The Rich and Everyone Else

Class Matters

by correspondents of The New York Times, with an introduction by Bill Keller
Times Books, 268 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Forbes 400: The Richest People in America

2005 Edition
344 pp., $5.99

Individual Income Tax Returns

Internal Revenue Service
Publication 1304; available at www.irs.gov/taxstats

In their own ways, three of the books under review—Class Matters, Inequality Matters, and The Chosen—warn that social barriers in the US are higher and economic inequality is more pronounced than at any time in recent memory. All three books also frame this issue by asserting or implying that lines between classes are hardening. While the term is widely used, class has always resisted clear definition. We may talk of the rich and poor, of people in the middle, of blue- and white-collar workers, of haves and have-nots, yet attempts to place most people in an appropriate class have never been successful. There is no clear agreement on the number of classes, and how they should be defined. Indeed, attempts at precision inevitably create problems. For example, a 2004 study by the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania defined the middle class as everyone with incomes between $25,000 and $75,000.1 They make up half of all households, and include all families on both sides of the median family income of approximately $50,000. But has a family making, say, $28,000 really reached the middle class? One with $95,000 might be called upper middle class; but that would still seem to locate it in the middle. Any attempt to set a floor or ceiling is bound to raise questions like these.

In Inequality Matters, James Lardner speaks of America’s “growing class divide.” Yet he never identifies the classes that are being divided. If he means, as I think he does, those who are well-to-do and those who are not, then who and how many are in each group? The IRS reports, for example, that 356,140 taxpayers declared incomes of between $500,000 and $999,999 on their 2003 returns. Where should someone receiving, say, a $650,000 salary be assigned? Earning $12,500 a week before taxes should provide a lawyer a comfortable living, but does it place her with the rich? Then what about her nonworking cousin, who happens to have exactly the same income, but in his case it consists of the proceeds from a $12 million inheritance?

Problems like these are evident very early in Class Matters, which republishes a series of fourteen articles that appeared in The New York Times last year. They report on a broad range of men and women who were willing to talk candidly about themselves. We meet old and new millionaires on Nantucket, a laid-off manager and another who fears he may be fired, and a Chicago mother of five pulling herself out of poverty. No claims are made that they are a cross-section or random sample of Americans. Still, we are introduced to people most Times readers would probably never meet. Apart from the few at the top and the bottom, the reporters do not try to identify their subjects by class. Even so, the book shows how the lives they lead are shaped by where they stand in society.

The opening chapter skirts the issue by saying “class is rank, it is…


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