The problem with discussing the distribution of wealth and income in the US is that politicians of both parties have for years been pandering to the ‘middle class’ and courting their votes by promising to improve their condition.
The rich have exploited this by giving small income tax benefits to the middle class while giving themselves huge tax benefits, and then claiming that the entire middle class has benefited. David Cay Johnson in his book Perfectly Legal: The covert system to rig our tax system to benefit the super rich – and cheat everybody else (2003) describes how this spreading the wealth in favor of the rich is done. The title of his book says it all. Then the rich (and the middle class dupes who have been taken in by this scam) get outraged and scream ‘socialism!’ when someone comes along to try and spread the wealth in the opposite direction.
They have been getting away with this because the phrase ‘middle class’ has been bandied around a lot without being defined by politicians and the media. As a result, we have the curious phenomenon that almost everyone, from the quite poor to the quite rich, thinks of themselves as middle class. Thus someone who is earning $30,000 a year feels they are in the same class as, and feel a sense of class solidarity to, someone earning $250,000 a year. Hence they react with a sense of grievance when someone with much higher income than them doesn’t come out ahead because of any change in fiscal policies.
The word class has become perceived as based not only on income but also as a proxy for family background, the nature of one’s job, the social circle one moves in, and lifestyle practices. This vagueness has enabled almost everyone to think of themselves as middle class because in at least one area of their life they may overlap with those much better off than them. So someone who has a good formal education but now works at minimum wage job may still consider himself middle class because he reads newspapers and books, listens to classical music, and is involved in arts and community activities.
But if we narrow the definition of class to purely income and leave those other unquantifiable elements out, we can get a better idea what the terms ‘poor’, middle class’ and ‘rich’ might mean.
To see how income is distributed in the US, take a look at this table published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of the Census. It gives the range of income in 2005 for each quintile of households. Note that this is for households, not individuals, and thus includes the income of all the wage earners in a household.
20% of households earn less than $19,178
20% of households earn between $19,178 and $36,000
20% of households earn between $36,000 and $57,568
20% of households earn between $57,568 and $91,705
20% of households earn over $91,705
Only 5% of households earn over $166,000.
It is reasonable to think of the middle three quintiles as defining the middle class, so it consists of those households with incomes roughly between $20,000 and $90,000, where I have rounded each figure to the nearest $10,000. If one wants to, one can split those three middle quintiles into lower-middle class, the ‘true’ middle class, and upper-middle class.
Those earning below $20,000 can be called poor and those earning over $90,000 can technically be described as rich. But there is something jarring about the notion that those earning around $90,000 are actually rich. That level of income does not really allow for the kind of lifestyle that one associates with really rich people. It may be more accurate to label that group as simply ‘well-to-do’.
But if we split the well-to-do group into finer-grained slices, we can perhaps get a better understanding of who is really rich. Footnote 1 of this paper provides a link that downloads a spreadsheet that breaks down the income ranges for the highest income groups (excluding realized capital gains) in 2006. (See Worksheet Table 0)
It shows that:
10% of households earn between $100,349 and $138.254
5% of households earn between $138,254 and $329,070
1% of households earn between $329,070 and $482,129
0.5% of households earn between $482,129 and $1,401,635
0.1% of households earn between $1,401,635 and $6,473,710
0.01% of households earn over $6,473,710
Using this table, one can subdivide the top quintile of the well-to-do category into the ‘rich’ (the roughly 5% of households earning between $140,000 and $330,000), the ‘very rich’ (the 1% earning between $330,000 and $480,000), and the ‘super rich’ (the 0.6% earning over $480,000), where again I have rounded each figure to the nearest $10,000. These labels agree more with out intuitive notions.
So Joe the Plumber, who says he hopes to earn over $250,000, rather than being the middle class everyman he has been portrayed to be, belongs to a very tiny and select group, definitely rich and approaching the very rich. He is in the top 2-3% of income earners.
So why is he is whining about his marginal income tax rate for the amount over $250,000 being increased from 35% to 39%, which is hardly going to have any impact on his ability to meet the needs of him or his family? And why do so many people, who will never ever get close to earning that kind of money in their entire lives, identify with him and are sympathetic to his complaint?
POST SCRIPT: McCain supports ‘spreading the wealth’
Listen to what John McCain says at the end of this clip at a town hall meeting in 2000:
Transcript of last portion:
Audience member: “Why is it that someone like my father who goes to school for 13 years gets penalized in a huge tax bracket because he’s a doctor.”
McCain: “I think it’s to some degree because we feel obviously that wealthy people can afford more.”
Audience member: “Are we getting closer and closer to, like, socialism?”
McCain: “Here’s what I really believe: That when you reach a certain level of comfort, there’s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more.”
Stewart: “That, of course, is the late socialist leader John McCain. I believe he passed away during the Republican primaries. He will be missed.”
Looks like McCain was for spreading the wealth before he was against it.