TERRE HAUTE —
Scout Finch didn’t know her family’s economic status. Maybe it’s better that way.
In the book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout wonders why a client of her father — small-town lawyer Atticus Finch — repays his bill for Atticus’ legal services with firewood, turnip greens and hickory nuts. In the midst of the Great Depression, the man, Mr. Cunningham, has no money, Atticus tells his young daughter, so he offers goods instead.
“Are we poor, Atticus?” Scout asks.
“We are indeed,” her father answers.
“Are we as poor as the Cunninghams?” Scout said.
“Not exactly,” Atticus answers. “The Cunninghams are country folks, farmers, and the crash [of 1929] hit them hardest.”
Economic status has been a point of debate this week as Congress decides whether to extend tax cuts originally imposed by former President George W. Bush. Some Democrats oppose a deal between President Obama and congressional Republicans that would keep the cuts for all Americans. In the midst of a slow recession recovery, those Democrats say the tax cuts should be dropped for “the wealthiest Americans” — couples earning $250,000 a year or more, and individuals earning more than $200,000.
In some parts of the United States, Scout Finch’s question is getting turned upside down …
“Are we rich?”
Millions of people around the globe would say, in relation to their own lives, that most Americans — not just the top 2 percent of income earners — are rich. At the beginning of this decade, an estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide were living on less than $1.25 a day, according to The World Bank’s definition of “extreme poverty,” and 2.7 billion lived on less than $2 a day (defined as “moderate poverty.”)
Our own standards are different, of course. Access to safe drinking water, for example, isn’t a concern for most of Americans. Instead, we measure our status by our ability to pay for housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, health care and entertainment. The cost of a ranch-style house, a gallon of milk, gas heat, a new pickup truck and knee-replacement surgery varies from Tennessee to California, and from Peoria, Ill., to New York City.
Thus, couples pulling down $250,000 in the Big Apple are hearing Congress classify them as some of “the wealthiest Americans,” and they’re wondering aloud, “Are we really rich?”
Maybe not as rich as a Hautean couple at the $250,000 plateau, if those New Yorkers look strictly at bills and pay stubs.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau released updated statistics on cities and counties across the nation in its 2005-2009 American Community Survey 5-year estimates for education, income, family relationships, housing, employment and myriad categories. The word “rich” isn’t used, but it’s not impossible to figure out.
In Vigo County, out of 41,932 households, only 545 brought in a combined income of $200,000 or more last year. The median household income stood at $37,509. (“Median” means exactly in the middle — half of Vigo County households earned more than $37,509, and half earned less.) The median household income was $51,425 nationally, and $47,465 for Indiana. Just 1.3 percent of Vigo County households earn $250,000 or more; in New York City, 6.2 percent top that mark.
A $250,000 income in Terre Haute equates to $572,802 in New York, according to the cost of living comparison calculator on Sperling’s Best Places to Live website. A $250,000 salary here is like $554,945 in Boston, or $706,731 in San Francisco.
Then again, Terre Haute doesn’t have the Knicks, Yankees, Mets, Jets, Giants or Rangers. There’s no Metropolitan Opera here, or Rockefeller Center or Statue of Liberty. By contrast, for folks interested in a more peaceful, slower-paced life with the amenities of a Midwestern college town, Terre Haute beats NYC.
Wealth is in the eye of the beholder.
Do you like driving to work in solitude? Eighty-two percent of Vigo County workers drive their own vehicle to their jobs daily, on an average one-way commute of 19.8 minutes. Only 23 percent of New Yorkers drive to work; 55 percent use public transportation, 10 percent walk, and their average travel time is 39 minutes.
Are those Hauteans richer or poorer than the higher-paid New Yorkers?
If your household earns $15,000 to $24,999 yearly in Terre Haute, you still outearn more than 20 percent of your Vigo County neighbors.
Earlier this year, a friend of mine spent three months working in Haiti, cleaning up rubble from homes and buildings demolished by the deadly, massive earthquake there. He’d made similar relief trips to New Orleans and the Gulf region following Hurricane Katrina. “After I came back from my first trip, I realized I had no problems; I had inconveniences, at best,” he said.
In the United States, most of us have access to a warm, dry place to sleep, adequate food and water, public schools and job possibilities, and the freedom to speak, worship and gather.
The debate over taxes in America will go on and on and on and on, through president after president, and Congress after Congress. In the meantime, especially during this Christmas season, let’s remember that those questions — “Are we rich?” and “Are we poor?” — could always be answered differently by someone else. For each of us, there’s a neighbor like the Cunninghams.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.