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March 27, 2006


I think it may be best if I abstain from this thread.

I kicked ass, but just because my wife earns so much money.

And after I got done putting my lecture on the Gilded Age back in the file cabinet, I didn't think about this post any more.

Why should I?

too high on d) and particularly e) - thought upwards of 20%.

didn't even hazard a guess about f)

acutely aware living in the Bay Area that these numbers must be strongly adjusted for location to make sense, and I had trouble getting past that thought

a.) I thought this was ~47k
b 40k vs 72%of40k
c ~20k
d 20%+
e 30%+
f 10%+

I think your survey may be undercounting the poor. Census numbers usually underestimate illegal aliens. Of course they are also going to undercount income since many people are on the underground economy.

I didn't look that closely but can you tell if that number for full time workers includes those working more than one part time job?

I was way low. Thought median family income was around 30k. Wondering, probably stupidly, if in this case mean family income might be lower than median, and what conditions would be necessary for that to be the truth. Maybe 40% in the 50-100k range, 20% way up there, and 40% in the under $30k range?

As usual, benefits might be counted, and I think personal debt is high enough in America to almost be counted as income (of course it would count against wealth). If people are borrowing $5000 a year against their credit cards or a lot more with mortgages, then the spendable cash flow is higher. I know it works for me.

There's a whole stream of academic literature in Europe that tries to define a "consensual" poverty line by asking the population what they think the minimum income for various types of families is before it's not enough to live on. Surprise, surprise - what people define as "poverty" tends to be strongly correlated with their own actual income.
DeLay was probably quite sincere, albeit characteristically ignorant, in his protestations.

I think that Delay's comment re his income shows a remarkable tone-deafness. I imagine it's a problem for him to maintain two households (one in DC; one in Texas) on that income, but...don't these guys run for office knowing what the pay is? And didn't Delay earn a little extra pay for being the Majority Leader? Right now that pay rate is $183,500/year.

To my way of thinking, anyone making more than $100k/year that complains about their income should instead be complaining about their expenses. And the $100k/year number certainly could be negotiated downward quite a bit, just saying.

OK, here's my try

(a) 40k
(b) 36k/24k
(c) 17k
(d) 20%

Why did I screw up? I thought that median income for households was more indicative of both mother and father working.

Poverty threshold was close, I over estimated the number of elderly who were impoverished because they have no income. Overestimated the number of workers below the poverty threshold

While I don't think we can come up with a movable poverty threshold, but I think the debate suffers from the fact that a lot of people remember when they were young and were able to get by on very little money and think 'hey, I was able to do it'. But living like that with kids, or when you are old, is a whole nother thing.

"Thus, one of my mottos has always been: cross class boundaries whenever you can."

This sentiment speaks well for your commitment to social justice, and I myself have practiced it to some extent (construction laborer; teamster's truck loader, etc.)

It also marks both of us, unmistakably, as the children of relative privilege. If you cross to a lower class 'whenever you can', you are spending your time there voluntarily.

The people you're visiting? They aren't there visiting. Generally, they can't get out. Or at least, vanishingly few of them will (and even fewer of *those* will come back for laughs).

Mobility is part of the real wealth in this picture--your ability, my ability, to move between classes. It's a bit like global travel; you meet these picturesque people in colorful third-world locales. You leave again to return to the first world. They stay there.

I'm not writing this to criticize you--the issues are very important, and you are right to raise them. My point is more that many things go into American poverty right now. One of them is median H.I. Another one is household wealth (debt included, as Bob McManus points out).

And another--even more troubling--factor in American poverty today is the decreasing ability of the people from below the lower class boundaries to travel up, and have themselves and their children stay up. Crossing class boundaries is increasingly something only the rich can do.

It helps our national understanding to have the median H.I. numbers firmly in mind. But many of us are willing to tolerate the persistence of wealth discrepancies, provided that there is individual mobility, i.e. the ability of people to move up through their efforts. But the numbers there, I believe, look increasingly bad, and do increasingly little to mitigate the injustice of the discrepancies in income and wealth.

It would be nice to be able to fix those numbers into people's minds as well.

I pretty in tune to this. Most of the employees working here are at the median family income level. Some are less. So what's your point? To take a Delay pot shot? Didn't Ezra kinda http://ezraklein.typepad.com/blog/2005/04/money_money_mon.html>answer you last time? People get by, and are proud of getting by. Some are passing through. Some less fortunate. Not all the families are two plus two. Again, what is your point? Medians. Averages. Bell curves. A lot of folks do pretty good with what they have. I rode with the Patriot Guard Riders in St. Louis Saturday. Many of these folks make enough to buy American flags. What you give them, they'll accept, what you don't they will find a way. They're funny that way.

