Dan Gross: Is $250,000 a Middle-Class Salary?

Barack Obama's tax plan, laid out by advisers Austan Goolsbee and Jason Furman in the Wall Street Journal in mid-August, promises to improve the nation's fiscal standing by scaling back tax cuts for people making more than $250,000. Since then, the business pundit class has been griping that people who make $250,000 a year aren't really wealthy, especially if they live in and around New York; San Francisco; or Washington, D.C. (Check out this CNBC debate, for example.) On Wednesday afternoon, CNBC's unscientific online poll found that (surprise!) only 35 percent of respondents believed an income of $250,000 qualified a household for elite rich status.

I have two pieces of bad news for the over-$250,000 crowd. First, the reversal of some of the temporary Bush tax cuts is probably inevitable, given the Republican fiscal clown show of the past eight years. Second, I regret to inform you that you are indeed rich.

To a large degree, feeling rich or poor is a state of mind, as John McCain recently noted. "Some people are wealthy and rich in their lives and their children and their ability to educate them. Others are poor if they're billionaires." But income data can surely tell us something. And they tell us that $250,000 puts you in pretty fancy company. The Census Bureau earlier this week reported that the median household income was $50,223 in 2007—up slightly from the last year but still below the 1999 peak. So a household that earned $250,000 made five times the median. In fact, as this chart shows, only 2.245 million U.S. households, the top 1.9 percent, had income greater than $250,000 in 2007. (About 20 percent of households make more than $100,000.)

In dealing with aggregate nationwide numbers, we should of course take account of the significant differences in the cost of living from state to state. It's obvious that $250,000 doesn't go as far in Santa Barbara, Calif., or Manhattan—or in most places where CNBC viewers, employees, and guests live—as it does in Paducah, Ky. As census data show, state median incomes vary from $65,933 in New Jersey to $35,971 in Mississippi. But even in wealthy states, $250,000 ain't bad—it's nearly four times the median income in wealthy states like Maryland and Connecticut. And even if you look at the wealthiest metropolitan areas—Washington, D.C. ($83,200); San Francisco ($73,851); Boston ($68,142); and New York ($61,554)—$250,000 a year dwarfs the median income.

But people in Georgetown mansions don't necessarily compare themselves to fellow Washingtonians in Anacostia. Relative income really works at the neighborhood level. As we know from the work of Cornell economist Robert Frank, people rate their well-being not so much based on how much they make and consume, but on how much they make and consume compared to their neighbors. After all, you have to compete with them for status and for important positional goods such as housing and schools. And here the CNBC crowd has a point. It is certainly true that in a few ZIP codes and neighborhoods, brandishing a $250,000 salary is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. There is a significant number of rich people—including a healthy contingent of filthy rich people—in places like New York City and San Francisco. If you want to live in a neighborhood where starter homes cost $1 million, and you want to send your kids to private schools, and you want to go on great vacations and have a beach house, then $250,000 likely won't cut it. For people in this situation, the knowledge that they're doing better than 98 percent of their fellow Americans is little solace when the investment banker down the street has just pulled down a $2 million bonus.

But the number of places where $250,000 stretches you is small indeed—certain parts of Greenwich, Conn.; several neighborhoods in Manhattan; some of California's coast. Even in the most exclusive communities where the wealthy congregate, $250,000 is still pretty good coin. Consider this: CNNMoney recently ranked America's 25 wealthiest towns. In all of them, someone making $250,000 would have a difficult time buying his dream house. But in all of them, making $250,000 means you're doing better than most of your neighbors. Even in America's richest town, New Canaan, Conn., the median income is $231,138.

I await the tidal wave of e-mails and blog posts from self-made, hardworking, accomplished people who earn $250,000 but who don't feel financially secure and who don't consider themselves rich, especially compared to the venture capitalist next door. Having spent my entire adult life in and around Washington, Boston, and New York, I feel you. I'm eager to listen and empathize. Tell me all about how home prices in areas with good public schools are insanely expensive. Tell me about how many other seemingly undeserving people make so much more. Tell me about your proposals to devise an income tax system that accounts for geographically divergent costs of living (the Alternative Yuppie Tax?). Just don't tell me you're not rich.