For Americans, someone else is always a rich person

Perhaps this is not surprising in a country where almost all claim to be middle class: Americans suggest someone else is the one who is truly rich.

Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution, who has made this quirk of our class identities into a hobby horse of sorts, recently put together a nice illustration of what he calls our national, “Me? I’m not rich!” problem. In 2011, Gallup asked Americans how much income they needed to be “rich.” In general, they answered some amount that was higher than whatever they made. Most people who earned $30,000 a year or less thought you could be rich making under six figures. A majority of those who earned between $30,000 and $99,000 thought you needed to cross the $100,000 threshold. You get the idea.

reeves_rich

Brookings

None of this is especially surprising. People don’t generally think about living standards in absolute terms. They think about them relatively, and tend to compare themselves with their peer group. And because most of us know at least a few jerks with a bigger house, nicer car, and more interesting-looking vacation photos, it’s easy to conclude that, no, we ourselves are not truly rich. I’m making fun of Americans for it, but my guess is it’s near universal. It just happens to be a problem in the U.S. because, as Reeves writes, those of us who think we should be paying taxes at all tend to believe the rich should be the ones shelling out. That’s a political problem when there are apparently no rich people to be found.

I’ve seen this at work in numerous settings where Americans fall over themselves to claim that they don’t have as many resources as it appears they might. This could involve a discussion of McMansions and how everyone knows someone else who lives in such a garish house while they would never consider such a thing. Or it could be in a discussion of students or staff at a private college where everyone acts like they don’t have any spending money. There are powerful social incentives to not declare oneself rich even when objective measures put people at the higher ends of the social class ladder.

I wonder how much particular actions of the wealthy could mitigate their own admittance at being rich. Take Bill Gates. Fabulously wealthy and well known for this but he has also spent a lot of money on philanthropic ends. Does this take away the negatives of being rich? Warren Buffett is cited in this article as someone who claims to be rich. Does he do anything to offset that image or is it okay if you became rich through building your own financial empire (just American hard work)?

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