Who is rich these days? The income gap myth

The income gap, as measured by economists, is a misleading picture of wealth, poverty, and everything in between.

By The Fiscal Times Mar 14, 2012 12:42PM
By Bruce BartlettThe Fiscal Times

A while back, The Fiscal Times sparked a controversy by publishing an article arguing that a family with an income of $250,000 per year is not really rich. When taxes, housing costs, college costs for children and so on are accounted for, even those with an income five times the median family income are just barely getting by, it said.

Subsequently, The New York Times published an article sympathizing with the plight of those making only $250,000. They are certainly not poor, but neither are they rich in any meaningful sense of the term, it said.

In December, the Times reported that many rich people have seen a sharp drop in their income during the recession. Since then, there has been a steady stream of reports that financial institutions based in New York City have significantly reduced bonuses for their top executives – a major portion of their yearly compensation. New York City government officials have even expressed concern about the economic impact.

Last week, Bloomberg News reported that one Andrew Schiff, who makes $350,000 a year working for his brother’s investment firm, lamented that he can’t afford to upgrade his family’s Brooklyn duplex and may have to give up his summer rental in Kent, Connecticut.

And this week, The Fiscal Times reported that a WSL/Strategic Retail study recently found that a middle class family needs at least $150,000 of income just to cover the basics.

Lastly, Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, whose net worth is estimated to be in the range of $250 million, told Fox News this week that she does not consider herself to be wealthy. I bring all this up to show that there is no generally accepted definition of who is rich in this country today, at least among those that most people would consider to be rich. There are many reasons why this is the case.

One is that inflation and real economic growth are constantly moving the goal posts. For example, according to the Economic History Association, it only took somewhere between $23,400 and $119,000 to be as wealthy the year I was born as $1 million would today. Conversely, it would take between $8.4 million and $42.8 million to be as wealthy as a millionaire was in 1951.

On the other hand, even the richest person on earth wouldn’t have access to computers, the Internet, cell phones or all of the life-saving drugs that have been invented over the last 60 years. In short, even for poor people the standard of living has increased enormously. Meanwhile, those that are seriously rich by any standard don’t seem to be as different from the rest of us as they used to be.

Having known a few billionaires over the years, I’ve never seen one who had a butler or lived anything like rich people appear to have lived in 1930s movies with hordes of servants everywhere. To be sure, they indulge themselves, but not in ways that make them so different from the rest of society.

Rich people can take a private jet to Hawaii any time they want to, but there are many people who could afford a coach class ticket to Hawaii if they really wanted to go there. Not too many years ago, a place like Hawaii was only accessible as a vacation spot to those with yachts. In that sense, many luxuries of the past are within reach of ordinary people and not just the rich.

When analyzing the distribution of wealth and income, economists often use ad hoc definitions for who is rich and who isn’t. For example, they often assume that those in lowest income quintile (20 percent of households) are poor, those in the middle three are the middle class, and those in the top quintile are rich.

But using this method means that households with just over $100,000 would be considered rich, according to the Tax Policy Center. It would take about twice as much income to get into the top 5 percent.

Looking at polls, in January The New York Times and CBS News asked people what social class they thought they belonged to. One percent put themselves in the upper class, 15 percent in the upper middle class, 41 percent in the middle class, 34 percent in the working class, and 8 percent in the lower class. These responses are identical to those given the last time the question was asked in 2005.

In December,Gallup asked people how much money they would need to consider themselves rich. The answers were surprisingly varied. Some 18 percent of people would need less than $60,000 per year of income; 12 percent said between $60,000 and $99,999; 23 percent said between $100,000 and $150,000; 18 percent said between $150,001 and $299,999; 11 percent said $1 million; and 4 percent said more than $1 million.

The median income, the exact middle of the distribution of responses, was $150,000. Women, the elderly, non-college graduates, those with no young children, those presently making less than $50,000, and those living in rural areas gave lower responses. College graduates, those now making more than $50,000, those with young children, and those living in urban or suburban areas needed more to be considered rich. When this same question was asked in 2003 the median response was $120,000.

Gallup also asked about wealth. More than 20 percent of people would need a net worth of $100,000 or less to consider themselves rich; 27 percent would need between $100,001 and $999,999; 24 percent would consider themselves rich with $1 million in net worth; 12 percent would require between $1 million and $5 million; and 14 percent would need more than $5 million. The median response was $1 million, the same as it was in 2003.

The conclusion is that who is rich is a purely subjective matter with no commonly accepted definition. People are as rich or poor as they feel they are, given their circumstances.

Related Links:
Down and Out on $250,000 a Year
The Real Cost of Living: $150,000 Minimum
Homeless in America: One Family's Story

Mar 15, 2012 1:36PM

@Batter Up -   Your comment is what bothers me about the state of American politics today.  While we probably agree on most political issues, your argument is critically flawed.  I see this on both sides of the isle.  People have strong convictions, but the basis of those convictions is often illogical, over-simplified,  and inaccurate.  


