Home / General / The upper middle class sandwich

The upper middle class sandwich

Comments
/
/
/
1400 Views

David Brooks got a lot of mostly deserved flak for his latest adventures in culinary ethnography, but Richard Reeves’ argument about opportunity hoarding by the “upper middle class” deserves attention. I’ve never liked the phrase “upper middle class,” because it’s a classic weasel term. For instance it’s subject to almost endless elasticity, as it’s used by people who have a lot of servants, but somehow still consider themselves in some sense part of the actual middle class. A better term, I think, is “lower upper class,” which describes people who are sort of rich but not, to echo the inimitable Swifty Lazar, currently in possession of fuck you money.

Where does the lower upper class start? This is by nature a question that will have a fuzzy answer, depending on lots of categories (Income isn’t the same as wealth; cultural capital is real, etc.). Reeves suggests in his NYT piece that the top 20% of household incomes represents a useful general category, but let’s look at some numbers:

Cut points for household income percentiles, USA 2015, in current dollars, rounded to nearest thousand

80th 117,000
85th 135,500
90th 162,000
95th 215,000
99th 400,000
99.9th 1,117,000

I suppose you can make an argument for the rough floor of the lower upper class anywhere in this range, but I would put it somewhere between the 90th and 95th percentiles, more or less, subject of course to lots of caveats about the differences between Manhattan NY and Manhattan KS and so forth.

Anyway this post is intended as a platform for opinions/discussion of the question, rather than providing an answer to it.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Hummus5989

    I tend to think of upper middle class in terms of occupation and education more than money per se. The proletariat/working classes do manual labor and generally have to accept the risk of injury on the job. The middle classes have white collar jobs, but perform relatively routine tasks with a high degree of supervision. The upper middle class performs highly skilled intellectual labor generally requiring attending elite schools and/or obtaining professional degrees. Doctors, lawyers, consultants, investment bankers, corporate executives, etc. are all upper middle, standard white collar and middle management jobs are clearly middle class, while accountants, dentists, engineers and pharmacists straddle the line. A Justice Department lawyer making $60k a year seems pretty clearly higher class than an accountant making $150k, no?

    • Thomas W

      Reeves’ article mentions specific policies: benefitting from the mortgage interest deduction, restrictive zoning, 529 saving plans. Does the accountant take advantage of those?

      And to be honest, I think the well-off blue collar contractor is potentially more dangerous than the professional. Politically, they possess a lot of real ‘merkin capital. It’s a bit like farmers: you try arguing that they are lower upper class.

    • kvs

      I think what you’re pointing out definitely gets at the idea that income alone isn’t a good proxy for class. Part of that is because income is not always good proxy for wealth and social capital.

      But that’s why I’d say that a 6 figure salaried accountant and a federally employed attorney probably have a lot in common for the most part.

    • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

      “Do you have a lawyer?” is a pretty good marker, I find.

      • Joe_Bob_the_III

        I don’t – but I know exactly who I would call. Where does that put me?

        • stepped pyramids

          Anywhere. As should be unsurprising to longtime LGM readers, I once sat at a table in a bar with six lawyers (well, law degree holders), five of which were unemployed and the sixth of which who worked with me at a tech company (not as a lawyer!). Sometimes it seems you can’t throw a shoe without hitting a law talking guy.

      • RovingYouthPastor

        or an accountant. And, if we’re being honest, at this point: a doctor.

    • stepped pyramids

      I think it’s as simple as this: “upper class” means that your livelihood is primarily derived from your property, not your labor. And within the upper class, the big dividing line is whether you actually “work” in a recognizable way at all or whether you are literally able to live on the money your money makes. The owner of a local chain of car dealerships is what I’d use as the obvious example of “lower upper class”.

      • ExpatJK

        Yes. i don’t want to suggest that earning, say $250k annually means you are not rich. You are not necessarily wealthy though, in the way that someone who does not have to work is wealthy. If you are fired and have a medical crisis (in the US), it is very possible to lose everything. This is much less likely for someone who is so wealthy that they don’t have to work.

    • The proletariat/working classes do manual labor and generally have to accept the risk of injury on the job.

      They almost certainly risk (and have to accept it) physical injury on the job. Workers of all classes, especially if they have bosses (as distinguished from “clients”) and/or co-workers (including workers subordinate to them) are at constant risk of serious mental and emotional injury, and many suffer it (to both their own harm and the harm of others, particularly their children and partners).

      • Latverian Diplomat

        Carpal tunnel syndrome, and bad backs are risk of office work, especially in the lower ranks. Bad feet and other problems from standing all day on hard floors are risks of retail and similar service jobs. Nurses and nurses aids risk injury from everything from lots of awkward lifting to violent patients.

        Not to minimize the very real dangers of agricultural, manufacturing and construction work, but “manual labor” is a label that risks excluding a lot of the people who are in the modern American working class, I think.

        • I quite agree, and could have been less lazy than simply quoting Hummus5989 before spinning off into my own points.

          • Latverian Diplomat

            Although my post really addresses the quoted text most directly, I was intending to simply elaborate on your points, not critique. I’m sorry if my intention was unclear.

    • philadelphialawyer

      “A Justice Department lawyer making $60k a year seems pretty clearly higher class than an accountant making $150k, no?”

      No.

    • cjlane

      “accountants, dentists, engineers and pharmacists straddle the line”

      All depends on who their employer is.

      If each is a partner in a practice, why diff from a doctor/lawyer? A: no reason at all.

  • applecor

    Not sure this can be answered with a single number. I would not call a 1st year BigLaw associate making the 90th percentile shown above, with zero assets, zero job security and $200K of debt, anything close to “lower upper class”.

    As you say, depends where you live, how old you are, wealth of your family, etc. etc.

  • howard

    a lot depends on household composition and position in life course: a single person aged 25 earning $215K can live a lower upper class lifestyle in certain regards. a household of 2 40-somethings with an aging parent and 2 young kids earning $215K is doing fine and has nothing to complain about but still has to make significant choices.

    as an absolute matter, taxes should be higher at the 80th percentile and higher for sure, but our focus needs to remain on the real hoarders, the upper one-tenth of one percent of households – those 125K households are the real upper class.

    • SNF

      125K isn’t the upper one tenth of the top one percent. That cutoff is at 1.117 million, according to the OP.

      • jamespowell

        Howard is referring to the total number of households in that upper 1/10 of 1%.

        • howard

          Yes, sorry it was unclear, snf.

  • Xenos66

    As someone in who has spent much of my life in the 95th percentile and up, there is very little class consciousness in anything short of the top 1 percent, and relatively little there. Perhaps it is better to call it a persistent false consciousness of middle class status. Except for the people at the very top, top 10 percenters still work for a living and are dependent on staying in the good graces of people who make 10 to 100 times as much as they make. And their kids are still in trouble if they lose professional status, lose their health, and so on.

    I have a teenager with pretty serious mental health issues. We live in Europe and happily pay the taxes here, as among other things, that child has a basic level of social support if something happens to us and we can not continue to help him out when he needs it. He wants to go back to the US, god save him.

    The effect is that Americans who are a lot richer than middle class still feel like they are part of the precariat.

