What Percent Am I?

Last week, the New York Times ran an interesting interactive feature allowing users to enter their family’s income and see their ranking around the country.  I consider my family to be strictly middle-class – I took out a Stafford loan to help pay for tuition, and the only reason I am not work-study (I think) is that my grandparents poured quite a bit of generosity into my college savings account.  Now my brother is in college, as well, adding another bill to the table.  We all have cellphones (no smartphones, though), high-speed internet, and my parents have three cars (one is an antique, but it still counts).  Our house in central New Hampshire is well-furnished and properly woodsy, and its strange hallways and galley kitchen make it seem smaller than it is.  My parents have also instilled in my brother and me the value of working hard for things we want.  In New Hampshire, kids can start working (with limited hours and occupations) at 13 – so that’s what we did.  My parents experimented with allowances, but they weren’t just giving us the money, and after we started doing our chores with less and less vigor, the allowances went away.  My first job, when I was 13, was as a dishwasher at the local restaurant.  I worked there for a week before being disgusted by the sous chef’s chain smoking, the grimy measuring cups, and cutting calamari with a dull knife.  But since that first experience of getting a check with my name on it for something I did, something I worked for, there have been few better feelings.  And since then, I have worked as a bookstore clerk, a lifeguard, a baseball coach, a hutmaster on the Appalachian Trail, an English teaching assistant, a dog walker, a gym attendant, and a caterer.  Each job has had its positives and negatives, and while the AT job was definitely the best, I gained valuable experience (and money) from them all.

What I’m getting at here is that there is more to “class” than a simple percentage value.  When I entered my family’s income into the magical box, the map showed that we were in the upper 80th percentile of earners around the United States.  If we lived in Flint, Michigan, we’d be in the top 95th percentile (thanks to Katie for the clarification).  My mom, who splits work-time between the home office and her office in Boston, MA, would likely get an income boost if we lived in Boston and she could be at the office full time, so our percentage wouldn’t change much.  But my mom doesn’t get her money from sitting around – she works all the time.  When in Boston, she gets to the office by 8 am and usually doesn’t leave until after 6, sometimes even later than 7 pm.  And at home, she starts working whenever she wakes up, and I became accustomed to seeing her on her laptop, notepad beside it, while wearing a bathrobe and drinking coffee at 6 am when I’d get up for the bus to school.  We have an income that would make some people envious, I’m sure.  It is relatively reassuring to see that we are in the upper percentages.  But it didn’t come from nothing – it came from hard work on the part of my parents, taking careful advantage of good opportunities (like switching jobs), and lots of savings. I’m not trying to take a moral high ground, or a better-than-thou perspective – I am trying to paint a picture of one family’s circumstances to demonstrate that there’s more to them than one defining number. (This article adds some interesting details: Among the Wealthiest 1 Percent, Many Variations

I could say “I identify with the 99%” or “I identify with the 1%” and be done with it.  But saying either of those things is dangerously reductionist.  It’s much better for me to say that I identify with the hard-working ideals of the American middle-class, the opinions of most liberal Democrats, and the sentiments of certain New Hampshireites.  Some of the 99% protesters are rabble-rousers or loafers, who I don’t really sympathize with, and some of the 1% are loud assholes (I know some people who would fit right in with @GSElevator).  But I also know some 99% who work hard, practice responsible fiscal habits, and are content with what they’ve earned in life.  And I know some 1% people who are among the kindest, most generous individuals I have ever met.  And to judge either group by a simple number is to narrow one’s perspective perilously.  I am striving to be more open-minded, and think more broadly about people before I judge them for having the money to take a trip to warmer climes or buy a new apartment.