I am, am I!

blogbudsman: I wasn't aware that I had a point, other than to see what people thought. It wasn't about conveying some message; I was curious.

who really said: I know: there's a difference between my being broke because I absolutely would not ask people to help me out and someone else having no such alternative.

One of the things that struck me, especially when I was working at the biker bar (I had decided that I'd do a better job writing my dissertation if I were doing anything other than being a teaching assistant, and that was what I ended up with; it was in an unfamiliar city (state, part of the country...), and more or less everyone I knew then was from the biker bar) was the extent to which everyone I knew was just one little hitch away from financial meltdown.

I recently heard on a conservative talk show (don't know which one, as it was a brief exchange while I was station surfing in Arkansas recently) that our poor people are the richest poor people in the world.

Probably true in a purely statistical sense. We don't have too many slums like the ones in Brazil for example.

However, is that really relevant.

I think one of the more important things is that, as who really said that pointed out, mobility between classes or income levels is decreasing in this country, and what mobility there is for the "middle class" appears to be increasingly in the downward direction.

All that said, it is also true that people tend to live up to, or beyond, their income level. What most of the world considers luxuries, many Americans consider necessities. Part of this may well be due to corporate America passing that message along.

One of the higher paid employee groups is pilots, yet many airlines have had to cut the pay of members of that group. I can tell you that this has created a lot of angst among them and their families as thwey have had to reduce their standrad of living.

Many people would not cry about this, as they would say their standard of living was pretty high to begin with, and what they have to give up is what many peopel would love to have in the first place.

That does not, however, decrease the level of concern for these people.

That does not, however, address obne of the issues of hilzoy's post, that of cross-class interactions.

I believe Chicago is trying to do something about that. Where the massive public housing projects were, Chicago is working to develop a mix of housing types as well as a mix of income levels. Time will tell if it is at all successful.

I was way off in the pessimistic direction:
way low on the incomes, way high on the percentages.

I know: there's a difference between my being broke because I absolutely would not ask people to help me out and someone else having no such alternative.

Yup. That's the difference between broke and poor. I've been (mildly) broke, but I've never been poor.

everyone I knew was just one little hitch away from financial meltdown.

And one of the worst things is that it needn't even be your own hitch -- when you're poor, your friends and family are also poor, and when they're stuck, you end up screwing yourself over to help them out. (Experience here is from relatives who are well below the median income. We help out in emergencies and it's not a problem, but if they didn't have a close family connection to someone who could shake a couple of hundred bucks loose without it hurting badly, they'd be turning to other family members who would be hurt by the need to help out.)

(And I was accurate on a-c, high on d, accurate on e, and high on f. I think my mis-guesses on d and f were bases on thinking about actual poverty, which starts at an income well over the 'poverty line')

Not much use comparing to our situation I think. But what I miss in the comparison is the difference between rural and urban median incomes, and wether people have the basics covered. Low income *with* health insurance might lead to more "free spendable income" for instance. And living in New York is probabely more expensive than living in a village in Utah, so the latter could have a considerable lower income and still have more to spend.

I was close enough for nuclear bombs, not very close for horseshoes. To answer an earlier post, median income is way under mean, as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, etc., get factored into the mean in proportion to their incomes.

Vermont, where I live, is a relatively high income state, but has no cities to speak of. Thus, every town has class issues, because people who don't (for whatever reason) make a lot of money live all over the place. The easiest way to talk to people of other socioeconomic classes is to join the volunteer fire department.

The issue of moving between classes is the most important for me...the last statistics I saw must have been 10 years ago, and they showed an impressive amount of movement in and out of quintiles. I'd have to guess that this is lower now.

John Miller, you might want to read this column about pilot pay.


I realize that as in most careers, ther is a great range of salaries. This is specially true among pilots. Some of the larger airlines have been reducing starting pay for quite awhile.

I was referring more to the long term pilots. Due to my job, I come into contact with several for one of the larger airlines. Many are severly worried about the consequences of pay cuts and this has resulted in some major problems for them as individuals and their families.

john miller: I recently heard on a conservative talk show (don't know which one, as it was a brief exchange while I was station surfing in Arkansas recently) that our poor people are the richest poor people in the world.

...providing they stay healthy, I suppose. And they don't need dental work. Or eyeglasses.

Okay, John, then maybe people other than you might want to look at the column. When I read it when it came out I was shocked that some of those responsible for flying planes full of people around the sky are getting paid less than I was years ago at a job where I was responsible for making sure commas and capitalization were okay (well, maybe I had a few other responsibilities). (Not that copyediting isn't an honorable and necessary profession, Gary, but it very rarely involves matters of life and death.)

