during unemployment, when she could have borrowed from her parents/crowdfunded/just gotten a job, any job? Oh wait, she did take part-time jobs and it still wasn’t enough?”)

But the overall point is that middle-income money requires some serious life choices: do you pick up a side hustle, put the extra expenses on a credit card, accept that your children will go to a less academically rigorous school? Do you make plans for retirement? Do you buy fewer groceries?

What kind of choices do you make, and do you empathize with the choices made by the people in these financial profiles?

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.