If you think Democrats aren't every bit as involved in the incestuous relationship between the gov't and defense contractors (and the financial industry), you are delusional.  It's a systemic problem in which both parties are entrenched.  But as long as folks on both sides of the isle are duped into wasting their time, energy, and money pointing fingers at the other side, the status quo will prevail and banks, big defense, and other destructive economic forces will continue to bleed the western world for every penny they can.   


FYI - I would suggest checking your own math before you spout "facts" at everyone.  $3.2 trillion would only provide a one time payment of $21,333.33 to 150 million people.  A lot of money, to be sure, but not $50k for 21 years.  It would take $157.5 trillion to do that.

Mar 15, 2012 11:45PM
All the people I see in expensive cars when I'm on my way to work look rich. Maybe they feel rich too? I doubt it. They probably feel stressed out.
Mar 15, 2012 11:52PM

You mean well. But the truth is this is not a partisan argument. You've been binned and fooled yourself. Our political system is broken on both sides of the aisle by money. Stop trusting false idols and start thinking for yourself. Money has left our political system in ruins. The federal government works less for the people every day money is made. The only answer is not to choose sides but to choose to make it smaller, as small as possible in my opinion.

Please don't get the wrong idea and infer that I am some poor disadvantaged individual railing against the system. I am a rich guy who is not greedy. I just take what I earn. Know any politicians like me? Doubt it...

Stop being judgmental and start being more American.

Mar 16, 2012 8:41AM

Being rich is not based on INCuME.  I considered being rich is when you have enough money so that the money makes enough money (works for you) to pay for everything that is needed/necessities (food, clothing, housing, health etc.).


had to spell incume to pass spam filter, lol

Mar 16, 2012 10:08AM
ChipRanger,  thanks a bunch for the tip on "incume", I sometimes have my posts rejected as spam, and could never figure out why, I just wrote it off as being due to some squirrelly people running these threads. I agree, being "rich" can be a relative state of mind, i.e., if you have enough to meet your needs, and then some left over, why worry. Of course, the last few years have shown how fragile that situation can be.  And I have to say, you have to wonder about someone like Ann Romney who doesn't consider herself wealthy in spite of a net worth of $250Meg, are people like her really that out of touch with reality (and remember, her husband once worried about getting a pink slip, yeah)?
Mar 16, 2012 2:56PM
This had to be written by someone who has no idea of the technologies running on servers 24/7 that make life impacting decisions about you and move money, nor addresses the billions that banks, companies, etc. make selling taxpayer data they get for free. 

You might want to read up on the Attack of the Killer Algorithms, have 23 chapters now and they are all real day public examples of how flawed data with mis-mached tables get your money.  Again as a society we are gullible and naive, just like the writer of this article. 


Data sellers should be taxed and licensed too as they make billions, Facebook banks, HRT you name it, billions with algorithms and why there's no incentive to set up more manufacturing as you can grab a couple geeks, a cloud, write those algos and starting cashing in with little overhead..Chapter 17 of the Attack series mentioned above. 

Mar 16, 2012 2:34AM
All the people I see in expensive cars when I'm on my way to work look rich. Maybe they feel rich too? I doubt it. They probably feel stressed out.
I drive a mercedes and I can tell you, some times I feel like poverty  is chasing me. Trapped in paradise again and again and again.
Mar 14, 2012 6:33PM
There is a real and increasing problem with the power of the wealthy to influence and manipulate government and elections. Here are a couple of old quotations to think about:

1-"Money is power"  2-"All power corrupts: absolute power corrupts absolutely"  Lord Acton

If you don't think that we have the best government money can buy, you're not thinking.
President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, broke up the trusts--the business combinations that controlled much of the wealth in the early 20th century.  President Eisenhower, another Republican, warned against the power of the military-industrial complex, the large defense contractors, like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and,yes, Boeing.

Today, the Republicans are in bed with the military-industrialists; and, others like the Koch brothers distort and manipulate our political system, but few Republicans seem to perceive the dangers, even after the staggering costs of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Not counting Vietnam, recent reports have cited an expense of $3.2 Trillion dollars for these latter two wars alone. 

Just to give you an idea of how much $3.2 trillion is, consider this:  The average American makes about $50,000/year, give or take a few thousands.  $3.2 Trillion would provide the pay for 150 million americans for over 21 years.  In other words, none of us would have to work for the next 21 years and each collect $50,000 each year.  Don't believe me: do the math.  Now, who runs the major military-industrial companies--and the major banks and Wall Street firms.  I bet you $100 that they are mostly, if not almost all, Republicans!  Now, who do you think has been benefitting and who has been losing from these major wars?  And, you want to vote for the Republicans.  There are fools and there are greater fools.
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