    To finally come around to answering Paul’s question. the upper middle class would start where professional or economic status allows a real sense of security for people and their families. I would estimate that to be at the 99.5 percent level for the US, and about the 40th percentile for a civilized country,

    • SNF

      The key is there are multiple massive jumps in income, not just poor/middle/rich. So someone in the top 10-5% is much wealthier than a middle income person, but they still see people who are much richer than they are, so they don’t think of themselves as rich. Even within the top 1%, there’s a huge difference between the bottom of that percent and the top 1% of the top 1%.

      • Especially when the CEO is making 50 times more than the next person in line.

    • Joe_Bob_the_III

      I sometimes measure my personal economy in terms of relative distance in time from being destitute and homeless. At certain points in my life it was about two weeks, a state many Americans live in most of their lives. But most of us are in the same boat: the day the paychecks stop is the day the countdown begins.

      A recent experience I had was observing the last years of my grandmother’s life. The final 15 months passing in the “memory care” unit of a nursing home at a cost of $300 per day. The invoice for living out her life with basic care and a modicum of personal dignity was about $125,000. No wonder most people don’t feel like they have enough money.

  • mch2

    As far as economic class goes (as distinct from class as thoughtfully discussed by Hummus5989), I’d introduce age as a factor in weighing the significance of these income groups. A couple in their late 60’s and early 70’s earning, say, $160,000, is very different from a single person or couple earning the same amount in their early 30’s. The older couple may only have earned such a high income for a few years, and for many years may have earned far, far less (adjusted for inflation). Other factors relevant to age (not just to age, but that’s what I’m focusing on here) include employee benefits over a long lifetime of earnings, including employer’s contributions (if any) to an annuity, or pensions for government employees. Among further questions: Was the 70-year-old retiree individual or couple in a position to buy a house or apartment, so that this real estate is part of his/her/their wealth? How many children did he/she/they support, including (perhaps) funding their college educations (perhaps through loans that are still being paid off)? Is the couple tending to a grown child with special needs or suffering from an illness like MS? Incomes by themselves obscure many things at all ages but especially when people are nearing retirement.

  • zoomar2

    Those cut points could be translated into corresponding luncheon meats and cheeses for Times readers. I’d rank ciabatta between 80th/85th.

    • stepped pyramids

      Which is funny, because ciabatta is an Italian take on the baguette, the ultimate everyman’s (well, every Frenchman’s) bread. And the general style is derived from rustic European breads eaten by peasants. Of course, fancied-up peasant food has been a major food trend for the wealthy for decades.

      • zoomar2

        Exactly. I come from pretty lower class peasant stock emigrating from Puglia. It’s been amusing to say the least to witness food I was raised on become increasingly “fashionable” over the last 50 years when Wonder Bread was all you could get. I could have guided David Brooks through that deli menu when I was 10. Except when I was 10, no respectable Bourgeois WASP would go anywhere near that foreign “Dago” food. Or set foot in a smelly import store with dried baccala hanging from the ceiling.

        • Heck, an English dude told me only yuppies eat bagels. (Though now that I think of it, he may have considered yuppie = low class.)

          • zoomar2

            Where do you even begin with ignorance that bad?

        • mch2

          Not true about bourgeois WASPs. I grew up as one in NJ in the 1950’s and ’60s (in a family that disdained Wonder Bread, for WASP reasons), and everyone knew their Italian meats (pronounced Naples and/or Sicily style, e.g., gabagool for cappacola) and breads, even if they didn’t have Italian American neighbors and playmates, as I did. I could have guided David Brooks through that deli menu when I was 10. David Brooks is just an idiot.

          • zoomar2

            Very much depends on where you live. Texas in the 60s almost had no deli. Waspish suburbs in Northern NY were pretty limited too. Other hand, I got to experience great Mexican and BBQ. I got to experience German food. Lots of it in Texas. Gabagool is too salty anyway.

      • David Allan Poe

        If you will permit me a moment of food pedantry, the baguette in its original form was actually something of a rebuke to peasant bread, which was typically made from whole grains and raised with a levain, or sourdough. It had the characteristic sour flavor and was typically darker in color.

        The miracle of the baguette was not merely that it was made with refined white flour, but that science and infrastructure had advanced well enough to isolate yeast strains from their accompanying lactic acid bacteria so that you could consistently produce fresh yeast and therefore breads without the acidic tang that bread had always had. The baguette is a product developed for the wealthy that, through improvements in manufacturing, spread through society. A lot of food we think of as “peasant” or “ordinary” these days has this sort of history, and many foods we find unremarkable today began their lives in the 18th and 19th century versions of today’s Michelin-starred restaurants.

        • BigHank53

          Ever read a description of how stock is clarified? You dump raw egg whites into your warm, freshly-made chicken stock. As the proteins coagulate, they trap all the little flecks of chicken and whatnot floating around, leaving you with a clear, slightly yellow broth that will charm and impress your guests. The used egg whites go into the slop bucket for the pigs.

          French cooking is filled with expensive, difficult techniques like this, because how else were the aristocrats supposed to impress each other?

          • David Allan Poe

            This is the process for making consomme (except you start with cold stock, not warm). If your original stock is made with an eye to extracting as much gelatin as possible, the end consomme when chilled becomes aspic, which was considered the height of luxury during the Gilded Age and is now a joke because of the development of isolated gelatin, allowing anybody to make a clear jelly, which led to the Midwestern Jell-O salad.

            And French cooking, despite its reputation, isn’t overly difficult, expensive, or foo-foo. At a high level of restaurant cooking is is pretty refined, but so is high-level Chinese and Japanese cooking. Clarified aspic itself was probably developed and refined after somebody got interested in playing around with the jellied meat juices remaining after cooking a terrine or a stew.

  • Alesis

    I suppose the question is what we want these distinctions to be used for. My experience and mathematical intuition tempt me to reject any notion of “middle” that includes amounts above the 3rd quartile. It’s simply unimaginable to me that 40,000K and 250,000K are the same “class”.

    My metric would be the likelihood of finding the households’ children in the same school. If you wouldn’t send your kids to “their” schools then that’s a different class.

    • Yes. Definitely the dividing line between the rich and everyone else is the point at which the rich become segregated from average society: gated community, gated schools, etc., such that they lose touch with the concerns of ‘average’ people.

      • citizensuds

        Truly rich people in the U.S. don’t live in gated communities. They live far away enough not to need gates. Gates are for wannabees (in this country.) Sad thing is, they wNt this country to be like the ones where even the very rich need gates . . .

    • drdick52

      I would agree with this and much of the problem is limiting ourselves two only three classes (we have many more than that) and focusing only on income, when a variety of other social markers (educational level, where you went to school, the sources of your income, organizational memberships, etc.) are at least as important. From an economic perspective, income in the top 5-1% is clearly upper class.

    • Joe_Bob_the_III

      Yes. What is upper or lower should be defined by distance from the median – but that doesn’t comport with our social concepts. Median household income is about $56,000, so someone in that 80th percentile is earning over 200% of the median – rich! But $117k could be an electrician and a school teacher, or a pair of low-level corporate functionaries – not people most would consider upper class.

      • Gromet

        True, and I see (from my perspective in Los Angeles) two further complications: Real estate and culture.

        Say my income enables me to buy a $150k home — I should be able to find something modest at least. But there is literally not even a collapsing shack within 90 minutes’ drive of my job for under $200k… while on Zillow I see beautiful 5-bedroom Victorians for $100k in, say, Michigan. So that is a massive complication.

        In terms of culture, class lines don’t seem a lot clearer to me. I’ve known ambitious people who can talk for hours about current trends in painting or cuisine or music composition — the refined things in life, you could say — but they drive 1996 beaters and skip meals to make the rent. They end up not having a lot in common with either the stereotypical rich socialite who supports the arts or the desperate single mom who also skips meals, and they’d feel a little awkward in conversation with either.

        I just don’t know where to locate these people, class-wise; it’s pretty complex, in America anyway.

        • citizensuds

          Paul Fussell would call them “Class X.” By which he means, self-consciously stepping outside the hierarchical class system–but nevertheless constituting a class, albeit one not easily ranked as “above” or “below” the various mid-to-upper rank classes.

          • Gromet

            The Fussell book is great. I read it ~25 years ago and should reread it — but its ideas don’t seem to get brought up in Our National Dialog. I should say also, I’m not sure people today are self-consciously stepping outside of any hierarchy so much as just pursuing their interests without realizing how much it might be removing them from “the norm” until they are pretty far down their particular rabbit hole.

            I also suspect the conservative movement these days is so built on resenting everything smart and generous and weird, it means the X people are no longer respected as their own class but have been folded into the amorphous Elite To Be Resented. I’m too young to know where the national resentment level hovered when Fussell’s book was written, but in the 1990s when I was in my 20s, X independence seemed like it could be a real thing. I’m not sure now.

  • jamespowell

    We should never have stopped calling them the gentry. Another term in general use around the turn of the 19thC was quality.

  • One problem I think with Reeves article is that class really is different in the U.K. It’s possible to identify class there on the basis of who one socializes with and so on, which cut against income in some ways. On the other hand, maybe there really is a line that people really don’t socialize over, don’t aggregate in towns or schools over, and so on. If so, however, I’m pretty sure it is not at the 80% household income level.

    I’d add, don’t have relatives mostly on the other side of the line, don’t expect their kids to be on the other side of the line (with more than as 5% probability), and so on.

  • ringtail

    I’m also very interested in this question. I listen to a lot of standup comedy from the UK. The way they use the term “middle class” and “working class” has always struck me as different from the way I experience it, like it’s more sharply stratified.

    I can think of two income households that reach that 80% mark but I wouldn’t consider them “rich”. They’re still “working” people in the sense I know it, as opposed to the executive class and the idle rich. I mean, they have to deal with inflexible work schedules and the arbitrary and capricious actions of the boss/owner, they have to worry about time off and sick leave and benefits and job insecurity and lots of shit that make work “work”.

    I wish we could get those middle class 80%ers aligned more with the workers below them than with the executives and idle rich above them.

    • That might be nice as a question of solidarity but it cuts across the idea of having the top 20% identify with the rich as a matter of permitting themselves to be taxed at higher rates and so on. We still tend to think of college education, also, as a mark of moving into the “privileged” class. Also, it is still possible to make 75-80th percentile income in some kinds of manual labor, absolutely people in this category socialize with white collar workers and lesser paid professionals on a fairly equal basis. The political implications of that aren’t necessarily obvious.

      • ringtail

        Yeah, I definitely don’t understand it. I am for the first time in a “professional” workplace. When my colleagues are together, they have all of these shared experiences like fencing and sailing and leisure travel (domestically and international), Ivy League or selective SLAC educations, parents and grandparents in learned occupations, ect ect that I have no experience with whatsoever.

        All of those kinds of-I don’t know, class markers?-are totally opaque to me. I’ve actually been kind of depressed about it lately. I mean I’ve one of the easier difficulty settings privilege-wise and if I feel like this around slightly lower-upper class people, how much worse must it be for people with real disadvantages?

        • Erik Loomis

          Yeah, sometimes I’ve dealt with this with other faculty, but I just blow it off and realize that at the same time, they are like “I just don’t understand why people would vote for Donald Trump” because that’s impossible to imagine in their world. And I’m like, “well, I know why they vote for people like that.”

          • stepped pyramids

            And then there’s schmucks like me, who had neither the sailboat nor the opportunity to learn why people might vote for Trump. I mean, I have family members who vote Republican, but the reason is that they’re assholes who think liberals are sissy queers.

        • dogboy

          I get that at my work too, What really seemed most decadent and alien to me was that these folks flew with their children to vacations. The summer homes and special trips to Tuscany don’t seem nearly as extravagant to me. The arguments about the best pizza in New Haven are just tedious.

          • Origami Isopod

            What really seemed most decadent and alien to me was that these folks flew with their children to vacations. The summer homes and special trips to Tuscany don’t seem nearly as extravagant to me.

            This is odd to me. I mean, people fly to Disneyworld and -land.

            • ringtail

              I actually get that. My family has never gone on what many people would consider a vacation. Until the age of 19 I’d only been on an airplane once, then the first time after that was on military orders. We used to go see our extended family on holidays and we’d leave Friday night and drive the 500 miles and then drive back Sunday night so my parents wouldnt miss work on Friday or Monday. We simply couldnt afford to fly nor could they take enough time off to make a leisurely trip of it.

              And I thought, and still think, that that is normal for ordinary working people. I fly once or twice a year and I still think its amazingly decadent.

      • Eric K

        I’ve said this many times, the biggest con the top 1% have pulled is convincing the 2-20% that they are on the same side. The things that benefit the owner/investors of the top 1% are very different than someone who while very well off works for a living or even owns a business but actually has to do things to make it work,

        • FlipYrWhig

          See, I’d say that the 1-5% pulled an even bigger con, which is convincing the 51-99% that the 30-20% are looking down at them, laughing. Proletarian rage is being vented at mid-level public workers and college professors instead of at moguls and financiers.

          • Eric K

            Good point, a variation is also Brooks basic schtick, rather than focus on how people who are making 30-50k should be making 80-100 he wants those of us in the top 30-20% to feel guilty.

            • FlipYrWhig

              Ha, I almost attributed the gambit to Brooks in my original…

          • Kanchou

            Since I am on a Orwell kick, George Orwell must also be on it for the 1% when he wrote:
            http://www.george-orwell.org/The_Road_to_Wigan_Pier/7.html
            “And what is this attitude? An attitude of sniggering superiority
            punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred. Look at any number of Punch during the. past thirty years. You will find it everywhere taken for granted that a working-class person, as such, is a figure of fun, except at odd moments when he shows signs of being too prosperous, whereupon he ceases to be a figure of fun and becomes a demon. It is no use wasting breath in denouncing this attitude. It is better to consider how it has arisen, and to do that one has got to realize what the working classes look like to those who live among them but have different habits and traditions”
            ….
            “This was snobbish, if you like, but it was also necessary, for
            middle-class people can-not afford to let their children grow up with
            vulgar accents. So, very early, the working class ceased to be a race of
            friendly and wonderful beings and became a race of enemies. We realized that they hated us, but we could never understand why, and naturally we set it down to pure, vicious malignity. To me in my early boyhood, to nearly all children of families like mine, ‘common’ people seemed almost sub-human. They had coarse faces, hideous accents, and gross manners, they hated everyone who was not like themselves, and if they got half a chance they would insult you in brutal ways. That was our view of them, and though it was false it was understandable.”

