26 May 2008

Middle Class

If you ask just about anybody in the US how rich they are, you'll get the same answer -- middle class. If pressed for more, you may get "working class" or "upper-middle class." Of course, we all like to think we're in the middle. Almost nobody considers themselves rich, because they still feel a crunch at to pay their bills, be it the apartment rent or the mortgage to the summer home. Nobody wants to consider themselves poor, because it's an unpleasant idea and are aware of those poorer than themselves. But what does it mean to be middle class?

Median income in the United States in 2005 was $46,326 per household (not individual). That essentially means that for every family of living off of $65,000, there was a family living off of $25,000. One percent of all individuals make over $290,000 per year.(1)
Now, there's dozens of papers out there insisting that there is no such thing as a middle class in the US -- that half of the nation's families makes $65,000 and up, and half make $25,000 below, and almost no family makes between $25,000 and ·$65,000. But that's not what I want to talk about.

I want to talk about where the United States' "middle class" figures in on a larger scale. While one may even be average for the United States, who cares? That means you're average among less than 4% of the world's population. Even a millionaire may be in the "middle class" if he only compares himself to other millionaires. According to the United Nations Development Programme, a "middle class" person in the world makes approximately $5,800(2).

Now, to be fair, things cost a lot less in the United States. I admit I just ate a tiny bag of Cheetos priced at the equivilant of US$0.15. Luckily, lots of folks have gone out and studied what each income really buys. Essentially they go to each country to ask people how much they make, and how many each year they can buy of bags of cheetos , a pound of chicken, a house with three rooms, a tank of propane, etc. They figure out, that a guy making $40,000 in the US may be able to buy as much as if he was making $20,000 in Brazil, or whatever.

One of these lovely studies came up with the second graph. It shows the country, how much a "midddle class" person spend per year on consumibles (in US$), and how much they spend on several different products. It's a much more sensible way to look at how much you make. It doesn't matter how many zeroes are on your paycheck, it matters how often you can afford to eat steak (or anything, for that matter).

So, look at the graph. It says that the average American uses about $21,000 a year for consumption (the rest invested in things like housing or stocks or paid to Uncle Sam). a lot of that goes to buying fish, meat, cereals, and paper. Fish: Of the selected countries, we buy less fish than a Chinese, Japanese, or Singaporean. No shocker. Despite the fact we don't consider ourselves big fish eaters, We still eat more per person than a Bangladeshi, Nigerian, and an Indian put together (all coastal nations).

Hmm, meat. Of course we're the most carniverous, but how carniverous is that? Well, put a steak in front of a Zambian, a Nigerian, a Bangladeshi, an Indian, a Chinese, an Indonesian, and a Turk, and they'll split the bill. Put the same steak in front of us, and we'll ask for seconds the size of what the Turk ate. Yes, we like meat more than most. But I asked a college-educated Guatemalan what rich meant recently. You know what she said? "Eating meat every day," the same way we say, "owning a summer home in the Hamptons."

What's the moral of the story? Not that we're big, fat, selfish Americans (despite one in three of us being obese). That when we call ourselves "middle class," we would do well to compare ourselves to everyody, not just our fellow Americans. Otherwise we're just acting like the millionaires jealous of the billionaires.

1. US Census Bureau. (Census Home Page)
2. Income and Poverty 2005 [pdf]. World Bank: United Nations Development Programme. Found at HyperTextbook.


Helen Walters said...

Hey Andrew,

I just read through most of your blog. I love your thought processes and style of writing. Thanks for sharing your experiences and good luck with with graduate school.


Anonymous said...

is it possible for a girlfriend of a PC volunteer to move to the same location as him?

Alexander Nixon said...

hello Andrew,

I am a future Guatemala volunteer. I've been reading your blog for the last week...older and newer posts. I love your writing style and reading your thoughts.

I have a question: do volunteers in Guatemala use blackberries or Skype? If not, what's the best way to keep connected?


PS you are doing Marketing Facilitating, sí?

TiffanyJ said...

Wow I'm leaving for PC Guatemala in four weeks. I really love the way you argue your point here using so much data but also simple logic.

I am required to mention that this blog doesn´t reflect the opinions of the Peace Corps.