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Over on Alas, one of our resident conservatives recently argued that it's not fair to raise taxes on people who earn over $250,000 because, while someone who earns $250,000 in rural Mississipi is very wealthy, someone who earns the same in Manhattan is lower middle class.

I decided to look up some numbers to analyze his claim. Assuming the numbers I've found are accurate, the median salary in New York City according to the bureau of labor statistics was approximately $50,000.*

Does that go up according to professions? Yes. The median salary for a worker in the business and financial sector was $77,000.

The highest median salary within the business and financial sector was for personal financial advisors, at $130,000. In the computer field, the highest median salary for any variety of position was $112,000. In construction, it was $77,000. In education, it was $116,000. In engineering, $101,000 again. In food services, only $34,000. Surgeons top the healthcare chart at $194,000--but health care support only goes to $48,000. Even lawyers can't compete within legal services with $140,000. For maintenance, building, and grounds cleaning it's $44,000. Management must be great right? It is, but even the most highly paid category within management (chief executives) is slightly lower than surgeons at $190,000. Athletes--listed within media--get $128,000. Office administration is down to $50,000. The vaguely named personal services position give the highest median salary to flight attendants at $72,000. Production salaries average quite low, with the high going to dental lab technicians at $47,000. Within law enforcement, the situation is a bit better, with first line supervisors pulling in $90,000. In repair, first line supervisors only get $69,000. In sales, you can get $119,000 in real estate. Physicists, surprisingly, earn the most out of all the scientists, at $113,000 median income. But the social services are back down in salary again, with the highest income going to vocational counselors at $64,000 (but no pyramid). In transportation, the median salaries average low, but pilots break out of the run-of-the-mill numbers with an almost-competitive-with-surgeons $162,000.

I should repeat that those are the absolute highest entries in each category, often accompanied by ten to twenty other positions whose median salaries are much, much lower.

No single individual even comes close to the line that Robert draws for the *lower* middle class. Not even a surgeon, at $194,000.

Now maybe he misspoke. Maybe he didn't mean "someone." Maybe he meant "a family of someones" and maybe he was talking about families with two wage earners.

So, it's true, two surgeons, each earning a median-for-their-profession salary of $194,000, do actually exceed the $250,000 barrier. But what kind of deluded reality do we have to enter to classify a pair of married surgeons as *lower* middle class?

How about more traditionally middle class professions? Maybe a teacher and a policeman? Well, a median middle school teacher earns a salary of $66,000, while her husband as a patrol officer earns $62,000. Together, they're at $128,000, about half of what Robert declares is the line for the *lower* middle class. So I guess teaching and law enforcement are not middle class professions; they must be poverty level professions.

An office assistant married to an architect? If he's an office manager, he might make $56,000. His wife does better at $84,000. Together, they're making $140,000... again, well short of the line for the *lower* middle class. I guess they're living in poverty, too.

Two architects? At $168,000 for the pair, they're also poor. A legal secretary ($45,000) with a graphic designer ($56,000)? Poor at $101,000 a year. An auto mechanic ($40,000) with a civil engineer (82,000)? $122,000 and poor, poor, poor.

Two people working at the median level in the financial services, where we started out, are only at $144,000--so that business degree you were planning to get so that you could earn some cash? Well, maybe it'll work out for you if you strike it rich, but if you're just average, then your business degree is also your ticket to poverty.

Even pairs of some of the highest earners on this list--which is already a list of the HIGHEST median salaries within their fields--fail to make it to the golden $250,000 lower middle class mark. Now two surgeons are doing well (at 388,000) and so are two airplane pilots (314,000), and two chief executives (380,000), all of whom have earned their place in the lower middle class. Two athletes (256,000) and two personal financial advisors (260,000) squeak by at the very lowest boundary of the lower middle class. None of them could support a stay-at-home spouse, though, without slipping into poverty.

But poverty howls at the doors of the houses of two physicists (226,000), two real estate agents (238,000), two college professors specializing in health (232,000)**, two computer hardware engineers (202,000), and two computer research scientists (222,000).

Whole professions have been locked entirely out of the lower middle class. In fact, it seems like the lower middle class has been raised entirely out of sight... almost to a point where it's just a little tiny white dot in the air, almost invisible, almost totally devoid of all meaning.

As a lower middle class salary, the number $250,000 excludes almost everyone. Almost everyone falls below, and almost no one is above. If this is going to be a meaningful way of deciding who is in the middle class, then I have to ask what the point of protecting the middle class is. I though that one reason we hear so much about defending the interests of the middle class was because that's where the bulk of the population is, the largest number of people whose interests need defending. But if entry into even the *lower* middle class requires such a high barrier, then we're talking about a smaller and smaller, rarefied sliver of people. If that's the middle class, then no, I don't oppose raising taxes on "the middle class."

Of course, $250,000 isn't a lower middle class salary, not in any real world metric. $250,000 is not a lower middle class salary anywhere outside of situations when Republicans want to stretch the definition of middle class past its breaking point in order to oppose raising taxes on the rich.

The idea that $250,000 is a lower middle class salary in NYC--even for a pair of earners--is the function of profound delusion and ignorance.

--

*The numbers appear to be from 2008.

**Why are "Health Specialties Teachers, College" so overpaid compared to their peers?*** Their $116,000 median salary is bizarrely high compared to the next highest category, $95,000 for law professors, and the third place $89,000 for economics teachers. Filtering all college professors out of the category, the highest median salary in education is $70,000, applying to both secondary school vocation teachers and secondary school special education teachers. (I expect that they're overpaid in comparison to *their* peers because the job requires an extra educational degree.)

***My husband points out that it's because they're teaching pre-med, and that the hierarchy med teachers, then law teachers, is parallel to the one in the real world where surgeons earn a huge amount of money, and lawyers earn slightly less.

Comments

( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
czakbar
Jul. 30th, 2010 08:12 am (UTC)
This fellow seems to be exemplary of the disconnect in terms of class definitions in this country. It exists on the other end of the spectrum, too. A person I know who makes 20K a year in retail considers herself middle class. I think of that as simply modern-day service economy-oriented working class, a salary that allows a person to pay bills and feed themselves but to never really get ahead. But people often think of themselves as middle class, it seems, on both ends of the spectrum.

Profound delusion and ignorance indeed.
charmingbillie
Jul. 30th, 2010 11:18 am (UTC)
We used to think we were middle class when we were kids because a) my parents never talked about money around us and b) we were farmers and always had plenty of food.
rachel_swirsky
Jul. 30th, 2010 12:18 pm (UTC)
My first serious boyfriend grew up with parents in two solidly middle class careers (one was a nurse, the other a government consultant) but had bought into a narrative that he was poor because his parents didn't buy his video games.

When I got together with Mike, whose single-mother-lead family had food shortage problems, and who still gets excited when we buy fruit juice because his hindbrain thinks of it as a luxury... I realized boyfriend 1 was basically full of shit.

I think part of the problem with American inability to talk about money and taboo around class issue is that we don't really understand what other people are earning (I went through a phase in college when I asked people, because I just didn't know what realistic numbers were), and while real numbers are out there to document classes, they feel abstract.

We consequently fill in class details with our politics. Middle class, but feel like you deserve more? Then classify yourself as struggling--as one of my friends once did on the phone with me when she was earning a combined salary with her husband of $110,000 in New York (outside the city). I pulled up average levels for her area, showing that she and her husband were well above the median for their area, and she was shocked.

Poor, but feel you do as well as your neighbors? What's stopping you from feeling middle class when you've never walked into a rich person's house, never heard what they do on vacation, never seen the blithe way they respond to emergencies that would bring you financial ruin? (Our relatives who are slum lords believe that there should be no health insurance, even for the employed, and refuse to carry any themselves. When the wife became extremely ill and had be hospitalized for weeks, they simply went in and slapped down about $100,000, approximately 2/3 of the billed amount, because they knew the hospital would discount for being paid in full in cash. They then smugly proposed this as a solution to health care woes to everyone unfortunate enough to bring up the issue in their presence.)

Most people have very little idea about class, I think, and especially what life is like with vastly more or vastly less money than they have. (While I've read about poverty, for instance, I've got no real idea of what it would be like to have food shortage, or to spend a large portion of my time worrying about not having enough money for basic necessities, or even modest luxuries.)

I grew up thinking the people I knew were middle class when we were upper middle class, and when a number of our relatives and acquaintances are rich.

Excuse me. I apparently had a soap box there.
ringsnake
Jul. 30th, 2010 11:35 pm (UTC)
I'm 100% behind you about American's inability to talk, or even confront the idea of, class and money.

