The ‘middle’ class

For most, $200,000 is over the horizon

Americans whose household income doesn’t approach a quarter million dollars a year are rolling on the floor laughing at Mitt Romney’s recent assertion to George Stephanopolous that “middle income” families include those who earn $200,000 to $250,000.

They laugh less when they realize that Barack Obama’s definition isn’t much different.

Depending on one’s place on the economic spectrum, those numbers look ridiculous for varying reasons. At the Colorado minimum wage of $7.64, a household would need 12.5 of those full-time jobs to reach that $200,000 threshold. Minimum wage was never intended to catapult people into the middle class, but it hasn’t been all that long since Americans rued the fact that a middle-class family could no longer pay its bills with one income.

On the other hand, a family paying a mortgage on an average-size home, a car payment and college tuition for a couple children likely would testify that $200,000 isn’t all that much. They certainly won’t be hobnobbing with the rich and famous any time soon. To a billionaire, $250,000 looks like nothing.

Statistics can be used to prove nearly anything, but the following statistics are enlightening.

In Montezuma County, the 2006-2010 median household income — the number at which 50 percent of households earn less and 50 percent earn more, was $44,103. Dolores County’s median was $43,058. La Plata County’s, at $56,422, was just under the state figure of $56,456. Nationwide, the median family income is $55,883.

In other words, half of the households in the state, and many more than half of the households in Montezuma and Dolores counties and in the nation, have incomes under $56,456, which is a far cry from $200,000 or $250,000.

Furthermore, 17.6 percent of the households in Montezuma County have incomes below the poverty level. In Dolores County, the figure is 16 percent, compared with 10.2 percent for La Plata County and 12.2 percent for the entire state.

It’s nonsensical to argue that the federal poverty level overlaps with the middle class, and most people would expect a standard bell curve to lop off at least that much at the upper end as well, with an “upper income” population equal to the number who live in poverty.

The high end of the income distribution has a very long tail, because the distance between $250,000 and Bill Gates or Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is much greater than the difference between $0 and $250,000, but that length is sparsely populated. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2.6 percent of households have incomes greater than $200,000 and 14.3 percent of households have incomes greater than $100,000.

At issue isn’t just the label but how various federal tax proposals will affect Americans’ standard of living, and the even larger question of the trillion-dollar budget deficits that have made the government a debtor to China and other lenders we’d be better off not owing. The idea that the budget can be balanced while sparing 97.4 percent or more of the population any additional fiscal pain is a candidate’s pipe dream. There aren’t that many cuts to be had.

The idea of the “middle” is also important because it speaks to who Americans actually are. Do candidates understand what life is like for most of us? If they don’t, which certainly seems likely, they have a responsibility to pay much closer attention to where the middle actually resides.