Wednesday, November 28, 2007

To Have and Have Not

I was intrigued by a short note in this month's Atlantic that addressed a recent Pew Research Center study on how Americans see our society increasingly divided into two groups, the "haves" and the "have nots".

I'm one of those believers that we're heading in the direction of a have/have not world, and that the shrinking fortunes of the middle class will have a lot to do with it. Not surprisingly, I'm - demographically speaking - spot on for those who see the country as divided into haves and have nots: female, East Coast, Democrat.

Admittedly, the survey is based on the fuzzy notion of perception. At least from what I've seen of it, there's no real definition of what constitutes a "have" vs. a "have not" - it's whatever you see it as.

So we never really find out whether a "have" is someone who doesn't have to worry about money, or whether a "have not" someone who's about to get their house repossessed. Does a "have not" have to shop at WalMart? Is a "have" anyone with a summer home? Is a "have" anyone with more than I have? A nicer car, bigger house, bigger IRA?

But, perception is everything in life, isn't it?

My first reaction to this it that, with pockets of dire poverty in the midst of our American plenty, we need to get a grip here: compared to most of the world, even our "have nots" live better lives in terms of health and material comfort than large segments of the population in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Still, the study is interesting, and some of the numbers are startling.

...the number of Americans who see themselves among the "have-nots" of society has doubled over the past two decades, from 17% in 1988 to 34% today. In 1988, far more Americans said that, if they had to choose, they probably were among the "haves" (59%) than the "have-nots" (17%). Today, this gap is far narrower (45% "haves" vs. 34% "have-nots").

Only 43% of middle-income Americans perceive themselves as "haves" - down from 61% in 1988.  In the lower economic tear, the number who see themselves as "have nots" grew from 28 to 47% over the same period.

Perversely, of those in the upper third in terms of income, those who considered themselves "haves" dropped from 82% to 66% between 1988 and 2007, and the number who saw themselves as "have nots" grew from 15% to 27%.

Am I the only person who's shocked to find that nearly 1/3 of those in the top third of income see themselves as "have nots"?

So what's behind all this?

For one, I think that the more we know about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, the easier it is for us to slip into the sense that we are "have nots". Sure, we may have a flat screen HD TV, but we don't have A-Rod's contract. We don't have Paris Hilton's bling. We don't have Donald Trump's gilded palace.

Now I might say who cares, but uber-wealth is in our faces a lot more than it was when the Vanderbilts decamped each summer to The Breakers in Newport. Sure, people knew that "they" lived in immense luxury, but it wasn't in their faces morning, noon, and night.

And while they may not be household faces or names, we all know that the average CEO salary is now a zillion times that of the average worker, where just a few short years ago, it was a small and manageable multiple.

Then there is the very real issue of middle class manufacturing and white collar jobs disappearing - and without the up-up switcheroo we saw when manufacturing first started to seep away, only to be replaced by "better" jobs in high tech.

I don't think anyone sees where the better jobs are coming from this time.

I once heard someone on NPR positing that we would turn from a nation of shoe producers to shoe designers. Well, that may be so, but the ratio of shoe designer to shoe factory worker is not exactly one-on-one, is it? We can't all be shoe designers.

What else fuels the perception that more of us are "have nots"? Obviously, there's general lack of security that people feel about their personal (economic) futures. Sure, some of this is our own damned fault, spending money on HD TV's when we should have been saving for retirement.

But even the most prudent of savers, those sticking with their rabbit-eared black and white tube TV's and putting the savings in the bank, are far less likely to have pensions than the generation before us.  I've worked at places with little or no 401K matching. One place I work matched the first $100 contribution. Yippee! Not exactly a defined benefit plan.

Doing this all savings for the future on your own is hard.

That's no excuse for having $40K worth of credit card debt rolled up buying crap you don't need, while having "savings" of $400 to last you a lifetime. But the dawning realization that being a good citizen-consumer may help fuel the economy, but does nada for future preparedness, is likely bringing some people to perceive that they are - gulp - "have nots". Or are about to become one.

Personal (gulp!) economic future aside, there's also the unsettling notion that the jig just might be up on the Amazing American Spending Spree. Mortgage crisis. Debtor nation. China buying Maytag. Petro-fueled lifestyle - a chicken in every pot, and 3-4 cars in those big old garages. Europeans lighting cigars with $50 bills - hey, didn't that used to be us????

As for me, I'm a definite "have." And most everyone I know is a have as well.

Sure, I know people with a lot more money than I have - better homes, better gardens, nicer cars, nicer clothing - but, hey, that's life. Compared to them, I'm a "have not". Compared to most of the people in the country, let alone the world.

I am one lucky "have."

So just what were those upper income people thinking when they characterized themselves as "have nots?"

If even the rich folks think they're poor folks, who do you fight your class warfare against?


There are two pretty funny cartoons in the November 26 New Yorker that speak to this, by the way. In one, a man is talking to his shrink, telling him "Yes, I do count my blessings, but then I end up counting those of others who have more and better blessings and that pisses me off."

In the other, a man in a business suit is panhandling, holding a sign that reads "Help me fill my offshore accounts."


John said...

I think part of the origin of the "I'm a have not with an iPod, cell phone, and car" thinking is that for a couple of decades now, a lot of political hay has been made by convincing middle class Americans that somebody is pulling one over on them: the welfare queen in her Cadillac, the foreigners getting aid from us, and so on. We're all told that somebody's taking advantage of us (& if we vote for this guy, it'll stop!). That has an impact.

katrog said...

In yesterday's NY Times there were two articles about workers that were of interest on the have/have not score: on the front page was a picture of barefoot Indian laborers in a foundry making New York City manhole covers. Farther into the paper was a picture of an American woman whose job is to chew gum, in a flavor testing lab--she is one of several who have this job--so that the food conglomerate they work for can come up with newer and better gum flavors for the American market.