Citizens for Tax Justice: Who’s Rich?

Several Presidential candidates have proposed allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for wealthy Americans. For Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, “wealthy” means those with income above $250,000, while for former Senator John Edwards, this means those who make more than $200,000. These thresholds have caused some consternation among the people in the media and plugged into politics. Some progressive activists have asked why in the world people with incomes as high as $200,000 need to keep the tax cuts President Bush enacted for them when basic needs like healthcare for children aren’t being met. On the other hand, many in the media seem to think that people in the $200,000 –250,000 income range are solidly middle-class and deserve every tax break they have ever received.

“Who’s Rich,” Citizens for Tax Justice, January 16, 2008

Americans, as bell hooks famously observed, never really talk about class, particular in relation to education. It’s as though we suffer a kind of democratic self-delusion that because anyone can (theoretically) go to college all of our problems have been solved. Practically speaking, of course, things never quite work out that way.

Now that the presidential race is substantially settled it’s time to start pushing the counter-arguments and facts. On one side is going to be Obama or Clinton or some combination. Either way their economic policies are largely identical. On the other will be McCain, probably accompanied by some far-right leaning vice president. He’s only a hair more progressive than Bush.

Whatever the particular grouping, as Citizens for Tax Justice has shown, the campaign has thus far been based on some powerful misconceptions about the realities of American society. Edwards put poverty on the agenda, but he did not manage to counter our ignorance about class.

In fact, people with incomes above $250,000 or even $200,000 comprise less than 3% of the U.S. population. That hardly seems middle-class. “By state,” CTJ’s report goes on to say, “the percentage of taxpayers with AGI above $200,000 ranges from a high of 6 percent in Connecticut and Washington, D.C. down to only 1.3 percent in West Virginia.”

CTJ goes to list several plausible reasons why this self-delusion persists. For one thing, people “who influence the political discourse… tend to live in or around cities where incomes and the cost of living are higher.” These people, too, are likely to be “highly educated people who come from wealthier families.” The wealthy cluster in particular regions, too, usually close to water or mountains.

Interesting, CTJ also that these misguided ideas about class persist even if candidates talk about percentages. “A Time Magazine poll in 2000,” they note, “found that 19 percent of those surveyed believed themselves to be among the richest 1 percent of Americans.”

CTJ, of course, wants to fight these ideas with better information that is more widely distributed. It’s hard to disagree. Some of the these numbers are amazing, once converted into everyday figures. If you were single and made your way to the top 1%, for example, you would have to earn “an average wage of $224 an hour.”

To become an average member of the top 1%, you would have to made $722 an hour; if you a “two-earner couple” each of you would have to make $112 an hour to make it into the top 1% and $361 an hour to become an average member.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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