We live in a capitalist democracy. It's a most precarious mix of ideologies, but with the right controls and balances in place it works pretty well. Try this one on a conservative. What was the tax rate in the bygone era of Ward Cleaver, which all white conservatives pine for the return of? A time I might add, where middle class wealth and power was at its peak.

The answer is here: http://www.taxfoundation.org/publications/show/151.html

The tax rate for most people was in the 30-40% range, and it sharply rocketed up to 80-90% range. It would have been, at a rough guess, in the 60% range if you translated that number to $250,000 in modern dollars. That person would be left with about $100000 after those tax rates. Rather than the $175000 he'd have under the current tax rates. A person can live very comfortably on $100,000, but won't be able to get a new BMW or have the extra fancy condo the poor baby.

The person who first increased taxes massively? Hoover, a Republican, who wasn't too great about putting that money back into the economy. Roosevelt increased taxes further, but in fairness he had a war to pay off, and the social services he created gave money to the poor. Poor people are better recipients for money, because they need to spend that money right away on stuff like food, rather than socking it away where it can't move the economy forward, or blowing it on yachts.

A lot of this is about class, and the first shot in that war was fired by Kennedy. He was the first president to propose lowering taxes on the rich. He was killed before he could sign off on it, but Johnson signed off on it. Then shock of shock we got inflation as people had more money, but the spending power of that money was reduced! Each president after has knocked taxes further down, but the spending power of most Americans is reduced.

That's what happens. The spending power and wealth of the poor and middle class (such as it is these days) is constant, but more people are made poor as the money floats up and concentrates in the pockets of the rich. You can't make any but a small handful of people more wealthy by lowering taxes. Somewhat non-intuitively, you make more people poor, and a very few people mind buggeringly rich. In long run you also destroy the economy as a whole as the money stops moving around.

This isn't a conservative-liberal or Republican-Democrat issue. This is people with lots of money and power being greedy for more of what they already have.

We've been trained to think that high taxes are outrageous, though under 1950's tax law you'd have to be making millions to worry about 90% tax rates. The whole point of those tax rates was to prevent an aristocracy (like the Kennedy's themselves) from forming. Those who survived the Great Depression were quite aware of why those high income tax rates needed to be there.

So the person making $10 million pays $9 million in taxes. A person with a cool million in the bank at the end of each year is doing very well indeed. What would he have done with that extra $9 million? Bought a mansion in place of a large house? Gotten a few more sports cars? That person benefits from the gifts of society more than most. The point is that the Wall Street banker who has the fortune to write himself a paycheck of tens or even hundreds of millions both pays his fair share, and doesn't gain the power to sway our elected representatives. Nor does he have the ability to create a family dynasty to make the Royalists we kicked off this continent hundreds of years ago green with envy.
ext_264316
Sep. 22nd, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
What would he have done with that extra $9 million?
"What would he have done with that extra $9 million?"

Well, he could have bought stock, which would have an incremental affect on the stock market. If every millionaire did this, it would boost the 401(k)s of the entire middle - and lower - class.

He might buy a yacht - one of the few commodities still developed in the united states. That creates demand for ship-builders, creating jobs, and wood, which employs loggers.

He might hire more domestic servants, creating jobs, or he might invest it in his business -- ramping up hiring to make still more money -- creating jobs.

Certainly, if the tax bracket is 95%, for every $1 more his business gets, he'll only see a nickel. If it's 5%, he'll see 95 cents.

Now, say he is considering hiring a few people. That might need a lot of training, waste his time, and he's have to fire them. The upside is that if they work out, he'll money.

At a 95% tax bracket, tho, it's not much money. At 5%, it's a lot.

So the tax bracket that encourages investment in jobs is ... ta-da ... the lower one.

Just me talkin', but I wanted to honestly answer the question.
ext_264316
Sep. 22nd, 2010 06:42 pm (UTC)
Re: What would he have done with that extra $9 million?
commodity isn't the right word above. Maybe "real things"?
ext_264316
Sep. 22nd, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
Interesting thread so far, but ...
... I can't help but notice your focus is on income.

/Dude/. The upper classs don't make the majoriy of their money on income, they make it on capital gains - profit from sale of stocks and real estate.

