Lazarus May Be Starving, But Dives Feels Poor

The AP today reported that, based on the 2009 census data, the gap between rich and poor in the US has continued to widen. It’s been driven by two factors: rapidly-rising incomes of the top earners, even during the depression, and a mirrored increase in the US poverty rate. The end result is that we have more people in poverty than ever before, increasing social stratification, and an income gap that puts us near the bottom of industrialized countries.

Hm, I wonder if there’s some recent news that could throw this into stark relief.

Democrats and Republicans are locked in a game of political chicken over George W. Bush-era tax cuts due to expire at the end of the year. Democrats want to extend the tax cuts only for individuals earning less than $200,000 or couples making less than $250,000. Republicans want to extend the breaks for taxpayers in all income brackets.

Goodness. Couples making over $250,000 a year represent about 1.5% of all Americans. It’s four times the US median income, or some 17 times the amount of money a couple can make and be considered poor. Surely these couples recognize their truly privileged situation?

I, like the president before me, am a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and my wife, like the first lady before her, works at the University of Chicago Hospitals, where she is a doctor who treats children with cancer. Our combined income exceeds the $250,000 threshold for the super rich (but not by that much), and the president plans on raising my taxes. After all, we can afford it, and the world we are now living in has that familiar Marxian tone of those who need take and those who can afford it pay. The problem is, we can’t afford it….

We pay about $15,000 in property taxes, about half of which goes to fund public education in Chicago. Since we care the education of our three children, this means we also have to pay to send them to private school. My wife has school loans of nearly $250,000 and I do too, although becoming a lawyer is significantly cheaper….

Like most working Americans, insurance, doctors’ bills, utilities, two cars, daycare, groceries, gasoline, cell phones, and cable TV (no movie channels) round out our monthly expenses. We also have someone who cuts our grass, cleans our house, and watches our new baby so we can both work outside the home. At the end of all this, we have less than a few hundred dollars per month of discretionary income.

Well, goodness. I can understand how hard it must be to make ends meet, what with private school, a lawn service, a cleaning service, and a nanny. It’s hard not to be poor when you have to pay for all of these.

Okay, this was just a Chicago law professor. I’m sure it’s an isolated–

Picture, if you will, my lawyer friend, Caitlin. She’s a mid-level finance associate at one of New York’s biggest lawyer factories. She’s been at the Big Law game long enough to be depressed on the good days and on the hunt for sturdy noose material on the bad days—which is to say most days. But, as luck would have it, after months of furtive interviews, she finally got an offer a couple of weeks ago to go in house at a media company that most people I know, including me, would kill to work for….

“It’s just…I’m just afraid…” She darted her eyes around and leaned in closer, lowering her eyes.

“I’m just afraid of what it’ll be like to feel…” she whispered, “…poor.”

The offered salary of the new in-house gig? $120,000 a year.

And now, a couple of weeks later, I’m still not sure what’s more disturbing: the fact that this friend—a worldly, educated, smart, able person—truly thinks that a single lawyer living in New York City on $120,000 could feel “poor” — or that fact that she’s absolutely right.

No. Just no. It’s no fun feeling poor, but feeling poor isn’t being poor any more than feeling like I can fly makes me an airplane. Feeling poor isn’t having to choose between a doctor’s visit or food for your family. Feeling poor isn’t wondering when they’ll get around to cutting your electricity. And that’s just in comparison to the US’s genteel version of poverty.

I’m sorry that the Chicago law professor doesn’t feel rich because he’s surrounded by people making far more than he, and he only has a few hundred dollars to spend as he sees fit after investing, paying his domestic help, and putting his three kids in private school. It’s terrible that Caitlin is having an attack of the vapors over feeling poor. But you know what? If you beg for sympathy in these situations, I’m going to point and mock. They, like me, live in a society where the rich are getting far, far richer and the poor are getting far, far poorer. They can feel all they want, but it won’t change that fact.

If you would like to change that fact, find a local food bank, or consider donating to Feeding America. Do you have a woman and children’s shelter in your town? Poverty and recessions hit women and children hardest. You don’t have to donate money; donations of time are always welcome.

And who knows? Maybe focusing on others in need will change how all of us feel.