            • citizensuds

              Prefectly encapsulates my view of the Trumps. i have been wondering for a while whether Trump-hatred is mostly snobbery, or–which it clearly is, at the least–only partly snobbery.

    • Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

      Whether your primary livelihood comes from your salaried labor (be it professional or otherwise) seems to me the best gauge of the difference between the middle and upper classes.

  • Albrecht Zumbrunn

    Of course class is a bit like grades. You have grades from 1 – 6 (as in primary school where I went to school). But we could also get a 5.5. And in single tests sometimes 4.75. Totally meaningless (in math or science you can at least calculate it properly, but what is the difference between a 3.75 essay and a 4.0 essay?).
    I’d therefor prefer to find a more stringent definition of “middle class” to begin with and thus make the fine gradations unnecessary. The problem in the US (not only but more than elsewhere) is that everybody who is not dirt poor sees themselves as middle class. I’d prefer the term “working class” for people who are not what is called professionals and “middle class” for the professionals. That way we define by occupation rather than by money alone.
    BTW “les extremes se touchent” when it comes to class: There are the dirt poor and the filthy rich.

  • As several have alluded below, I would say that the class lines are based more on association than money, although money is probably a good indicator. If you and your kids are not associating with middle class people/kids, then you are probably not middle class. I am solidly around the 90 percentile as far as earnings, but I live in a middle/working class neighborhood and many of the people I hang out with are middle/working class people, so I consider myself middle class even though I probably make more than most of the people I hang out with.

  • Ithaqua

    I think wealth is a better indicator than income by far. (So did the Romans, for what it’s worth.) It gets around the “making $200K fresh out of school with $350K in debt” problem and also the “I’m living on $90K/year in retirement with a $5M paid-off house and $4M in the stock market and $1M of other assets” problem. I’d draw an upper class wealth cutoff at the point where someone can live on their wealth income reasonably comfortably for the rest of their life, or their family’s life, so they don’t have to actually work for a living. Naturally the result would be age-dependent; a 30-year-old with $5M in net assets is in a very different situation than a 70 year old with $5M in net assets.

    About 10% of the population has > $1M net assets, I think it’s 5% > $2M, and 1% > $8M.

    • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

      Are you sure of those figures? 10% seems high, although I may be confusing it with the percentage of adults who will * become* millionaires in their lifetime (which was a tiny fraction of 1% last time I checked).

      • Ithaqua

        Looked it up for 2013 U.S. (the latest I could find in 30 seconds.) Seemed high to me, too, but inflation, I guess. https://dqydj.com/net-worth-in-the-united-states-zooming-in-on-the-top-centiles/

        • Includes IRAs, probably, and maybe 401Ks? Still seems high though.

          • Ithaqua

            Houses, I suspect, and maybe skewed somewhat by California, which apparently has 23% of all housing wealth in the nation despite having about 13% of the population.

          • Eric K

            One thing that has changed is now 401k and personal savings are the only retirement we have. To someone like my dad with a pension that he will get paid every month until he dies (and has been getting steady cost of living increases to the amount) having $500k in net worth means a lot more than it will to me since it will be my only source of income outside social security.

            With housing prices on the coasts and 401k based retirement most of us Gen Xers will need net worth of a million or more if we aren’t going to work until we die, owning a house in any coastal city is going to be well over $500k alone.

        • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

          Wow – thanks. FWIW after decades in the lower half, we’re coming up against all those issues as our son starts kindergarten in Philadelphia, which has to be one of the most economically stratified cities in the country, with an abhorrently stratified public school system to match, and private schools all set to gouge you for $22k+/yr, some of whom have been preying on these issues for longer than the country has existed…

        • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

          NB thanks to med school loans (used largely to pay for daycare for multiple kids), and even with in-state tuition, our net worth is closer to negative 7 figures than 6…

    • Lot_49

      This seems exactly right, or aligns with what I experience. There’s a difference between working on and off as an artist or architect so you can answer the what-do-you-do question easily, and working because you won’t have food or shelter if you don’t. The IRS can provide lots of good information about individual and family incomes, but I’m not so sure they or anybody else have good demographic data on family wealth.

    • mark

      Someone making $200k right out school regardless of debt is wealthy in a way that an older person looking at retirement with $2M in assets (retirement fund and home) is not. I’ll admit I’m skewed by the California real estate market but the life the two situations supports is just so different. Obviously the kid can live quietly but they don’t need to.

      I’d make an exception if there’s some reason the income was legitimately transient–a football player making league minimum say, or a young actor having a great year. But most people have their salaries increase as they get older.

      • Ithaqua

        You think of that person as wealthy because you are implicitly taking their future income stream, which they have not yet actually earned, into account when you think “$200K right out of school.” To some extent this is fair, as banks do too when they consider making loans, which is borrowing from your future. But if they get hit by a truck tomorrow and suffer significant brain damage, they’ll wind up homeless, which is a different aspect of it.

        • mark

          I agree there are a ton of variables and way to look at this. But the older person in this setup isn’t exactly in great shape against fluke medical issues either. Mostly I just think of it as being possible for people who are wealthy to stop being wealthy for one reason or another.

          I admit also to a longstanding beef with people who have high incomes of the sort we’re talking about–say $500k for a household–find things to spend it on that aren’t embarrassingly opulent (student debt, then kids’ private schools & college tuition, a decent size house in an expensive area, retirement funds, etc.) and will explain how they have it hard understand tough financial decisions. Then these are people who hit middle age, kids are gone, mortgage paid off, nest eggs have had 20 years to grow, and both the wealth and income equations start giving the same answer.

  • Fortunado

    I’ve read about a quarter of Dream Hoarders. I think the reason he uses the top 20% is because of the way the top 20% has pulled away from the bottom 80%.

    The bottom 80% have maintained their position relative to each other over the last 40 years.

    • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

      For me at least, the issue is how much income you work for (full disclosure: 2 doctor household) vs. how much comes from investments. Ever since Reagan, the leisure/ investor class has seen its taxes ratcheted ever downward; the change in tax rates on investment income is a huge and IMHO somewhat overlooked driver of inequality.

      • Fortunado

        I don’t necessarily disagree, but a large portion of the intro is dedicated to tackling the idea that it’s all about the the 1%, which are basically the people you’re talking about. It allows people that make $200k a year to point and say “it’s all those billionaires!”, meanwhile they make sure their kids see private tutors, get paid consulting for college applications, call their friends to get them prestigious or high quality internships, etc.

        The author refers to people in the top 20% as essentially having a glass floor in place for their children, making it very difficult for them to be downwardly mobile.

        • RovingYouthPastor

          “The author refers to people in the top 20% as essentially having a glass floor in place for their children, making it very difficult for them to be downwardly mobile.”

          Heroin and meth can help take care of that to some degree. At least it did for a number of my high school class.

          • citizensuds

            Very true. The ones who slip down just get forgotten, ignored, not mentioned on facebook. And it doesn’t have to be horse or meth. (Although, I have seen H and booze wreck the lives of the kids in a 1% family, too. All the money in the world can’t buy back a non-addicted body or mind.)

