Tuesday, June 03, 2003

This post may seem a bit random, but I've been meaning to write it for several years. It stems out of frequent debates over things like the definition of the middle class and what experiences constitute "ordinariness," recognizing of course the problems always inherent in that term. Here, according to the 2000 U.S. census, is the household income profile of the U.S.:

$0-$10,000 - 9.5%
$10,000-$14,999 - 6.3%
$15,000-$24,999 - 12.8%
$25,000-$34,999 - 12.8%
$35,000-$49,999 - 16.5%
$50,000-$74,999 - 19.5%
$75,000-$99,999 - 10.2%
$100,000 - $149,999 - 7.7%
$150,000 - $199,999 - 2.2%
$200,000 and up - 2.4%

The median household income is $41,994.

So what does this mean? Looking at the data, my family probably ranks in about the 35th percentile, better off than about 1/3 of the country, lower middle class as I have always claimed. I would now argue using this that I have a better claim to represent the average American than those who make $100,000 - the "six-figure income" commonly held as the standard of affluence. In fact, not only is a family with a total income of $100,000 more than twice the national median, they are in about the 86th percentile, near where you talk about the "Top 10%"

This is convincing enough to me that I won't even go on...$100,000 may not make you "rich," but it puts you at the high end of things, and once you get much over $200,000 "affluent" is an understatement. So why is it that since coming to college I've been around so many affluent people who consider themselves right on the average? I think the main reason is suburbs. In a city like Quincy, you have everything represented from "the projects" to a professional class to an "old money" elite, and everyone can kind of see where they rank. Suburbs, however, are more segregated by income, and most kids in these neighborhoods probably are surrounded by people of the same socio-economic level from birth until college. College itself still has far fewer people from the working classes than the upper middle class and above, though I'm not looking up the data on that off the top of my head - I do remember that my mom, based off her life experiences and those of her friends, was once ecstatic when something happened so that I could go to college, which I had from my socialization always taken for granted and was resenting not having the same array of options as everyone else I knew.

People probably wonder why I think about this, and I do, too. I think partially it's because the issue comes up so many times in so many different contexts. In junior high there were trips the cost to which was almost $1000 each; an overwhelming majority of the school obviously didn't go, yet in the honors track the teacher had to plan a special project for me since I was the only one left behind. In high school there was overt "wrong side of the tracks" opposition to me from people using their influence in a rather competitive honors program - I once had a hall conference with a teacher who had nominated me for "Student of the Year" in one subject, but was worried about getting complaints from others, whom of course I could guess at. At QU it wasn't as much. and certainly not at a public school like UW, but still I get everything from becoming an object of amusement for people who can't believe how little my family has travelled (or distaste at having to bother with an obviously unsophisticated hick, which is rarer but happens) to hearing a public relations director pounding on the desk about how "QU has always been based on good, solid upper middle class students," which presumably left me as some sort of ruffian there on generosity because I happened to do well on standardized tests. On a whole lot of issues, even today I find myself in areas where I feel behind everyone else even while talking about things I have done amazes folks back home. (This is not meant as anything personal between me and friends with whom such issues have occasionally arisen.)

More deeply, however, it might be the way I was raised. Dr. Spear once made a comment that in the U.S. the national obsession was race, while in the UK it was class. I'm convinced that if J.K. Rowling were an American Lucius Malfoy would be a racist and Ron Weasley an African-American. My mother, however, was steeped in Britishness to her fingertips, and a lot of the early talk I heard on the issue was from her, in terms of me having to be one of the best-dressed people in class and so on so we wouldn't be dismissed. Of course, since she was involved with a lot of the decision-makers and know how things worked, that might also have been simple realism.

Anyway, that's now out there, and off my shoulders. Read it and do with it as you please. (I've actually figured out what I want from people who get on my nerves, though. It's not that they're all snobs, nor is it that I'm demanding opportunities and hand-outs, despite my generally liberal politics. It's also not that I'm arrogant and obsessed with "justifying my ego," which was what I always got to hear at QU, nor is it jealousy, as I heard at QU and in high school. I simply want an acknowledgement from people of our relative stances in relation to others. All well.)


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