Updated: Nov. '07
Iíve been lucky enough to grow up at a time (the second half of the 20th century) when America was becoming the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world. What a difference a generation makes. Those who grew up in the 1st half of that century lived through two wars and a major depression - quite different from me. My family would have been called middle class, but during my life, the middle class of the United States has become the richest middle class in the history of the world. The income level at which a single mom qualifies for welfare in the US is three times the income of the average person in China*. And yet, few Americans understand the uniqueness of those circumstances and the comparative luxury we take as commonplace.
I've noticed that we Americans are generally quite ignorant of our income compared to others - even other Americans. In a non-scientific survey, I asked several people what they thought the average income is in this country. Most gave an amount very close to their own income, in some cases too low and in others, too high. The median income of a family in the US is just under $50,000/year here (as of August 2007). But my friends and acquaintances guessed as low as $20,000 and as high as $90,000. Everybody seems to think he/she is average and almost nobody understands how wealthy they are compared to those in other countries.
Maybe, there is an element of psychological self-protection going on here: nobody wants to think they are different from others, so perhaps people 'adjust' themselves to the average. Perhaps also, we don't want to be embarrassed by our riches, so we refuse to acknowledge them.
But then, ironically, Americans are very aware of the cost of individual items. TV ads give us a barrage of savings-oriented commercials, asking us to be smart and compare items. And there is considerable evidence people do shop for the best deals on many small items, such as groceries. Look at the success of Walmart, promising to save you 8 cents on a roll of toilet paper. That company is now the largest grocery store in America! Yes, I said grocery store.
What does it say about a citizenry which seems to concentrate on money so much, while having more of it than those in the rest of the world?
And, to complete the ironic trilogy, consider how many Americans are filing for bankruptcy, and how few are saving any money.
Someone has to explain this to me, because I don't understand it....
*According to the federal government, fewer than 13% of our citizens live in poverty. (A person is defined as living in poverty in the US if he or she makes less than $9,700/year. For a single mom with two kids, the lower limit is $15,000 in income.) Compare that to the average person's income in China. In 2002, it was about $960/year in US dollars. If you correct for "purchasing power" because it's cheaper to live in China, the average income rises to about $4,500/year. That's half our poverty rate and 1/10 of our average income! Roughly 90% of all Chinese people would qualify for welfare in the US, as would almost everyone in Pakistan, India and most of Africa.
"The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal." - Aristotle