Wealthy begins at $250,000. Americans earning below that line, according to President Barack Obama, are folks “just trying to get by.”
It’s people earning below the $250,000 mark who will benefit from the extension of part of the Bush-era tax cuts, a cause that President Barack Obama pitched again from the East Room of the White House today.
Only 2 percent of Americans earn above the quarter-million dollar mark. A few months ago, I asked a bunch of these two-percenters if they felt wealthy. Over and over again, I heard from people looking up from incomes of $275,000 or $500,000 at the millionaires and multi-millionaires above them and wondering, “How did we get lumped in with these people?”
The American economy runs on the labor of people looking up at the class of earners above them — sometimes way above them.
For example, here’s how Richard Benzinger, a doctor in St. Louis who answered my questions for people earning above $250,000, responded to the question “What’s it like to be in the top 2 percent of earners?”:
“Well, it puts me comfortably out of the range where affording the standard middle-class signifiers requires any real worry (house, cars, tuition for my child). That’s nice. Also, we have a full-time housekeeper, and it feels good to be able to contribute a stable job to somebody else in this dicey economy. On the other hand, I don’t think I am particularly happier than I was when I was a grad student earning 1/20th the income that I do now.
“Like many people that I might call “working wealthy,” I really resent Mr. Obama’s lumping people at my income with the true, jaw-dropping rich. Having a housekeeper is the only part of my life that I would begin to consider extravagant, and it feels weird to be demonized by the President for what I think is a pretty unremarkable lifestyle.”
It’s all about where you’re standing, right? Even as Benzinger’s looks up at the “jaw-dropping” rich, most Americans (98 percent) are looking up at him. Those are the people the President says are “just trying to get by.” Among them is Susette Carroll, 32, a single mother, part-time student and delivery driver for a pizza place in rural Kentucky. Like Benzinger, she’s keenly aware of how much she has, compared to some people — and how much more others have, compared to her.
Carroll responded to questions I posted online about hard work. On a regular work day she says she drives 100-120 miles delivering pizzas in an area, she told me, where it seems you either have a lot of money or you’re really poor and she delivers pizza to people on both ends of that economic spectrum. “I’ve seen a lot of crazy things — the ways people live — I’ve seen it all,” she said.
She sees a lot of poverty, especially when welfare and Social Security checks come in. “I go to this one place in a low-income housing area,” she said. “And every time I go there, when the lady opens the door, it smells really bad in there and she’s got these little babies in there and they have saggy diapers on and I feel really bad. I want to help.”
I asked her how it’s different delivering pizza to the wealthy. “They don’t tip as well,” she said, adding, generously, “but I think its just because they’ve never really worked in that sort of an atmosphere.”
Voltaire wrote, “The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.” And when I asked Carroll why she thinks people are poor, she echoes this. “I just think that everything has its function,” she said. “If it wasn’t for poor people, they wouldn’t have people to deliver their pizzas, or sell them fancy jeans at Macy’s, or massage their backs or clean their houses. That’s just the way it is. If there was a better way they’d probably call it communism or socialism or something — I don’t know. I think there should be a better way, but it just is.”
Share your experiences with hard work or living in the 2 percent (or both?) here: