What Ec 10 Means in Human Terms


To the Editors of The Crimson:

My compliments on the editorial page essay by John Larew entitled "Winners Take All." (Jan. 3) It does a fine job of calling attention to the increasing economic inequality of American life. I can hardly say I am surprised by the appalling statement attributed to Martin Feldstein, but it is useful to have such obscenities published from time to time, especially in the Harvard community where reactionary political views are so often passed off as middle of the road, and mildly progressive views as wildly radical.

Your readers might be interested in a few facts and figures concerning income distribution which demonstrate how different the reality of American society is from the impressions on which most contemporary public discourse is based. The following figures refer to 1987, but very little has changed since then.

First, let us clarify this notion of the middle class. Think of all 80 million or so households as arranged in one grand list according to how much total income they have in a year. [I leave aside unattached individuals, for whom the figures are of course much more striking--everyone understands by now that the only way for a household to obtain a large income is to send two or more wage earners into the labor market.]

According to any reasonable usage of the English language, those households in the top 5 percent must be thought of as upper-income or rich, not middle income. Surely no one would describe a ballplayer in the top 5 percent of hitters as a "middling" player! How much money must a family have to be in this magic top 5 percent? $1 million? $250,000? Not a bit of it! In 1987, the cut-off point was $86,300. Today, it is slightly more.


So, who makes this top 5 percent? First of all, every senior professor at Harvard whose wife works [as well as that tiny, tiny band of senior professors whose husbands work], and most of the unmarried ones as well. A senior professor at my university, whose wife or husband teaches school at Amherst High School, probably does [pay scales being lower at Umps]. Newly graduated lawyers who bag those tasty associateships in Wall Street firms just about make it on the day they start to work. Every member of Congress just about makes it without any help from extra income or spouses, before the enormous pay raise they have just voted themselves. Indeed, pretty much everyone you are likely to know, in the circles in which you travel, is in that magic 5 percent. That is why you think of it as middle class. But it isn't. The top 5 percent of any society are the rich, not the middle class.

What about the other 95 percent. Well, since people you think of as middling turn out to be rich, it follows that people you think of as working class are going to be middle class. Imagine a construction worker making the national average wage for his trade of $12.15/hour [still 1987 figures]. His wife works as a waitress in a diner, averaging $6/hour in wages and tips. If he gets two Saturdays of weekend overtime during the year at time and a half [i.e., 16 hours of extra work in the year], then the two of them as a household will be better off than 60 percent of all the households in the United States. In short, by any reasonable construal of the term, they are upper-middle class.

One more family: a grade school dropout and his wife and children live on the poverty wages they make at their minimum-wage, dead-end $3.35/hour jobs. He sweeps up and runs errands at a downtown restaurant, she does domestic labor. They work eight hours, Monday through Friday, and half a day on Saturday. Would you believe they are actually better off than one-fifth [13 million] of the households in these United States? If that dead-end couple are Black, then their wages make them better off than 45 percent of all Black households! They, and not the glossy individuals you see in the pages of Ebony, are the true Black middle class!

Well, enough. The function of Harvard College is to guarantee NOT that you get into the upper-middle class, BUT that you do not run the risk of falling as low as the low end of the rich! The next time Martin Feldstein tells you the good news that unemployment has risen, you might ask him that what his Harvard salary is. [By the way, as anyone can discover by coming to the Umps campus and inquiring at the library, my salary at the moment-and for a long time to come, judging by what is going on at the State House-is $86,604.48/year, which puts me high up, but not at the top, of the Umps scale, and also puts me, as well as Professor Feldstein, among the rich in society.] Robert P. Wolff   Professor of Philosophy   University of Massachusetts, Amherst