So for example, a trust-fund baby living in Manhattan might have $50 Million in asses and no day job. Put the money in a modestly performing offshore account (5%), though, and that translates to $2.5 Mil year of positive cash flow.

Ironically that dude depresses the 'average' income in Manhattan.

Bottom line: I think you've got some insightful ideas here, but your modeling focuses on /income/ and that makes me suspect your conclusions.
rachel_swirsky
Sep. 22nd, 2010 07:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Interesting thread so far, but ...
Hello and welcome. :D Just wondering how you came by the blog?
ext_264316
Sep. 22nd, 2010 07:29 pm (UTC)
Re: Interesting thread so far, but ...
Lots of people are linking to the "$250K isn't much money poor me" blog article, others are linking to the folks they thought had good coverage of it. I think someone tweeted your article as recommended -- if memory serves.

By the way, I don't have much sympathy for the basic argument that we should "tax the rich" but "oh no, not me, I only make $300K/year and I live in an expensive neighborhood."

I guess rich is in the eye of the beholder.
rachel_swirsky
Sep. 22nd, 2010 07:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Interesting thread so far, but ...
Okay.

Well, I'm not taking a great deal of time to analyze this because I'm working at the moment, but it seems to me that while income is not the only marker of class identity (in addition to the ability to live on investments, other markers, such as education and upbringing affect one's class, though not one's taxable situation), it is a reasonable factor to concentrate on in this post. I'm not comparing the rich to the super-rich, I'm comparing the rich (or upper middle class at any rate) to people in tax brackets below them. It's unlikely that most people who make the median income of 50k are living off their investments.
rachel_swirsky
Jul. 30th, 2010 12:06 pm (UTC)
I totally agree with you--the rush to identify as part of the middle is a documented sociological fact of American life.
elusis
Jul. 30th, 2010 07:58 pm (UTC)
And don't forget the study from a few years back that said the majority of Americans believed they would at some point find themselves in the top... 20%? of earners? So the WalMart cashier will earnestly say she doesn't want public benefits expanded because a) she has no idea how many benefits she actually receives or is entitled to, and b) she thinks she will be in a position someday to actually bear a serious tax burden that will go to subsidize "those people." (the racial aspect of this narrative was not explored in the story I heard at the time, but is clearly evident.)
charmingbillie
Jul. 30th, 2010 11:16 am (UTC)
The 'HOMG x huge salary is middle class in this specific place' argument (and, yes, I've heard it before with regard to California) infuriates me because it renders invisible all the millions of people who live on much much less money than that. Also it's so wilfully ignorant.

Could 'Health Specialties, Teachers' actually be doctors at a teaching hospital? I know doctors are what make U of I salaries look so high.
rachel_swirsky
Jul. 30th, 2010 12:20 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that's what Mike pointed out (that they had MDs)--but the fact that they're probably also working as doctors is important, too.
joeboo_k
Jul. 30th, 2010 11:22 am (UTC)
I want to live in a world where such a statement is actually true (and where I was part of such a middle class) - and where the cost of living did not also rise with that middle class line.
rachel_swirsky
Jul. 30th, 2010 12:23 pm (UTC)
It took me a minute to process what you mean--but then I got it--and I will definitely raise a glass to the ascendancy of the middle class.

orbitalmechanic
Jul. 30th, 2010 12:16 pm (UTC)
THANK YOU.
rosalux
Jul. 31st, 2010 02:08 am (UTC)
Thank you for this. I have almost given up reading Alas because the commentariat includes just a few, but prolific and willing to argue ridiculous nonfacts, folks.
rachel_swirsky
Jul. 31st, 2010 03:49 am (UTC)
Oh my God, I know. If it helps, Barry and I had a big discussion which ended up in the creation of an Alas mirror site called the Debate Annex, where we have sent several of those few wiling-to-argue-ridiculous-facts folks. We're hoping to bleed some of the 101 level debate there, while keeping discussion at Alas to a more sophisticated exchange of ideas.
therinth
Aug. 1st, 2010 11:58 am (UTC)
I know for nursing school instructors, being a teacher is a labor of love...because you have to have been an RN for a long time, and then gone to get all of your education towards teaching...and then teach, which is actually a huge paycut, in California. Being as RN salary >>> nursing instructor at public school salary. Perhaps in NY they're being compensated to attract educators away from more lucerative careers?
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