Are You Rich?

at 11:43 PM

Are you rich?

If you said no, you're not alone. In a survey, an investment company asked a number of Americans and most responded they were not. In fact, 40 percent of those with $5 million in assets responded "no" to the question, "Do you consider yourself wealthy?"

This $5 million denial points out an interesting fact: a lot of rich people don't consider themselves to be, well, rich. From the responses, rich seems relative -- somebody richer than you.

That this survey exists at all is a statement about our national obsession with wealthy and rich, surely the most undefined of widely used terms. Despite almost daily calls to tax the rich, nobody agrees how rich is rich. What economists do agree is wealth distribution is more unbalanced now than any time since the great depression, some calculating half of the world's wealth is controlled by around 1 percent of the population, a fact which has not gone unnoticed by the other 99 percent.

But it's not just the 1 percent who face resentment. Here in the Bay Area, fairly or not, highly-paid technology workers are increasingly blamed for everything from high rents to road-hog buses. No wonder nobody checked "yes." Like carrying a wad of cash in your pocket while walking through a rough neighborhood, today's wealthy feel a little nervous. In a tense era of economic inequality, the bank vault is the new closet.

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From Horatio Alger to Bill Gates, from Las Vegas to the lottery, the American dream anyone can get rich is one of our most cherished cultural values. But in today's climate, even if everybody wants to be rich, nobody wants to say they are rich.

So, though as a public school teacher I'm checking "no," I don't feel too bad. After all, another recent study concluded, once basic needs such as food and housing are met, most people with regular incomes are just as happy as rich people.

Of course, the study didn't define what it meant by happy people, either.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.

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