Friday, June 10, 2005

What is Rich?

In responding to issues on class, some people have described their upbringings (sorry, too lazy to look up the links). In every story I read, the author described her upbringing as "middle-class" or "upper middle-class." No one wants to self-identify as rich.

When I was growing up, my parents taught public school (in a city school district). They were very, um, frugal. You know those rebates, get $2 back when you send in 4 proofs of purchase? My mom would grab every rebate form that she could. When I was little, we weren't allowed to throw away the package from ANY product without first saving its UPC seal and proof of purchase. These were stored in a system of paper grocery bags in the basement, and every few weeks we had to sort through them to fill out the rebate forms. We weren't allowed to request a food for the shopping list unless we had a coupon AND it was on sale. And don't even think about why I was still driving our 1978 Thunderbird with the leaky gas tank and bad brakes (flaming death on wheels!) in 1992. New clothes? Ha!

However, this serious cheapness (which probably would have been the envy of the engineers in our town were we allowed to talk about it), allowed my parents to save up enough money that neither my brother nor I received any financial aid for our Ivy League educations.

So we lived very middle class but had enough money in the bank (equity too, as my parents bought their small house -- where they still live -- two years before I was born) to be considered "rich" to the financial aid people.

But what is rich? At what percentile would the household income need to be before you consider someone "rich"? Are the top 20% of households rich? The top 10%? Top 5%? First some context: According to the Census bureau, the median household income in 2003 was $43,318, and the poverty thresholds put the poverty line for a family of 4 at $18,400. At the upper ends, historical data (which are a few years out of date but still somewhat informative) put the cut-off for the 80th percentile in the mid-$80,000s and the cut off for the 90th percentile in the mid-$110,000s. So while my family didn't earn as much as the scientists and engineers that dominated our neighborhood, compared to the country as a whole, we were probably pretty rich.