        • I can’t help feeling, sometimes, that professional writers are more interested in teaching us petty bourgeois types that “20% percent” doesn’t literally mean “one fifth,” and only silly people think it does, than in conveying information.

          • Fortunado

            I think normally when people invoke 80/20 they don’t mean it literally, but in this particular case there are a litany of articles by the author explaining the phenomenon of the 20% pulling away. He literally means 20%

            • Sure, he means the 20%, who all make $200K, which Paul points out is around 92% not 80%, or the median for the top 20%, as he puts it in the op-ed. It makes perfect sense, don’t misunderstand me.

        • citizensuds

          I personally think it’s tacky to hire tutors and college essay writers. This aristocratic attitude hampers my children, though, since I only have the upper-middle income and status that could afford those things, but not the upper class status that would make them truly unnecessary. (See my longer essay comment for a hint as to where this attitude comes from.)

          • Fortunado

            I agree that it is tacky and stupid, but the thing is, everyone else thinks it’s tacky and stupid but still does it. Which means your kids are going to be at a competitive disadvantage if they don’t, as you acknowledge.

            Unless you have Matt Damon to write a letter of recommendation for them? http://www.bostonmagazine.com/arts-entertainment/blog/2015/04/16/matt-damon-sony-emails/

            • citizensuds

              Yep. My hope is the self-confidense gained by standing or failing on their own will make it up, in the long run. The neglect has worked very well for our eldest (a girl); yet to be seen how the boys will fare. I also hope none of them will go mindlessly into the professions or finance, since there are so many more interesting things to do in this world. Excellence at a solid but less prestigious school is a good way to ensure that!! Number one daughter seems well on her way to a career in Canadian politics, of all things.

            • citizensuds

              Oh Jesus, priceless!!! I hope hope hope this thread isn’t getting too old for most LGMers, or our astute hosts, to read it!! Wish I had the tech chops to post it here, will try to do so from my big computer (this is phone.)

            • citizensuds

              OK, so I got the two halves of the e-mail mixed-up, but you can still see what a toolbox everyone involved is, possibly including the poor kid.
              1. Damon claims this is the first letter of recommendation he has ever written. I call instant bullshit. This letter is the Allstate Legal Forms version of precisely the fellating Harvard, all other Ivies, and all wannabe Ivies expect–even (or especially!) from a movie star.
              2. JFC, the kid really does come across as solidly bright (unless. . . tutoring?!), accomplished, connected, etc., and STILL his parents feel the need to ice the cake. Talk about class desperation!!
              3. Make me gag, all the smarm about what a great humanitarian the kid is. Here’s a thought: Take the $240,000 a Fieldston education will set you back (including wardrobe, travel, etc.) and donate it to a worthy cause. There, problem solved.
              Guess I’m a (third-generation Princetonian, but my kids will not attend there) traitor to my class!!!!

            • citizensuds

              And I also can’t figure out how to get my replies in chronological order. Ahh, so what.

              As the soi-dit penniless upper-class person on this discussion, here’s how the system still works:

              1. I got into Princeton as a legacy admit from a selective public high school. In college, an A- average in my major–art history (I have a photographic memory, makes those classes all guts!), and a slightly lower GPA all-around including a C+ in the famous Walter Murphy Con Interp class (hated it!!)

              2. One of my best friends from college was a bit of a rebel against his solidly self-made 1%-er father. But he returned to the fold after graduation (good son.) When, five years out of college, I applied to law school, his father graciously and generously hand-wrote a note to his buddy, the then-dean of Y–E Law School (his alma mater). I kid you not, the note ended, “Guido, next time you’re in New York on a development swing, it would be a pleasure to see you.” Still-puckish friend shared the note with me. Good times. Yale told me, um, you do have stellar LSATs, but that GPA, well, start somewhere else, do well first semester, and we’ll accept you as a transfer. I started somewhere else, liked it, and stayed there. God, the naivete of sheltered youth!!!

              3. My father (Amherst ’56) burst with pride when my niece was accepted there. She is a wonderful girl, very smart, blonde, athletic, and an accomplished scientist! What’s not to like? Princeton turned her down flat. Amherst accepted her. Hmmm . . . Turns out, her father had happened to represent the son of Amherst’s biggest donor on some college-age infraction down in Chapel Hill, and the parents were very grateful, dropped a note to Amherst’s president. Sic revolvet mundus!!!

      • Kanchou

        When the discussion is about dream hoarding by the way of exclusive zoning,it’s usually not the billionaire class that’s the problem. Mark Zuckerberg just brought his own Hawaiian island. Ted Tuner had his huge ranch, etc. They don’t need to lobby for zoning laws to “protect” their interests. It’s the class below them that lobby for all those nasty exclusionary zoning laws.

        A big problem of the housing crisis in San Francisco is because back in the 60s, a bunch of rich upper middle class ladies who decided that their views from their expensive Berkeley Hill homes would be harmed if Army Corp of Engineers’ plan to create 320 square miles of landfill to build housing. And their husband won’t be able to sail their boats on weekends.

        https://blog.savesfbay.org/2013/09/bay-or-river/
        “It was 1960 in Berkeley, California. While the free speech movement was
        gearing up at the University of Berkeley just down the hill, there was
        also a “progressive” movement to fill in the Bay.”

        We need a “progressive” movement to fill the Bay, again.

    • Thinking about it, let’s say he lives in a town that’s solidly lower-upper class: really no one above or below: maybe one or two unusually large old houses, a couple of condo complexes. Then the poorest people represented in any number will conceivably be at the 80th percentile. Those are probably the towns we think of as having “good” schools.

      But that’s maybe 5% of people at that income level (even ignoring people who got lucky this year, who probably cancel out some with unusually bad years). But it might be why he thinks of the group of Dream Horders as including them.

    • RovingYouthPastor

      There’s also the 80-20 Pareto heuristic economists are obsessed with.

  • kvs

    The distribution of the income curve makes it really difficult to choose a cut-off point, even before factoring in all the non-income characteristics that define class.

    But I agree that because of how rapidly the curve changes from the 90th to the 95th pecentile that it’s reasonable to set the floor there. There is also probably a significant difference in the type of employment between those 2 points. That’s really the transition point from middle management to executive status.

    • Lot_49

      For example, our president has a lot of wealth, but lacks most of the sociological traits that mark one as “upper class.” It causes tremendous cognitive dissonance.

      • citizensuds

        Per the radical prof’s observation that you have to be born rich–Fred was upper-middle all his life. Donald COULD have been upper class, but he followed his father too slavishly (stupid of him, since he lacked his father’s acumen.) I would say that Donald’s sister, the well-respected federal judge (whose husband was a prominent attorney, name partner of a big firm) is upper class, and possibly the alcoholic eldest brother was, as well. Interesting to see that contrast within the same generation of rhe same family.

  • randomworker

    As comments reveal, there’s always an excuse why someone at some cut-off point isn’t really lower-upper-class. The trick is to get people in the top 20% to recognize their status.

    Just got back from the family reunion. The richest cousin is the plumber…fwiw.

