In Search of the Middle

America's median paycheck is barely above poverty?

The Social Security Administration brings us some startling news - news, indeed, so shocking that it's apparently been scrubbed from the SSA's own website.

Overall median pay — half of Americans make more, half make less — rose slightly last year.  It was up a scant $109, to $28,031.  That was still $320 below the 2000 median.  It also was slightly lower than the 1999 median of $28,109.

This number doesn't reflect the amount Americans earn, receive from all sources, or combine as a family: it includes only the income of whomever is engaged in full-time employment.  Your stock returns don't count, nor does your welfare check, nor your part-time job or self-employment; these data include only earned W2 income from a full-time position.

Which is quite distressing, because unless you live in West Armpit, Kansas, $30,000 doesn't go very far.  In most major cities that's barely enough to stay at the Roach Motel and also eat, if you're also trying to support a family on it.

Of course, in modern America most families don't subsist on one worker anymore; Mom has to work even harder than Dad.  So if we assume they're both working, that gives the family a combined income of around $60,000 which doesn't seem so bad.

Or does it?  This striking analysis shows that, if your income is anything below $60,000, your actual disposable income is pretty much the same no matter whether you're earning $0 or the whole $60k.  Yes, that's right: a welfare family can have just as good a lifestyle, if they choose to do so, as one with a single breadwinner earning a salary of $60,000 which is twice the median wage.

Can this possibly be true?  Forget the politics of the situation; is it even mathematically possible for everyone making up to twice the average wage to be living pretty much the same way?

It certainly doesn't seem like that could be, and yet, there are some hints that it may be so.  Consider this poll of where Americans view themselves financially: full 87% of us think we're somewhere in the middle class.  As you'd expect, the 1% know who they are, and the quite small remainder admitted to being lower class.

Now, an evening of clicking through the television dial makes it plain that your class is in no way reflective of your bank account, with countless Hollywood decimillionaires showing less class than the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath.

It's equally true that, technically, there are only two families in America that aren't somewhere in "the middle": either Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, whoever happens to be richest today, and some nameless bum on the streets of New York or in a hovel in rural Arkansas.  Everyone else is both richer than some, and poorer than some; we're all part of the middle.  Even the guy squiring around in a Learjet grouses that he doesn't own his own 757 like Donald Trump; one supposes Mr. Trump would like to trade in his 757 for a 747 twice the size.

Yet somehow, it doesn't feel as if we're all in the same boat - because we're not.  Your humble correspondent, in all modesty, makes a fair bit more than the average American, and yet it would be a very long stretch to claim the status of "upper middle class" much less true upper class.

Perhaps the left has a point in saying that the American middle class is dying out.  Or perhaps it's just a product of the television age, where we can all see and drool over the lavish lifestyles of the Kardashians and Trumps in a way in which the people of 1890, while knowing that the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers existed, didn't have their noses rubbed in it 24/7.

Either way, it's no surprise that The Donald's mantra of "Make America Great Again" strike a chord in the hearts of so many Americans.  Even though, objectively, we are much wealthier and better off today than we were in 1960, it certainly doesn't seem like it because, unlike then, things don't seem to be getting better and haven't in a while.

In fact, history teaches that a stagnant or slowly-growing economy is by far the most dangerous politically.  When business is booming, people are too busy getting rich to worry much about politics, which is what has kept the Chinese Communists riding high for these past few decades.  When things completely collapse, everybody's just trying to eat, and by the time things get so desperate that they have to protest they don't have the energy or resources to do so effectively.

But when people have reasonably comfortable lifestyles but can feel them slowly slipping away or stalling out - that's when revolutions happen.  The glory of America is that we have developed a mechanism for nonviolent revolution; it certainly seems like a clear majority of the country wants revolution of one form or another, if you combine the support of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson.  The fact that all three are polling at the top of several significant states is in and of itself striking; usually the establishment elites are able to divide and conquer any challenges to business as usual.

And so it may be again this year, but then again, maybe not.  For in the final analysis, being "middle class" isn't so much a bank account as a state of mind.  To be a member of the American middle class means that you believe you have the brains, energy, and resources to Do Something to improve your situation, but not so overabundantly that it will just happen by right of birth.

Maybe this will be the year all 87% will decide to finally Do that Something - if we can just decide what, or whom, that Something ought to be.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Economics.
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