The median income for families is $55,442, a little easier to live on than median for the U.S. as a whole. I really think they ought to break these down by single, married, female, Hispanic every time they show them, it's a lousy yardstick with just the one median household income.

Tom Cecere - Some people who want to show more movement between quintiles than there is will give statistics that count it as a move when a grad student gets his first job. Most recent thing I've seen that measures the whole life cycle is this interactive graphic from the New York Times. Very informative. Don't miss the "next" link on the top right.

I am somewhat immersed in the working class, I've been driving a forklift for five years after college, and frankly I don't find it very informative. I have a pretty hard time fitting in with people from my own class background, crossing over is like to impossible. If anything it's harder to understand people who have trouble paying their utility bill when I make the exact same amount and live in the same town. The reasons are all internal attitudes and bad histories, invisible as ever to the eye.

I guess since I live on $8 an hour and save the rest I am closer to understanding people who live under the median, but not closer than Gary Farber.

FWIW, my guesses (based on what I could remember of the figures cited in various media recently) seemed to have been a bit on the high side: (real figs. in paren)
a) c. 52M (44.3M)
b) M: 45 F: 32 (40/31)
c) 22M (19.1M)
d) 18% (12.7%)
e) 20% (17.2%)
f) 25% (6.1%)

[Yes, I know I really blew it on f)!]

jes, interesting. I was under the impression that just about anyone can get essential medical services, including dental and vision, in some fashion. That would seem to be important to this discussion. I'll be the schmoo - throw it at me. Heck, I would even have guessed that illegal immigrants are receiving these essential services as part of the attraction to wade over.

Noumenon - Thanks for the post. The mobility numbers are from 1988-98, which is I guess what I had seen. I perceive this as relatively mobile. It's actually quite surprising how many in the top quintile wound up lower; probably divorce plays the biggest part in that. As long as we're in a class war, we should mention drunken revelry and buying too many clothes, too. :)

Interesting article in the NYT today about sticky class structures in African American males. Hard to see how we make more progress on mobility if we don't solve that problem.

Ah, a fellow tow-motor driver. Welcome!

I don't drive 'em now, but I helped put myself through college doing that (among other things).

Oh, and I can say that over my lifetime, I've spent more than a couple of years in every one of the quintiles. I guess I could think of that as being economically well-traveled.

"jes, interesting. I was under the impression that just about anyone can get essential medical services, including dental and vision, in some fashion."

I said I'd try to stay out of this conversation, and I am, but if anyone has any tips on how I can see a dentist for the first time in decades, and get replacement glasses for the ones I lost three years ago (which were over 15 years old), I'd certainly welcome them; I live in Colorado.

I also have a Paypal link at the top of my blog.

Carry on.

I have to say I find it very interesting that none of the libs reporting in said anything about the rich screwing the poor, but that the first thing cons think of when they see a thread on economic statistics is class warfare.

Frank, I'd say that your direct tap into my thought processes is giving you bad data.

Blogbudsman: I was under the impression that just about anyone can get essential medical services, including dental and vision, in some fashion.

Were you? Because, no. There's a PDF doc here on Oral health in America, a report from the Surgeon General's office May 2000. If you can show that things have improved in the past six years so that - for example - the 26 million children in the US who have no health insurance now all get good free dental care, that would be... interesting, since it would also be a unique reversal of the usual Bush standard of diminishing levels of care for the poor... ;-)

(Before anyone jumps on me for UK smugness: dentistry is a significant problem in the UK too, to anyone on a low income. In theory it's covered by the NHS, in practice it can be extremely difficult to find a dentist taking new NHS patients, especially adults. This used not to be the case, but according my dentist (with whom I am still registered as an NHS patient, and have no intention of trying to move anywhere else!) NHS bureaucracy with regard to dental care has been getting worse and worse over the past fifteen years, discouraging dentists from taking on new NHS patients. Dentists and opticians both were kept half-in/half-out of the NHS when the health system was nationalised in 1948, and this was probably a bad idea - it dated from the days when it was assumed that good teeth and corrected vision were luxuries, rather than necessities. As a result, NHS dentistry and NHS opticians are both harder to find than they should be.)

Some people who want to show more movement between quintiles than there is will give statistics that count it as a move when a grad student gets his first job.

My dad's described graduate school as "genteel poverty", which seems about right. Though "immature" and "pointless" are also appropriate on occasion.