    The whole sandwichgate thing is so ridiculous. I’ve eaten at plenty of restaurants where I wasn’t familiar with the menu. I didn’t end up begging to go to Taco Bell.

    • malraux

      Heck, I’ve gone to Taco Bell and had no idea what some of their menu options were.

      • Damon Poeter

        I always make the safe play and pick the Doritos Chalupa Gut-Buster Sludge Slime Supreme

      • reattmore

        Natives of Mexico say much the same.

        • malraux

          “Among notable examples in that country is the Taco Bell version. As served by Taco Bell, the chalupa does not resemble or taste much like its Mexican inspiration, but is instead a thick fried wheat flour Gordita shell filled with ground beef, sour cream, cheese, salsa, and shredded lettuce.”

          -wikipedia

  • Is that a capicola, mozzarella and arugala sammich? Yum.

    • randomworker

      *gasp*
      Off with his head!

      • With fancy brown mustard. Also may contain prosciutto.

        • WeWantPie

          Well, to be fair, mustard on an Italian sandwich is not usually a thing. More like, a drizzle of EVOO, some sliced peppers and a splash of red wine vinegar.

  • alexceres

    As others have noted, only have 3 “classes” is really misleading. There’s a big jump between 85th and 95th, a huge jump between 95th and 99th, and exponentially increasing jumps every where from 99th to 100th

    There are a lot of different ways to look at this, but one reason why folks in the 90th and 99th percentile don’t think of themselves as Rich is because they must work. Making $400K a year, you’re still The Help.

    Seriously, these folks are The Help, at the mercy of bosses and corporations like everyone else, no matter how big their egos might be. Their boss can fire them at any time for no reason at all. Unless they’ve been saving for a couple decades, they’re fucked. You can’t raise a family or maintain a home loan on $400K from last year while being unemployed this year.

    Income inequality in this country is so insane that even the 99th percentile are tied up in the same rat race, albeit with vastly better perks and quality of life, as everyone else.

    The real power and wealth in this country is hoarded by households wealthier than just the top 1%. In 2012, the top 1% owned 41% of the country’s wealth. Which is pretty fucked to start. But the folks at the 99% only owned half of that. Of the 1.6M in the 99th, 22% of the country’s wealth was owned by only 160,000 house holds, the top 0.1% Every category is 10x smaller with 10x more wealth.

    • Damon Poeter

      ‘You can’t raise a family or maintain a home loan on $400K from last year while being unemployed this year.’

      This seems … off. Because you are essentially saying that you can’t raise a family or maintain a home loan on $200K a year. Which, of course you can. People manage to do it on $50K a year and less, in fact. Not easily, but they do.

    • Origami Isopod

      You can’t raise a family or maintain a home loan on $400K from last year while being unemployed this year.

      Quit the country club. Send your kids to public school. Don’t go on vacation that year. Don’t buy a new car that year. Don’t eat out. Etc.

  • TheBrett

    The Upper-Middle Class has always been simple to me. It’s the Top 20% not including the Top 1%, and culturally it’s composed of people who

    1. Work for a living
    2. Work for a company or organization for a living.

    They’re usually not but always college-educated, and it doesn’t include entrepreneurs and business owners – they might have the same level of income, but culturally they’re in a different group. Think the upper tiers of the professional class, such as your attorneys, doctors, professors in certain departments at many universities, high-but-not-top-level bureaucrats, regional managers, principals, etc. Upper-Middle-Class folks are separated from Upper-Class folks both in income (Upper-Class folks are 1% people and often earn enough to accumulate significant assets beyond just home ownership and retirement portfolios), and in how readily they could afford to walk away and live off their remaining earnings.

    Speaking of “professional class”, I’ve always thought that was a better schemata for class definitions in action. “Working Class” is people who work for a living but don’t have a four-year-degree or more (although this is changing, and it’s common for them to have two-year degrees), “Professional Class” is people who work for a living but are highly college-educated and usually higher earning, and “Capitalists” are people who own businesses (ranging from the smallest consultant and food cart owner to the owners of giant firms).

    • NewishLawyer

      I largely agree with the exception of say small law firms or doctors offices. A three partner/lawyer law firm with a receptionist and a paralegal or two is very upper middle class.

    • reattmore

      I wanna be a lawyer
      Doctor or professor
      A member of the umc
      I want an air conditioner
      Cottage on the river
      And all the money I can see
      I wanna drive a Lincoln
      Spend my evenings drinking
      The very best burgandy
      I want a yacht for sailing
      Private eye for tailing
      My wife if She’s a bit too free
      I’ve been told ever since a boy
      That’s what one ought to be
      A part of the umc
      I want a pool to swim in
      Fancy suits to dress in
      Some stock in gm and ge
      An office in the city
      Secretary pretty
      Who’ll take dictation on my knee
      I want a paid vacation
      Don’t want to have to ration
      A thing with anyone but me
      And if there’s war or famine
      Promise I’ll examine
      The details if they’re on tv
      I’ll pretend to be liberal but I’ll still support the gop,
      As part of the umc
      I wanna be a lawyer
      Doctor or professor
      A member of the umc

  • NewishLawyer

    I think people use the term upper middle class because they see being middle class as virtuous but upper class as not. This is because of the fact that the upper middle class are usually income wealthy and not capital wealthy. Work for income as a professional is good.

    But the upper middle class can still be a precarious place and they will fight to stay there. And there are lots of Democrats in this group. They want universal pre-K and healthcare but they aren’t going to give up their advantages. So we have to find ways to work with this powerful electoral bloc.

    There are probably ways that the upper middle class use recreation and food choices to cordone off themselves as keep an advantage.

    • RovingYouthPastor

      Universal pre-k and healthcare (and more!) wouldn’t need to have any impact on their advantages.

      Un-cap the medicare-SS payroll taxes, put the top marginal tax rates to pre-Reagan levels (you can even leave the rest of the rates where they are) and tax all income, including investments, the same (maybe with a deduction for retirees). You could even reform and lower the corporate taxes at the same time to neuter any claim that you’re sqwelching investment.

      This is an easy problem (provided we are willing to tax the very rich) and there are a lot of very rich people paying a lot of money to make sure the chattering classes believe otherwise.

      • NewishLawyer

        I guess. What I have noticed generally is that people who grew up poor and people who grew up very rich tend to get along better with each other than with people who grew up middle class or upper middle class. I have seen this on the left and right. I don’t know why but there is the old adage of morals being for the middle class and the poor can’t afford them and the rich don’t need them.

  • Red_cted

    My radical economics professor Doug Dowd said that one could aspire to be rich, and thereby achieve wealth, but unless you were born rich you would never join the “upper class” and at most you would be “upper middle class.”

