by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

My brothers and I grew up in a very nice suburb, but my family was at the very bottom of the yearly household income for the area and we knew it. Middle class is relative to your surroundings and the expectations of your peers. We were called the poor kids at our well funded public school.

We were never hungry, had a decent roof over our heads in a safe neighborhood  and went to college. Knowing now what the family income was during my childhood, we were solidly middle class in the 1960's surrounded by very, very rich families. But there is a part of me who still thinks of himself as the poor kid, while my coworkers who where not as fortunate think my family is rich. 

Once family income passes $250,000.00 a year, the parents are professionals who are in at least some business contact with the very rich. It is the proximity of the very rich makes you feel poorer or just middle class, despite the much higher than average income. The isolation from the rest of the real world and the unattainable riches of others, makes for a messed up view of your own success and income.

Another reader:

Incomes in various geographic areas vary more widely than ever. Living in central NY, finger lakes region (lets just say Elmira NY to name an exact location), probably costs 1/2 to 1/3 as much per year than does living and working in or around NY City, for example. One big aspect of this is what our easy money housing policy has done to the comparative rate of housing costs in such markets. So someone who makes $200,000 in Elmira is probably not middle class, but someone who is trying to own a house and send their kids to a decent school in NY City may arguably be living that way (even though their prospects are higher), even if you don't want to consider them such.

Living in expensive areas is a sign of wealth; it doesn't make a family middle-class. As of 2008 the median household income in New York County was $68,402. Even in relative terms, $200,000 isn't middle-class in NYC. A final reader:

I'll acknowledge a difference between a cerebral awareness of a fact vs an internal feeling for it, but someone who's privileged should actively recognize it, even if they're not a Bill Gates or Diddy...or even your neighborhood's highest-earning accountant. 

Agreed.

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