Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Gena Bigler: ‘Middle class’ covers a lot of ground, and most want things not affordable
Everyone I know considers themselves middle class. Everyone talks about things they can’t afford. From affording gas to make a 40-mile trip, private school for their children, or a summer home, middle class desires cover a lot of ground.
What is middle class? According to the 2010 U.S. Census the average middle class income is $36,000 – $57,000. However, middle class is also defined between impoverished and rich, which a Congressional Research Service paper identified as a range of $20,291 – $100,000. The income range for families that identify as middle class varies dramatically from these figures. Families that have annual incomes of $200,000 or more are often identified as middle class, yet they fall into the top 2 percent of income in America. If $200,000 were a middle income, we would be a very prosperous nation.
If middle class starts at $36,000 who is living in poverty? The U.S. government defines poverty as an income of $19,090 or below for a family of three. I don’t think the creator of this definition has ever lived in the real world. Living on only $19,090 is nearly impossible; that is $1590 per month. In Kentucky, where the cost of living is relatively low, a typical two-bedroom home rents for well over $600. After rent, you now have $990 to pay for everything else. Paying for basic needs like $210 for utilities, $400 for food and household items, $100 for a phone, $160 for transportation (in most of the nation you must own your own car because there is no access to public transportation) $920 for health, car and renter’s insurance leaves you at $800 in the red every month.
Before you even buy clothes or any extras like an occasional rented movie or cable TV you are short by $800. Those numbers don’t include a single meal out or any indulgences and it is still not enough to live on. Forget Halloween costumes, Christmas or birthday presents and a Thanksgiving feast. There simply isn’t enough. If you make $36,000 per year, you would have about $600 per month for things like an occasional meal out or a savings account for emergencies. That meal out certainly wouldn’t be at a place with white tablecloths, more likely clowns and paper napkins.
There are a lot of middle class trappings that most middle classer’s can’t afford. Things like extracurricular activities for their children. Soccer, basketball or dance classes, stopping for ice cream after school, buying the latest video game are out of reach for countless families that consider themselves middle class. Savings are often overlooked to meet more immediate and necessary expenses.
Many middle class families want to be able to buy quality shoes and clothing when they need them. They want to afford copayments when they need a doctor visit, having the luxury of owning and paying for a pet and their vet bills. Vacations are well beyond many households. Contributing to a retirement fund or saving for college falls short if it happens.
In America, unless you are Oprah or Bill Gates, you probably want things you can’t afford. Most of America cannot afford the trappings of a middle class life. More than 75 percent of American households have an income that falls below $177,000. Only 2 percent make over $200,000; that is about the population of Maryland…one of our smallest states. More than 8 percent of Americans don’t even have bank accounts and that number is considerably higher for minorities. That means the lowest income Americans have the added expense of check-cashing services and cashier’s checks to pay their bills.
If you want things you can’t afford, you are not alone. Forget those sitcom families, most are in the 2 percent masquerading as middle class. Set your own standards for what you need and don’t feel bad for wanting what you can’t afford, just keep it in perspective and be grateful if your wants are frivolous instead of necessities.
Gena Bigler is passionate about public service and credits her time serving nonprofits in AmeriCorps and Volunteers in Service to America (V.I.S.T.A.) with teaching her extreme budgeting and bargain shopping. Gena is now CFO of McNay Settlement Group and serves on the board of the Lactation Improvement Network of Kentucky (L.I.N.K.). Gena would be happy to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.