June 18, 2007

who's classy?

I think my favorite ridiculous NYT article of the last month is the one about how important it is to save money. Anyone who's looked at compounding recently knows that time makes a huge difference - that's not what's ridiculous.1 But check out this question:

"How would you like to try to live on $40,000 a year in Washington or San Francisco?"

Once you regain your composure, let's talk about reality. Not even the reality of poverty - don't forget that the poverty line for an individual is $9,800, and that to be eligible for food stamps you can't make more than $12,744 a year - but the reality of college-educated, middle-class identified single (or married-no-kids) people like the ones that article speaks to. I live in Philadelphia - much cheaper than Washington or SF (where I've lived briefly), certainly much cheaper than NY - so my qualifications are somewhat limited. Except check it out: I lived on $11,000 for a year here, and I know people who've lived on less. That is less than a third of what the author describes: Washington, NYC, and SF are at most twice as expensive as Philly, and then only for housing. Food costs in the Bay Area are way less than anywhere on this coast. And I do not want to do it again, but I had a CSA share and I went out for brunch and I lived in a sweet apartment that I liked (and where the pipes froze every winter), and the next year I made about $15,000 and that was fine. I didn't pay for health insurance, and there my class status comes into play: my parents could afford to pay for my health insurance so they wouldn't end up bailing me out if I got seriously injured. But $40,000 a year? And you're wondering if you have enough to save a little? You need a reality check. 2

Some caveats. Abramorous pointed out, in heated discussion with Deb and me, that I didn't work in the business world, and that people who do so have expenses that I didn't. Clothes, meals out that are optional but will substantially benefit your career, haircuts, whatever. And that's true, but he and I disagree on how optional those things are. I work with people who make that much now, and let me tell you, people spend a lot of money on things they don't need. I know what most of those things cost, and really? $40,000 buys a lot of fancy haircuts. He also pointed out that before judging all these people so harshly, we should consider that some of them may have major expenses like student loans or health issues that aren't just for entertainment value. So, yes. If you make $40,000 and need to see a therapist or pay off student loans or travel cross-country to see your ailing family members, no judgment that the money's tight. But that's not the situation Damon Darlin envisions.

Fundamentally, this article reveals the class status of the people Darlin is writing for. The audience of the NYT Business section is upper-class, not middle-class - people who are used to having easy access to luxury goods and few or no limits on what they spend. And that's not reality for most people, so it's not surprising that when they make a semi-realistic salary, it pinches a little. But it should be surprising. We have a duty to empathy, a duty to try to understand how other people live and feel, and I think it's a pretty sad testament to our societal failure in that duty that people are so surprised by other people's situations.

Don't even get me started on governors going on food stamps. Not that it's bad, just the way they talk about it. Like no one knew! OMG!

1. What, you're not messing with compound interest functions in your spare time? You should try it. It's pretty enlightening. Try modeling your credit card balance and your savings on there.
2. I don't share the general squeamishness about talking about how much people make. In fact, I think openness about salaries is an important workplace fairness tool, and an important way of dealing with the weird class undercurrents of pretty much everything.


julie g said...

i read that article too, and it smacked of the same icky new-yorkiness i encountered frequently while i lived there. new yorkers live surrounded by high-end boutiques and fancy restaurants, so naturally it becomes a necessity of life to have a disposable income to spend in all those places. one of my professors at mannes said once, "the party doesn't really start until you're making $150K a year in this city." so if you were in a mindset like that, it would be impossible to live on 40K. i mean, gosh... you might have to live out in... shudder... the BOROUGHS! there's a HUGE disconnect between the intended audience of that article and the average resident of new york.

North said...

[hi Julie]

yes! Also the conflation of "New Yorker" with "rich New Yorker," and with that the assumption that "people" "need" whatever, thus defining those who have no hope of getting whatever as not-people, not really, not in a way that means they deserve the same things that you "need."

That was a lot of quotation marks from me.

Anonymous said...

"How would you like to try to live on $40,000 a year in Washington or San Francisco?"

Dear NYT,

I would like it very much. Please find enclosed SASE for check.