Deciding who is really rich

As the American government considers changes to the tax brackets, James Surowiecki of the New Yorker says this involves an important question: how much money does one have to make to be rich?

While the administration has suggested being rich starts at $200,000 income per year, Surowiecki describes why it is not so simple:

Judging from surveys of how Americans describe themselves, most of the privileged don’t feel all that privileged. Why is that? One reason is the American mythology of middle-classness. Another is geography: in a place like Manhattan, where the average apartment sells for nine hundred thousand dollars, your money doesn’t go as far. And then there’s a larger truth about how wealth is getting concentrated in this country. As the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez have documented, people who earn a few hundred thousand dollars a year have done much worse than people at the very top of the ladder.

Indeed, wealth and income is often relative: if you made $150,000 a year but lived in a neighborhood and mainly associated with people who made around $1,000,000 a year, you might feel poor. The same concept is used to describe various levels of poverty: the relative poverty of the United States versus the absolute poverty experienced in Third World nations. Americans are notorious for feeling like they are middle-class, even if they clearly are not.

At the same time, I find it slightly difficult to believe that $200,000 doesn’t make one rich. Of course, one has choices about how to spend that money. Making $200,000 in Manhattan is not the same as the making that money in Nebraska. However, it should cover all of one’s expenses. Those making over $200,000 are still part of a small and elite group: according to the Census Bureau, in 2006 3.5% of American households made over $200,000 a year.

Surowiecki suggests the solution is to create separate tax brackets for the rich and “super-rich.” If the tax rates are changed, this seems reasonable to me – though it complicates the tax code.

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