Meet our "middle class": Microsoftie, civil servant
By most standards Ted Wight would be considered quite wealthy. A retired venture capitalist, he collects expensive art and pricey cars and...
Seattle Times staff reporter
By most standards Ted Wight would be considered quite wealthy.
A retired venture capitalist, he collects expensive art and pricey cars and lives in a penthouse in Belltown. "I'd say my income and net worth put me ahead of the majority of people ... " Wight said.
Yet the Seattle native describes himself not as upper-class, where many might put him, but as part of the bulging middle.
In a country where people like to think there are no class lines, large numbers of Americans — up to 80 percent of them — identify themselves as middle-class. The broad, ambiguous and much-pandered-to segment of the population encompasses everyone from chief executives to janitors.
The term "middle class" has come to represent the typical American — fussed over by politicians and the target of every tax- and health-care-reform effort. You needn't hold a college degree to be part of this class, but it might help if you had one in your household — along with a pair of kids and two incomes.
"Americans don't like to talk in terms of class," said Robert Plotnick, professor of public policy at the University of Washington, pointing out that the European model of nobility never caught on. "The idea that I'm better off than you is very un-American.
"People tend to describe themselves as middle-class even if they're very well-off, because everybody knows someone who's making more money."
Bill Dubay, who works for King County and considers himself middle-class, believes the designation has as much to do with lifestyle as it does income and net worth.
"If you're making a lot of money but you're a hermit or a couch potato, I'm not sure you can be middle-class," he said. "Education counts, and I think where you spend your money counts, too. If you spend it all on football games, then I don't think you qualify."
As much attention as it gets, the middle class is not defined by the government. "If a person says they're middle-class, I think we're obligated to take their word for it," said Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
Some economists, he said, have drawn rough parameters around the 60 percent of Americans who remain after you lop off the top and bottom 20 percent of earners.
For 2006, the median household income in the U.S. was $48,201 — meaning half of all households were below that amount and half above it. For Washington state, the median was $52,583.
Henok Tadsse, a taxi driver from Ethiopia who's been in this country 11 years, said he considers himself working-class — not middle-class — despite owning a home in Edmonds and two cars, and paying private-school tuition for his 4-year-old son.
Middle-class status, he said, applies to those with college degrees, at least $60,000 in income, working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with time to spend in the evening with their children.
"You know, the American Dream stuff," he said. "I'm not there — not yet."
In 2003, Gallup conducted a poll that found that someone with an annual income of $122,000 was considered by Americans to be "rich."
The same poll found that only 1 percent of Americans identify themselves as being upper-class, while 80 percent put themselves in the middle class, working class or lower class.
"If you ask the sanitation worker, he'll probably tell you, 'Yes I'm middle-class and I owe it all to my union,' " said Burtless of the Brookings Institution. "It goes to show that no one has a good definition of what the middle class is."
But Rob Hamm, a software tester at Microsoft who lives in West Seattle, said the government should more clearly define class because "so much of our social structure is based on it.
"Without a better system, you are left with people defining class based on where they think they fit," said Hamm, who defines himself as upper-middle class.
"Being rich is considered a bad thing; so is being poor. In France, rich people lost their heads ... but with Bill Gates, being rich is OK because he gives his money away."
Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
UPDATE - 09:46 AM
Exxon Mobil wins ruling in Alaska oil spill case
NEW - 7:51 AM
Longview man says he was tortured with hot knife
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.