Who Counts as “Rich?”

Is there a number we can point to? Or a set of privileges?

Photo credit: BrookLorin, CC0 Public Domain.

Since we’re looking at privilege and money this week, we should probably take a look at this NYT op-ed (you know, the one everyone shared on Twitter a few days ago):

Opinion | Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich

The thesis? That America isn’t ready to discuss class, and that those of us whom the author considers rich should start acknowledging themselves as such:

The rhetoric of “We are the 99 percent” has in fact been dangerously self-serving, allowing people with healthy six-figure incomes to convince themselves that they are somehow in the same economic boat as ordinary Americans, and that it is just the so-called super rich who are to blame for inequality.

I agree with some of what Richard V. Reeves—of the Brookings Institution, and the forthcoming Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About Itis arguing here.

Yes, people with six-figure incomes often have different economic realities than people with five-figure incomes. There are individual variables involved (cost of living, medical expenses, debt, family and caretaking needs) such that an individual six-figure income household could be doing “less well” than an individual five-figure income household. But we can say, in general, that this holds true.

That doesn’t mean that one household is made up of “ordinary Americans” and the other is made up of “stop pretending you’re not rich Americans.”

I did a little thought experiment where I asked myself “Nicole, if you cleared six figures this year—which is unlikely, but not unfathomable—would you feel rich?” And the answer is… I wouldn’t? I’d be able to do things with those earnings, for sure. (I’d probably save most of them.) I’d feel grateful, and lucky, and proud of what I’ve been able to do in my career. I’d give back.

But, in a city where the median income is $80,000, it would take a little more than a dip into the six figures to feel rich.

Reeves suggests it might take $200,000:

This favored fifth at the top of the income distribution, with an average annual household income of $200,000, has been separating from the 80 percent below. Collectively, this top fifth has seen a $4 trillion-plus increase in pretax income since 1979, compared to just over $3 trillion for everyone else. Some of those gains went to the top 1 percent. But most went to the 19 percent just beneath them.

That’s a data point worth noting, especially because it doubles down on the Matthew Effect of wealth: people who are already earning more are likely to see those earnings increase by larger amounts. (Even if they increase by the same percentage as the earnings of someone in a lower income bracket, because that’s how percents work.)

Reeves then argues that this favored fifth is trying to further its separation from the rest of us by engaging in “antimeritocratic behavior”—which basically means using money and networking to open doors.

But nearly all of us do that, to the degree that we’re able. We use our money and our connections to help ourselves and our families. It isn’t just favored fifthers who tell their kids to apply to schools where they’ll be legacies, to use one of Reeves’ examples. Is it only bad when the rich do it, or is it only bad because the rich can do it more effectively?

So I’m not sure what to think about this article. Like The Perils of “Privilege”, it makes me a little uncomfortable. It reminds me that I have a lot of advantages that I use in the same ways that these so-called “rich people” do, and it also makes me wonder if we’re putting too much emphasis on “stop pretending you’re not rich” and not on “okay, how do we address this income inequality issue?”

But that might be because it’s a lot harder to effectively address the income inequality issue.

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