    • citizensuds

      That’s a very interesting observation about cultural and attitudinal markers. It’s basically true, but I think you can (not necessarily will, but can) be born multiple generations removed from wealth, and still be upper class. Or, the reverse–you can be born to wealth but not stay upper class.
      My husband, for example, attended a selective private day school, and then Hotchkiss. But he grew up solidly upper-middle class, I would say. By contrast, I grew up cash-poor, but upper class. Together, I think we’re upper-middle.
      His mother’s father was the CEO of a giant industrial corporation. His mother’s mother was the daughter of the head of the European division of another big industrial concern, and she was raised in England. Their daughter (my husband’s mother) was presented to society in Europe. Back in the U.S., it was private school for her, then Vassar. However, the man she married, while educated at Harvard and Columbia, came from a long line of prosperous and skilled, but only locally prominent, men in upstate New York, a line that had petered out. Also, her own father (the CEO) was the son of grocers in Queens, who had put himself through Cornell. I would say that my mother-in-law was raised upper class–her father had attained it for her, through his work and marriage. But her children fell back into the upper-middle. Her husband never cared for or sought the career path, wealth, or social prominence of his in-laws. Her parents’ money educated her children, including my husband, but the family’s ability to promote them beyond that ended when her father retired, and then died, while her children were still young. (She was an only child.)
      But, nonetheless, my husband grew up with more of the trappings of wealth than I did–most saliently, an expensive boarding school, and a mother with an inheritance. I went to a public high school. And, I still remember clearly an evening in 1979 when my father gave me a five-dollar bill, as a present, to go to the movies with. It was a very prized, and memorably rare, treat.
      All four of my great-grandfathers had been prominent men–two of them quite rich (though in 19th century terms, not mid-20th.) One was a justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court. One was a ships’ chandler, supplying all of the Jersey City merchant marine. One was the heir to an industrial company his father had founded, and which he ran and grew. One was the owner and captain of the fastest cod-fishing schooner in the Boston and Gloucester fleet. So, they all worked, very hard, but at the turn of the 20th century they were able to usher their children into the elite, especially since the daughter of the fishing captain married (up) the son of the industrialist, while the son of the shipping merchant married (up) the daughter of the judge.
      As a result, all of my grandparents and their siblings grew up either on the fringes of, or well within, the upper class of their respective cities. On one side, my grandmother and great aunts all went to college (as, of course, did their brothers.) But the Great Depression, and relatively young deaths of all four fathers, at the height of their careers, hit hard. The wealth disappeared in bank failures, investment failures, and business failures, and couldn’t be replenished. My parents grew up in households that struggled to put the children through school and college. My grandfathers (one a Princeton graduate), both considered themselves lucky to find work for a solid decade of their early middle age (1930-1940), and had times of unemployment all their lives: by the time the Depression ended, they were not yet 50, but already aging; their prospects blighted and never revived.
      But my father, while not rich (even, I would say, nearly poor, dollar-wise, until at least middle age), became an internationally prominent scholar. And he always thought of himself as the son of the wealthy man his father had been, in his own long-gone youth and my father’s early childhood. That is as powerful a social combination as you can get, short of having f-you money in the bank. It gives you the self-confidence of an aristocrat. My mother had the same, via her own mother, who was funny as hell, drank and smoke far too much, and wore pants and sneakers all her adult life. My mother, herself, was nervous and shy. I always laughed when the wives of my father’s acquaintances said how pleasant and self-effacing my mother was, not at all what they had expected!!

  • Denverite

    I’ve always thought that using household income in conversations like this is hugely misleading. There is a vast difference between a single dude or woman making $150k and a married couple with three kids making $75k each (but with $30k in child care costs, and $10k in health care costs, etc. etc. etc.). The former is firmly in Paul’s “lower upper class,” and the second isn’t.

    …. adding, for this reason, I’ve thought “family per capita” or somesuch is probably a better measure.

    • Joe_Bob_the_III

      Or you could take the dude/gal making $150k, deduct a sick amount of after tax income for student loan debt service, and they don’t look so lower upper class anymore either.

      • Damon Poeter

        It seems like this is the range of income where location is an outsized factor in determining how wealthy one is. $150K in Shreveport is a helluva lot different than $150K in San Francisco for where it places the earner relative to others, its buying power, and the ability to use a surplus of income towards long-term investing. The cultural and opportunity benefits of living in SF versus Shreveport exist (at least the opportunity benefits do, culture is more subjective) of course, but I have a hard time believing they make up for the extreme differences in cost of living.

  • Arthur C. Hurwitz

    The distinct characteristic of this class is that they have to work, often very hard in their professions, to enjoy their high standard of living. They don’t have much capital or access to it and they have no other significant sources of income.

  • RovingYouthPastor

    This is an (extremely) unproductive conversation to have right now. The threat to democracy is coming from the “fuck you money” class–people with Chinatown “buying the future” money. We need to focus our political energy on doing what’s necessary to control them. This obsession with splitting hairs amongst ourselves is what they are paying off columnists and think-tanks to distract us with.

    • citizensuds

      Very well said!!!

  • Kanchou

    George Orwell’s description people just below this class in “The Road to Wigan Pier” still stand as the best description of this class after almost a century.

    http://www.george-orwell.org/The_Road_to_Wigan_Pier/7.html
    “People in this class owned no land, but they felt that they were
    landowners in the sight of God and kept up a semi-aristocratic outlook by
    going into the professions and the fighting services rather than into
    trade. Small boys used to count the plum stones on their plates and
    foretell their destiny by chanting, ‘Army, Navy, Church, Medicine, Law’;
    and even of these ‘Medicine’ was faintly inferior to the others and only
    put in for the sake of symmetry. To belong to this class when you were at
    the L400 a year level was a queer business, for it meant that your
    gentility was almost purely theoretical. You lived, so to speak, at two
    levels simultaneously. Theoretically you knew all about servants and how to
    tip them, although in practice you had one, at most, two resident servants.
    Theoretically you knew how to wear your clothes and how to order a dinner,
    although in practice you could never afford to go to a decent tailor or a
    decent restaurant. Theoretically you knew how to shoot and ride, although
    in practice you had no horses to ride and not an inch of ground to shoot
    over. It was this that explained the attraction of India (more recently
    Kenya, Nigeria, etc.) for the lower-upper-middle class. The people who went
    there as soldiers and officials did not go there to make money, for a
    soldier or an official does not want money; they went there because in
    India, with cheap horses, free shooting, and hordes of black servants, it
    was so easy to play at being a gentleman.”

    • Deborah Bender

      There was just a little of this life for a junior naval officer and his family in the Panama Canal Zone in the late 1940s. An officer and a gentleman by act of Congress; his wife had engraved visiting cards and a Jamaican nanny for the toddler. Coming back to the States was a bit of a comedown.

      • Kanchou

        Speaking of Navy officer’s wife. I was just reading about an account of early in their marriage, Elizabeth went to Malta as the wife of junior officer in the Royal Navy, Phillip Mountbatten/Battenberg. She seems to enjoyed it because she was slumming it. That’s the view from the other end of the scale. She had to force him to give up that career when her father got to sick.

    • PohranicniStraze

      Sounds rather like the antebellum South, with its cosplay aristocrats.

      • citizensuds

        Sounds like my father. He lit out for the hinterlands of Mediterranean archaeology. In European academe, nobody knows your grandmother squandered the fortune!!

  • Cheap Wino

    I think one of the rhetorical ways to characterize wealth is to determine how entrenched in the money a person/family/children are in that wealth. Simply put, there are people for whom there is effectively no circumstance in which they will not be able to live in opulence. 2008 happened and the only thing that changed for them was their accountants paid slightly more attention to the books and the conversation around the table at Sardi’s was needlessly more alarming. These people’s children are already wealthy whether their born yet or not.

