A month or two ago I got a letter from the Social Security Administration telling me what I would get in retirement if I keep making what I make now till I retire -- which is one of those things I usually ignore since I tend to assume that I'll never get Social Security. However, the letter also shows your Social Security eligible earnings every year since you started paying into the system, and that really struck me. There it was, my financial history over the last 18 years or so since I got my first paycheck.
The interesting part was looking at the fourteen years since we got married. I was a Classics major in college, with no intention to go on in Academia and no real connections when it came to getting a job. The job I had when we got married I got through a temp agency: $14/hr on the basis of acing the temp agency test of Word and Excel skills, plus being able to type at 80 wpm. As a result, we lived pretty tight those first couple years out of college. Almost everyone I kept in touch with from college was making more than I was, but then almost all of them had had more practical majors. When we were expecting our first child, I desperately searched for another job so that MrsDarwin could stop working. She was part time at Barnes & Noble and part time stage managing, the former paid minimum wage and the latter paid less, but to pay the $1,000/mo rent on our Los Angeles apartment we needed that bit of extra income each month. I found a new job, quit my old one, and then got an offer to stay on at $40k a year, which seemed a pretty princely sum to me at the time, it was still a good deal less than a lot of my friends made. And that's kind of where we stuck for a while, as I tried to improve our lot by starting my own business, moving, temping for a year and a half, and finally getting a new salaried job that paid a little bit more.
The Social Security statement related all that in a neat string of numbers: increase, decrease, increase, flat. When I started this blog, ten years ago, we had two kids and made a little under the median income for households at the time. We had a newly bought house, a car payment, and two kids. My just about any definition we were right there in the middle of the middle class.
Then the numbers started to climb, with some downs in years when the big computer company I worked for didn't do well and so didn't give bonuses, and a couple of jumps when I switched jobs and then did so again. I passed the threshold which Jenny rightly identified as that after which people don't like to talk about how much they make. And now here were are, with six kids, and a house which is twice and big and twice as expensive (and six times as old) as the one we had when we started writing here.
The other day I read someone angrily disdainfully denouncing people who make about what I do as "the rich" -- his rational being that at that level one could pay $30k/yr for your kid's college bill and still have an income above the median left over. Looking back to when I was ten years younger, I remember talking about how when I made more money, I would keep living at the same level, so that I could save and put money away for emergencies.
It oddly sets one's back up to be dismissed as "the rich". I suppose some of this is the great American love affair with the "middle class". Only about 2% of Americans identify as "upper class", and only 10% as "lower class". All the rest of us describe ourselves as "middle" or "upper middle" or "working" class. And as a creature of the right, apparently I'm even more likely to see myself as middle class.
Some of this, I think, is that I identify at least as much with my past as with my present, and my family and my own early working years were right around the mean. Another we spend a lot of time with other people like us. The people I work with mostly make around the same that I do (which is to say: above the average) and the main affluence differences between us are that they mostly have spouses who work and make as much again, plus have half as many kids as I do. So I'm used to thinking of my circumstances as being comparatively modest, even compared to people a paygrade or two below me.
Still, it's interesting that in our cultural climate, being accused of wealth is somewhat insulting, and that even those far more well off than we are at great pains to insist upon their middle class status.
Learning Notes Week of September 19
4 hours ago