Slarti- :) Funny you should mention that. I thought of you when I wrote that post, but I knew you didn't count as a conservative. You forget that since you dont support President Bush you are now a liberal. ;)

Malcolm Gladwell's take on the absence of good dental care in particular and good health care in general.

"if anyone has any tips..."

GF: I know this isn't exactly what you had in mind but you might look into it. I've found it/them to be very helpful, esp. wrt dental, in times of great dearth and "challenging" credit.

I did pretty well on my a-d guesses-- I must have seen the statistics relatively recently. I guessed high on e (about 25%, higher than the 17.2% accurate number) and misread the f question.

"GF: I know this isn't exactly what you had in mind but you might look into...."

I may give this a try, actually, if they'll take me; making additional debt payments on top of current debt payments, on top of the monthly gap between my very low income and low expenses, isn't in my budget, but it's would probably better to have better teeth and more bad credit listings than vice versa; but the bad credit will probably prevent it; but we'll see.

Gary: They used to have a relatively long-term (2 years I think) interest-free lending program and after that the interest was ridiculously low, like 1%. Don't know if that plan is still available but I really hope it (or something) works out for you. Major dental woes are such a drag.

a) 35k
b) 42k/30k
c) 17k
d) 12%
e) 15%
f) 20%

Not bad except f, where I was way off.

Speaking to your comment amount meeting people outside your class, you'd do at lot worse than the armed forces. Once you're in you're all in it together, and while I'm sure the higher ranks tend to come more from the upper classes, the degree of mobility in the military is pretty high. In almost 15 years of service, I've worked with people from just about all backgrounds (the hideously rich are underrepresented) and nationalities (I've had soldiers from six continents). Not for everyone, but I'll wager I've had a lot more contact with people from other social classes than the vast majority of people, and because these people are often friends or subordinates, I've gotten a hard look at what it's like for those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Watching a PFC try to raise a family is an inspiring and frustrating experience. (Not a recruiting pitch, btw. Just an observation inspired by Hilzoy's comment about meeting people from different backgrounds.)

Now, the $64,000 question: what ought to be done to increase social mobility. I agree that we'd be a lot better off as a society if people moved a lot more between classes, but I'm not sure there's a good solution to it. I'd be curious to see what you might propose to increase the level of social mobility.

Gary: You might also want to check out any local vocational/technical schools and colleges. When I was really broke, I found that I could get very low-cost dental care and other services there as a "guinea pig", if you will--though in reality the students they'll let work on you are already trained.

The same can sometimes be found for haircuts, car maintenance, and a lot of other things.

I've been everything from on the streets to upper-middle class. Right now Jess and I are pretty well off, due to both of us working and my having a FTE job paying really well. It's been about two or three years since I've been in a situation where I couldn't afford to pay for something basic, like electricity or rent, but I remember living paycheck-to-paycheck (and not having one) and it's truly nightmarish--you don't realize what a constant weight it is on your mind until it's not there anymore.

In my experience most of the times I've been truly broke were not times when I had no options--they were times when my pride refused to accept the employment options available to me, or when I exercised bad judgement with money. Since I started using MS Money to track my finances, I've never had a bounced check or anything like that, and having a kid motivates me quite a bit to stay employed.

I'm lucky: I have a very supportive family, and I'm good with computers. Not everyone has those advantages, and even now one really bad medical problem or emergency could still hurt us badly. That happened a year and a half ago when some twit ran a red light and totaled our car; it's only recently that we've been able to afford to replace it, and if either of us had been badly hurt, we'd have been screwed.

I definitely reccommend the dental schools if you don't have much money and you need to get something fixed.

Gary i got several fillings and a crown done for free by being a Board patient for dentists who were taking the iowa Boards. There will be a Coloado equivalent. Really desperate prospective dentists will actually pay uyou to be their patient for the Boaords.

Thanks to everyone for the suggestions; I'll see what can be done; none of us wants me to give details, but, trust me, my teeth need professional attention after having had none in decades.

my guess / actual

a - household median income: 48,000 / 44,389
b - male median income: 41,000 / 40,798 (female: 31,223)
c - poverty threshhold family of four: 27,000 / 19,157
d - % Americans in poverty : 16% / 12.7%
e - % under-18 Americans in poverty: 21% / 17.2%
f - % workers over 16 in poverty: 19% / 6.1%
(2.8% worked full-time, year-round)

In my defense for d, e, and f: I was too influenced by where I live (one third of county households live on 24K).

Given medical expenses, and the artificiality of the 2 adults/2 children model, I believe a very high percentage of people over 60 are actually below the poverty line.

Nell: the actual number (using the right poverty thresholds for each household): 9.8% of people over 65 are below the poverty line, For that, thank Social Security. (Iirc, the numbers used to be much higher before SS.)

