Framing the Dialogue

Rich Man Poor Man

Politicians, civic “leaders”, newspersons, and citizens seem to be engaged in some class warfare lately.  This probably has always been true with what may be the most famous example in France.  Did Marie Antoinette really say, “Let them eat cake” when told that the peasants did not have bread?  Did the peasants have their fill when they later said “off with her head?”

The funny thing is that being rich or poor is a relative thing.  Rich in America probably pales in comparison to rich in Dubai while poor in America looks rich to the citizens of Zimbabwe although there are probably a lot of billionaires there.  A billion dollars there, however, will not buy you a loaf of bread.

President Obama said that if you make at least $250,000 per year, you are rich.  There was some wiggle in this number as various democrats suggested “rich” incomes may be as low as $150,000 per year.  I am a little confused by what “make” means.  I would like to assume that Obama means income or profits, but I fear his socialist leanings and that it means revenue.  Remember business owners may not have a salary and their income is their profits.

The left-leaning Slate gleefully agrees that if you make $250,000 you are indeed rich.  I ordinarily link to the sites that I reference, but could not bring myself to suggest anyone read their smug, elitist ramblings. 

Rush Limbaugh referenced a study by Harvard University about salaries that supports the relativity of wealth.  The study showed that we would feel comfortable making $50,000 a year as long as most others were making $25,000, however, we would not be satisfied making $100,000 if most others made $200,000.  Also mentioned is that we would be willing to give up some money if that would make someone else give up even more money.  That is class envy.

I would love to make $250,000 per year, but even though I make far less, I do not consider someone at that salary range rich.  They make a great living, but that is not rich.  I hate to admit it, but I agree with Senator McCain when he was excoriated for suggesting that making over $5 million is the threshold.

Being rich is not all about salary.  If you look at Senator Kennedy, his salary is approximately $174,000.  Would you not consider him rich?  We all know that the Kennedy’s have lots and lots of money and assets.  John McCain makes the same salary as Kennedy, but his wife is worth a great deal of money.  They are rich.

Total assets should be used to determine who is rich.  I would predict that if you compiled the assets of all senators and showed the numbers to the average American, they would agree that our senators are rich.  That is interesting in that more than half of our elected officials make a living complaining about the rich.

If you look at the other side and try to define poverty there are a lot of complex formulas to establish poverty levels.  Consider this definition of poverty developed for the United Nations:

“Indicators of Poverty & Hunger”, for the United Nations, further explains that absolute poverty is the absence of any two of the following eight basic needs:

  • Food: Body Mass Index must be above 16.
  • Safe drinking water: Water must not come from solely rivers and ponds, and must be available nearby (less than 15 minutes’ walk each way).
  • Sanitation facilities: Toilets or latrines must be accessible in or near the home.
  • Health: Treatment must be received for serious illnesses and pregnancy.
  • Shelter: Homes must have fewer than four people living in each room. Floors must not be made of dirt, mud, or clay.
  • Education: Everyone must attend school or otherwise learn to read.
  • Information: Everyone must have access to newspapers, radios, televisions, computers, or telephones at home.
  • Access to services: This item is undefined by Gordon, but normally is used to indicate the complete panoply of education, health, legal, social, and financial (credit) services.

If you look solely at this definition, how many Americans would no longer be considered below the poverty level?

In the United States we look at relative poverty as defined by the same source as the above information:

“A measure of relative poverty defines “poverty” as being below some relative poverty threshold. For example, the statement that “households with an accumulated income less than 50% of the median income are living in poverty” uses a relative measure to define poverty. In this system, if everyone’s real income in an economy increases, but the income distribution stays the same, then the rate of relative poverty will also stay the same.”

If you consider the United States, our poverty level, as a percent of the total population, has not decreased.  This should astound us considering the trillions of dollars spent on entitlement programs available to lift our fellow citizens out of poverty.  There will always be people below the poverty level.

What does poverty mean America?  Here are some interesting statistics compiled for the Heritage Foundation:

  • Forty-three percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
  • Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
  • The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
  • Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.
    Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
  • Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.
  • Eighty-nine percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.

Being poor in America is clearly not as bad as poor in other countries.  I am not trying to diminish the struggles of the American poor, just put it in perspective. 

One statistic that is often used is to show how many kids who are hungry: 

“Close to 700,000 U.S. children lived in households that had a hard time putting food on the table at some point in 2007, says a new federal report. The number of children who went to bed hungry is the highest since 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual report on food security.”

I am not suggesting that children’s hunger is trivial, but a few years ago, my daughter was writing a paper on child hunger.  She told me that she had just taken part in a survey at school and answered questions about our eating habits. 

The students were asked whether they every skipped a meal or went to bed hungry.  She, of course, was honest.  We sometimes skip meals and she probably was hungry going to bed on occasion.  We are not poor.

We only had two meals last Sunday.  We slept in and had a big brunch around 11:30 am followed by a light dinner that evening.  I do not recall whether they had a snack that evening or “went to bed hungry.” 

I have to wonder how we will ever solve the problems we face by demonizing “the rich” or victimizing the poor.

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