It’s the Americans dream ó work hard, become successful, get rich. Now, that dream may be closer than ever for more people, as a new study claims that 20 percent of all Americans will at some point in their lives earn at least $250,000 per year, a financial point in which a person is considered wealthy.
According to the Associated Press, “The new rich have household income of $250,000 or more at some point during their working lives, putting them ó if sometimes temporarily ó in the top 2 percent of earners.”
At first glance, that would seem like good news. After all, wealthy is good, right? After year of slow economic gains, stagnant wages, layoffs and long term unemployment, any study that points to a larger portion of the population becoming more affluent has to be a good thing.
Yet in many ways, learning that one in five Americans will at some point be rich may be more damaging to our economy, especially when considering that those who make it to that magic mark may only be there temporarily, according to the AP. “In a country where poverty is at a record high, today’s new rich are notable for their sense of economic fragility,” writes reporter Hope Yen. “They rely on income from their work to maintain their social position and pay for things such as private tutoring for their children. That makes them much more fiscally conservative than other Americans, polling suggests, and less likely to support public programs, such as food stamps or early public education, to help the disadvantaged.”
Because wealth is so tenuous, it’s difficult to obtain but even more difficult to hold on to. Those who may be part of that top 2 percent in one moment may soon learn that the assistance they voted against ó extended unemployment insurance, higher taxes that could pad the social safety net by providing TANF funding or social security benefits for the disabled ó isn’t there to bolster them later if they do find themselves a victim of an accident, a layoff or some other change in fortune.
Sadly, it’s easy under those circumstances to see why someone who hovers at the $250,000 mark may be so willing to do everything within their voting power to keep that level of affluence, even if it’s done with an “I got mine, too bad for you” sort of attitude. What’s more unfortunate is that a large portion of the 80 percent who will never earn enough to qualify as rich are still more than willing to support politicians and policies that fly in the face of their own best interests, all because they believe that at some point they might get to be part of that 2 percent of earners at some point.
It’s this aspirational voting conundrum that fed red state victories for the GOP for years, leading Thomas Frank to dedicate an entire book to the question “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” In essence, no one is willing to believe they could actually be poor, but they do find it much easier to imagine being just a step away from rich.
“[P]overty is not necessarily a permanent state,” wrote pundit Gary Younge shortly before the 2012 election.†”People fall in and climb out of it. Americans are particularly reluctant to describe themselves as even working class let alone poor. A Pew survey in 2008 revealed that 91% believe they are either middle class, upper-middle class or lower-middle class. Relatively few claim to be working class or upper class, intimating more of a cultural aspiration than an economic relationship.”
Ever since the birth of the Horatio Alger story, where anyone can go from the streets to CEO with a little elbow grease and a spirit of determination, America has divided itself into two camps ó one that believe that being poor is a sign of weakness or some other spiritual ill, and one that understands that circumstances will always have a role when it comes to economic issues. Just as the divide between the rich and the poor has grown wider than ever,†our emotional divide, believing that we should have a responsibility to ensure not just our own economic well-being but that of those less fortunate, is just as great.
With the belief that everyone has a one in five chance of being rich at some point, that gap is only going to grow.
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