An Embarrassment of Riches: Why Rich is Never Rich Enough

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When Governor Chris Christie famously said, "I don't consider myself a wealthy man," the $699,000 earner with a net worth of $3.8 million may be excused for his confusion; he didn't have this handy calculator to set him straight. The Pew Research Center's latest tool for determining who's rich and who's not brings reality to the fore, but class delusion has a funny way of muddying up the facts.

Christie, a one percenter by any measure, said he didn't feel rich thanks to Princeton and Notre Dame tuition for the kids... and that was before his pricey failed presidential bid. He's part of a fascinating demographic of wealthy Americans that see themselves as scraping by.

When it comes to the shrinking middle class and the growing extremes, there are the deniers (think global warming), but these economic trends constitute generally agreed upon, if inconvenient, truths by now. The plight of average Americans and the rise of income inequality have evolved from fringe rants once relegated to The Socialist Worker and Mother Jones, to what's become a subject worthy of the Bloomberg seal of approval. Hillary and even Trump (or is it Trump and even Hillary?) echo Bernie for a reason; the rich are indeed getting richer and the poor poorer.

Despite this Robert Reichian moment in American politics, there's a vocal contingent of "beleaguered rich": high-earners who not only feel put-upon and oppressed, but actually identify as middle-income. Consider them the Rachel Dolezals of class, instead of race; they just don't feel like their income.

The victimhood of the wealthy can be seen in full-force in heated responses to a New York Times article several months back. Journalist Josh Barro dared write a piece on tax-free college savings accounts in which he argued that the advantages of these accounts tend to skew toward high earners. He wrote, "if you make $150,000 to $225,000, you make about two to three times the national median income for a married couple." He then referred to these earners as..."affluent."

Them's fightin' words. Readers took offense, replying with personal accounts of challenges making ends meet on $250K for a family of four in LA. Another reader stated that "married couples making $150,000-$225,000 a year with children in the NYC metro area are definitely middle class. Look at median property prices, especially in Manhattan, and areas within a reasonable commuting distance."

The oxymoron of "Manhattan middle class" aside, even readers in the outer boroughs cried foul. A Queens resident wrote "my husband and I make a little less than $200,000 a year and I cannot consider myself affluent by any means." Subtract $125,752 from those earnings and you've got the median income for a married couple in the borough, as Mr. Barro rightly pointed out.

Class seems to make some folks a bit uncomfortable. We'll leave Downton Abbey to the Brits; here in America, we euphemistically call our well-to-do "job creators," and nearly all of us think of ourselves as middle class, despite the mathematical impossibilities.

There's one man, though, who brashly stands in contrast to the disavowal of wealth. "Part of the beauty of me is that I'm very rich," says The Donald. Surely here's a man that wears his title proudly. Yet perhaps even he's not rich enough to pay that much in taxes--after all, he somehow got a property tax break from the New York State School Tax Relief Program designed for couples earning less than $500,000. Who knows what other contradictions lurk in those returns. Imagine if the Queens native were secretly a member of that much-revered yet poorly-defined demographic to which we all strive: the American middle class.

Gabe Fenigsohn (@gfenig) is a New York City writer and opiner on media, brand and culture. He follows the social impact of advertising and is a member of the Brooklyn-based creative team Cardwell Beach.