How Much Is Enough?

Thursday, November 30, 2017 - 4:10 pm
Ana Barrios, 30, stands at her living room in Barquisimeto, Lara state, Venezuela on October 23, 2017.

How Much Is Enough?

When I think about the media’s dominant narrative about economic class over the last few years, it feels like a paralyzing one-liner: The wealth gap is growing and so is resentment. This is true. It should be reported on. But what does that actually have to do with you, the human being reading these words?

I asked myself these questions in an effort to make the wealth gap and my “place” in it tangible. Perhaps they’ll help you.

  1. Where do I actually fall on the socioeconomic spectrum of the U.S.?

Do you think of yourself as middle-class? Most of the country does. It’s a psychically safe catch-all for people in a range of financial situations. But the truth is, many of us are wrong.

Here’s a good place to get a rudimentary sense of where you actually fall. (This is based on annual, pre-tax income in your region. A much more accurate count would include any debt you have and any wealth you’ve accumulated.) It seems odd — needing some outside arbiter to tell you how much money you actually have, but we are deeply mistaken if we think that money is a rational force in our lives. Our perception of our own financial status has such a massive influence; it can influence our self-esteem in profound ways, determine what we spend money on, and even who we vote for.

If you do the calculator and find out that you are in the top income quarter for your region, you might ask, how much money is enough for me? Is it possible that I have too much money? How can I advocate for policy shifts that ensure economic fairness and access to everyone, not just those that already have wealth? (Here, here, and here are places to start.)

If you do the calculator and find out that you are in the middle or low quarters, you might ask different questions: What am I doing to build solidarity with those experiencing a similar kind of economic stagnation or deprivation? What kinds of wealth have I built that fall outside of the bounds of income, and how can I affirm the wisdom of and expand on those efforts?

  1. Where do I fall on the socioeconomic spectrum of the whole dang world?

Pew also has a calculator for that (again, limited by its focus on income, but a good start.) According to Pew: “People who are middle income, globally speaking, live on $10.01-20 a day, which translates to an annual income of $14,600 to $29,200 for a family of four. The other four income groups are defined as follows: The poor live on $2 or less daily, low income on $2.01-10, upper-middle income on $20.01-50, and high income on more than $50.”

It’s easy for these numbers to stay abstract, which is why Anna Rosling Rönnlund created Dollar Street — a visual tour of families through out the world, sorted by region, topic, and monthly income. Rosling Rönnlund and her team visited 264 families in 50 countries and collected 30,000 photos. Then they created what is essentially a global, online, searchable photo album.

I wanted to look at how people sleep in Asia and found that in one household in Myanmar with a monthly income of $47, a bed is a colorful, woven mat on the floor, while in a household in Cambodia with a monthly income of $1,522, a bed is a plush, satin, full-sized cot. When I looked for “most loved items” in Africa, I found laptops, lots of bicycles, and a chicken. You can search for books, front door locks, menstruation pads, even “things I dream of having.” (Warning: this site is addictive, but at least you’re learning something about real people and finding unexpected beauty in every corner of the globe.)

Part of what I love about it — beyond the obvious opportunity for exploding stereotypes via your own curiosity — is that it puts things in perspective. It’s not about feeling sorry for poor people, but understanding that our access to resources ranges mightily. The 1.3 percent of the federal budget that currently goes to foreign aid seems pretty insignificant in the face of this sort of inequality.

  1. What is the story that I tell about my success (or my parents’ success) and how might I tell that differently if the “hard work” or “lucky breaks” were actually framed as unequal advantages?

One way to tell my story is this:

I was born and raised in Colorado Springs. I went to public schools and worked hard enough to gain admission to an Ivy League university where I also worked very hard and excelled, graduating in 2002 with honors…

Here’s another way I could tell my story:

I was born and raised in a mostly white neighborhood in Colorado Springs where property taxes were high and public schools were generally good. My parents, both college graduates, raised me to believe I deserved to go to college and helped me navigate the complex application process to a range of colleges. They also ensured that I could afford to go wherever I wanted to. I got into an elite school, in part because my grades and test scores were good (my parents could afford to send me to SAT prep classes and any other extra tutoring I needed), but also because I played lacrosse and was recruited…

The way in which we tell our own stories, even if just in our own minds, has a huge influence on how we see other people’s success or failure, what we interpret about their motivation or lack thereof, and how we think about larger economic and systemic forces at play in all of our lives. If you’re having a hard time revising your story, check out Paul Kivel’s White Benefits Checklist (the fourth edition of his important book, Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice is just out).

This exploration isn’t designed to highlight the ways in which some of us are undeserving, or unduly blessed. It’s not supposed to make us feel guilty or stuck. Instead, it is a chance to feel proactive about telling a more accurate, genuine story of where we are in the scheme of things, globally, and to use whatever power and privilege we have to make real change.

Rather than indulging in poverty porn about those living on the edge, throwing up our hands, and/or pointing fingers at people with even more privilege, it’s time that we looked at ourselves and started asking better questions: Where do I stand? What do I need? What is enough? What can I share?

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Contributor

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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Reflections

  • Ted

    Years ago my wife and I were part of the “simplicity” movement. We read and gathered in “simplicity circles” and did the exercises in “Your Money or Your Life.” It was as close to feeling good about my life as I got.

    I have chafed under the consumerist model for most of my adult life. After studying how the consumer culture affects and controls people, I could relate to why I felt empty and constantly at odds with my society. It was fueling my “hungry ghost” and I did not like it.

    Fast-forward 30 years or so, and I sit here at 62, wealthier than ever (by world standards) and existentially sick. I simply was/am not strong enough to swim upstream any longer. And yet, as I look back, I know I was right to see our consumerist culture as a waste-making sickness.

    Studies have shown that there is such as thing as “enough.” There is even a point in our lives where more acquisitions = an unhappier life. It is different for each person, but once we feel like our lifestyle is in control of our lives, then we have passed the point of enough into the realm of too much. At that point, all sorts of health declines.

  • Gabby

    This is an extremely important article. I applaud you for sharing it.