    At some point as you move down the scale of wealth that entrenchment slips away. Circumstances could occur that affect lifestyle and children’s legacy. This is kind of the wealth region that Trump Sr. exemplified considering Donald’s bankruptcies in the ’90s. The Trump family was never so wealthy that there wasn’t a possibility of slipping down the scale to some degree of normalcy. Yet these people are still upper class and fairly solidly entrenched as such even if it has to be Russian mob money that ends up propping them up.

    Lower Upper Class probably starts at the point where luxury is a fact of life but entrenchment isn’t real and requires constant, continuous dedicated upkeep and maintenance while still being subject to outside forces. For some it’s because of where and how the income is coming, if it’s truly ‘income’ dependent it’s probably not entrenched at all. For some it’s more about what kind of assets are propping up the fortune and how volatile that particular market is. At some point it’s about whether the sheer numbers could survive an inheritor that blew the fortune in a classic sense.

    • Damon Poeter

      I believe the Trumps were far wealthier than you are guessing or else you’re putting the bar for ‘opulent wealth that can’t really be threatened by anything short of a Bolshevik revolution or an asteroid’ far too high. Trump blowing through his inheritance with dumb casino deals is not evidence that his level of wealth was particularly precarious, it’s evidence that he worked reall, really hard at being really, really bad at managing his enormous inherited wealth.

      • citizensuds

        He didn’t inherit anything-but-an-asteroid cash. Best guess seems to be around $13 million (back when a million was a million, but still . . .) What got him his golden start and then disappeared was Fred’s willingness to co-sign loans. That man’s signature stood for something. The value of Fred’s company has been estimated at about $250-300 million when he died, by which time Donald had been running it for a while. But the value of outer-borough rental properties swings wildly with a) the larger economy, and b) competence of management. Fred built that empire as a tight-fisted, gimlet-eyed, racist slumlord. Owning that sort of enterprise and staying the course may not quite constitute entrenched wealth, especially as the dependents proliferate. Fred had, what, five or six kids? Donald alone has five. Don Jr. also has five (and, encore jeune!); Ivanka has three, etc. Ol’ Fred may eventually have 100 great-grandkids.

        • Damon Poeter

          I dunno, $13 million in 1973 or whenever Trump got it was the kind of money you could plant in T-bills and blue chips and a relatively lavish annuity and basically live a fuck you money life.

          • citizensuds

            Yes, very true. I don’t think it could permanently buy your foreseeable descendants that, though. $200 million treated similarly, could.

  • I’ve been using the term “professional class” a lot lately to talk about this group and I think it’s a useful distinction. So then you have the capitalist class or the 1% or whatever you want to call them, the professional class or the top 20% or so, and the working class of most everyone else. Really it’s a recreation of the early 20th century class structure when we had a working class majority and middle class meant the people between that majority and the truly rich.

    • CP

      “The Inner Party, the Outer Party, and the Proles.”

  • one of the blue

    The whole problem here is the mis-definition of social class in the United States. I don’t really blame the mainstream media or the bloggers and comment community here for this. After all income markers and education markers are exactly how U.S. demographers including those in the Bureau of the Census talk about it.

    And of course defining class in this way leads to very poor predictions of political behavior. This is on top of race-based voting here that further confounds prediction, but for now I want to stick to the mis-definition of social class.

    I would contend that a beer-drinking, t-shirt clad small business operator who only finished high school and who does not get to the 80th percentile income level is far more likely to be a conservative than a wine-drinking, arugula-eating, masters degree-holding, wage earning pencil pusher who does get to the lower end of the 80th percentile.

    As an extreme example I’m struck by the fairly large fraction of highly-paid Hollywood actors who apparently consider themselves working class, marked by the strong support of many of them for SAG-AFTRA.

    A better way to define social class follows.

    Anyone who depends primarily on income from wages and salaries counts as working class, no matter how high the income or education level required to do the particular class of work.

    Anyone who depends primarily on investment income or revenues from the operation of one or more businesses, regardless of their specific income level or any lack of educational attainment, counts as business class.

    Even given there are many complications and nuances in the above, as well as non-class confounding factors, such as the race-based issue noted above, I would contend this makes a much more useful framework for discussing the political behavior of various social strata than what currently passes for such analysis in the gool ‘ol US of A.

  • Tyro

    The deli-meats issue with Brooks comes down to his belief — and that of many of those, like Rod Dreher, who hail his column as great stuff — that everyone should abide by some universal standard of culture that we agree should be learned. Any one who ends up alienating “regular americans” by accumulating or enjoying some other cultural knowledge outside of the “ideal” is committing some kind of alienating offense that, at least, we should have some sympathy for those who don’t enjoy such things, if not a sense of shame for enjoying something that they don’t.

    For the most part, Brooks intuits correctly that “Real Americans That Brooks Loves are upset at other ‘elite Americans.'” But Brooks decides that the people who are causing the problems are the baristas and copy editors enjoying and buying fancy sandwiches, rather than bonding with “Real Americans.” And more clearly, Brooks understands that it keeps us from talking about class, capital, and wealth disparities if we claim that the real problem is fancy names for deli meats.

    • Gromet

      Agreed. The real barrier to achieving upper class comfort is
      not knowing what soppressata is. $14 or a
      dictionary will lift anyone out of that poverty. The real barrier is
      being actually barred from participating in the wealth-multiplying investment funds that the upper class considers SOP. Those opportunities set minimum investment thresholds in the thousands of dollars, and that’s just
      not something most people have available — but if you do have it, you
      can guarantee yourself a lot more of it, simply by calling your
      financial advisor and shifting it around. The
      real multipliers won’t take your money and multiply it until you already have a lot to send them.

      Maybe Brooks should write about his working class friend going blank-eyed with anxiety while she looks up how to join a hedge fund on the internet.

  • Richard Gadsden

    I’m British. That affects my perception of class, of course, but I thought the whole point of class is that it’s an economically-linked subculture.

    That is, you can be upper middle and have a pretty low income. Or lower class and stinking rich – see Donald Trump for an example of that.

  • Machine Earning

    I agree with the comments here to the effect that an important dividing line is whether you can live off of income earned by your wealth. That, in my view, is “lower upper class” insofar as the practical material power of “wealth” starts well beyond that point, while below it, you’re a working stiff like everybody else. And as for Paul’s initial swipe, there is not the slightest chance in hell a household at the 90 or 95% mark are doing that. My wife and I are 97% and we would last like half a year without our jobs, and can’t even joke about starting a business or buying speculative or second properties or any of the things a person of means would by definition have to be able to do.

    I don’t think there’s a meaningful role for occupational or educational discrimination here. We mostly talk about class to talk about taxation and policy, neither of which care if you’re a WASP doctor with the right country club and marina memberships in Boston or a nouveau riche slumlord in LA who once wrecked a Lamborghini drunk in their pajamas. Basically these people have some money and the rest of us do not, and as far as laws and real opportunities are concerned, that’s the end of the conversation.

    The really interesting story starts at 99% or 99.9%. The rest of us are somewhere between “so poor it directly affects health” and “can send their kids to college and take a nice vacation.” None of us can change the economic or political landscape around us so who cares really.

It is main inner container footer text