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Targeting the Upper Middle Class: Someone Has to Pay

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Like a good liberal in America and a working(ish) mom, I want to see social services get better. I want free preschool, tax breaks for childcare, better social services and better maternity leave, but as my very Republican husband is fond of pointing out, “Someone has to pay for that.”

He isn’t wrong, of course. Someone does have to pay. If we want the opportunities and services that come along with the idea of a liberal America, then the money has to come from somewhere. The favorite target, of course, are the rich—the much maligned rich people. You know them. They are not us. They are greedy and tight-fisted and they never want to share their wealth even to make America a better country. Jerks. Except, actually, those evil rich people? That is us.

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The upper middle class is commonly defined as single person households making over $100,000 or married couples making $200,000 or more. According to The World Income Database you are in the top 10 percent of wealth if your household earns more than $113,000. In an article for Slate, Reihan Salam defines upper middle class as a state of mind: “We’re talking about families that earn well into the six-figure range yet don’t feel rich, either because of their student loan debt or the enormous cost of the amenities they consider nonnegotiable: living in well-above-average school districts for those with children or living in 'cool' neighborhoods for those without.”

But those of us in the upper-middle class don’t feel poor out of a delusional sense of entitlement to more. I think it comes from an honest place of fear. Since 2008, we’ve seen friends, family members and even ourselves, tossed from a comfortable life into the chaos of insecurity. Through the recession, people have lost homes, jobs and a sense of security. So, we can’t be rich, right? Because wealth is security, and from where I sit, I don’t feel secure.

The impact of that time of poverty, even though we never starved, still sticks with me. I don’t feel safe.

I am afraid of the rising cost of college. I’m afraid of the cost of activities for my children, for childcare, for the cost of going to a freaking birthday party, or hell, even having a birthday party. I often tease my husband because his family is very well off, but they penny pinch and save like they were all born in the Great Depression. His siblings all have great jobs and homes, but none of them feel “rich.” Even though, statistically they are. And while I tease them, I understand the feeling. During the recession of the 1980s, I saw my father lose his job and we lost our home. The impact of that time of poverty, even though we never starved, still sticks with me. I don’t feel safe.

I think about retirement and paying for college for my children. My husband and I just crawled out from under the heavy burden of my immense school debt and that took years of scrimping and cutting back. I earn a meager salary from freelancing and when it comes time to pay taxes, even my bleeding liberal heart turns cold when I see how much money is leaving our account.

And yet, someone has to pay if we want the future for our children that we can’t seem to grasp for ourselves. Something has to give if we want to extend the opportunities we’ve fought for to everyone else.

When the president threatened to tax 529 plans, I winced. Almost all the money I earn goes straight into a 529 plan for our kids. “He can’t tax that,” I thought. “That’s us! That’s not the rich!” And we are not that. We rarely eat out. We don’t have a housecleaner. I shop at Aldi, always. And yet the data shows otherwise.

In Reihan Salam’s article for Slate, he busts down the upper-middle class for “ruining America” with their (our) selfish “don’t tax us” ways. And I get his argument to an extent. The New York Times also ran a piece, although less pointed, explicating all the problems with the upper-middle class not thinking they are rich. But I think both takes miss something deeper that is going on with us—the mean, awful, upper-middle class—the crippling debt and insecurity, those gifts from the recession that we are still burdened by. It’s a hard tautology; to make life more secure for people, we have to invest in social services. And to invest in social services we need to tax people who feel very economically insecure.

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So what is the answer? Well, my husband and his family would disagree, but I say, tax me. I’m no Warren Buffet. I basically buy all my clothes at Target. But, guess what, I can do that. I am privileged. I have a nice house and a fridge full of food and in this world that makes me in the top 10 percent. And I want this place to get better. I want my daughter to have guaranteed maternity leave and my son and his future partner not to have to worry about childcare or a second income.

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