I've always wondered about the poverty line indicators for retired people. If I own my house, own my own car and have $300,000 in the bank (invested in a CD at 4%) I technically have an income of only $12,000. But I'm probably doing fine if I don't live like one of the rich because the houseing expense and much of the transportation expense isn't a factor for me. (I suspect this is part of the explanation for the astonishing number of people under the poverty level who own their homes--most are retirees I would guess).

I've had that thought too, Sebastian--it's one of the reasons I want to get a house as soon as I can afford to do so, and pay it off as soon as possible. Once I no longer have rent/house payments, I could cut my income in half and still live decently. Housing in Seattle isn't as bad as it is in, say, New York or San Francisco, but it's still expensive.

"Really desperate prospective dentists..."

But.. is it safe?

Yes, you wouldn't believe how safe it is.

No, it's not, I'd be very careful if I were you.

Our dentist owns a very nice boat.

I do have one observation: compare these numbers to what they were in 1960, or even better, to what they were prior to 1933.

It drives me crazy that it's a commonplace "truth" amongst conservatives and libertarians that the New Deal and Great Society were all a terrible boondogle and failure, and did "no good" and helped lift people out of poverty not at all. This is, last I looked, not remotely true.

Similar to my last experience someone linked to a massive pdf, all that happened when I tried to access the one you started with here (85 pages?), Hilzoy, is that it locked up my tab window until I killed it (I assume that ten minutes of waiting for it to download over dial-up wasn't enough, but it's all I was inclined to wait). If you have data on earlier years, I'd like to see it, but just quoting figures from some year in the fifties, and prior to 1930, would be nice along with the link for others. If you have it.

I shouldn't also let the fact that John Edwards is making poverty a centerpiece of his campaign go unmentioned: it's so damned rare and unheard of these days, when everyone only wants the votes of the "middle class" that everyone allegedly belongs to (or claims they belong to).

(b) Median income for full-time, year-round workers: male: $40,798; female: $31,223. (Recall: 50% of full-time, year-round workers make less than this.)

"Full-time" is deceptive. From http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/COLA/central.html the median wage income in 2004 was 23,355.83. Guess a lot of people don't work full time or else they must have a lot of investment income. ;-)

Gary: The census website has lots of historical data, though most of it seems to go back to the 60s only. On the poverty rate, you can find a table of historical data at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/histpov/hstpov13.html .

Two links, for what they're worth:

Compare and Contrast

Barry Rithholz discusses some stats on a wealth gap between 20-40s and 50+. It has been and always will be the case that this gap exists, but supposedly the normal reasons have been factored out, and the gap is increasing. A secular trend, as they say. Two things: a) I believe it, student loans starter homes etc raise debt over previous generations. And I think many entry level degree-necessary jobs have been outsourced or downsized. There has been a change in industry quite recently that favors the experienced boomers. They don't leave after three years of training.

b) I have my suspicions that this could be intentional. It would take a long post to show the effect of monetary policy on entry level and new jobs, why college costs are increasing as an effect of gov't policy, etc but I could maybe make a weak case. The purpose would be to intensify the generational conflict in 10-20 years over the entitlement programs.

Adam Smith on Relative Inequality

Mark Thoma quotes Adam Smith to the effect that relative economic status matters.

Mark Thoma quotes Adam Smith to the effect that relative economic status matters.

It matters, no doubt about that. But when Mr. Thoma says:

Would a parent "be ashamed" to have their children's friends find out they cannot afford a color TV when they come over to visit? If the answer is yes, then Smith would say they are impoverished.

Sure, they are impoverished. But not in the sense of suffering that one typically associates with impoverishment - which is the foundation of the moral imperative to do something about poverty.

Student dentists going for a DDS are OK, but graduate student dentists - for bridge work, crowns, gum surgery- are superb! So if your teeth are in terrible shape you may be lucky enough to get a graduate student dentist. In any case all the work is checked by professors.

Re: Hiltzoy's desire to mix with other classes; after I was suspended from college I worked as a waitress, an experience which gave me the resolve to finish my degree and always tip lavishly. Alternatively, we made a point of living in a racially integrated neighborhood.

I volunteered as an overnight host at a homeless shelter a couple of times last month, part of my own attempt to maintain realness.

The most shocking part to me was that most of the guests had jobs. A couple had to be admitted after the lights-out time because they had second-shift jobs, and some had alarm clocks to get up and out to work before the general 6:30 wakeup call. It seems really wrong to me that people who work every day can't afford a roof over their heads. (I think I'm paraphrasing Jesse Jackson.)

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