The Definition Of American Prosperity Needs An Adjustment

The Definition Of American Prosperity Needs An Adjustment

There's a common joke here in the SF Bay Area.

How do you know someone went to Stanford? They'll tell you within the first couple of sentences.

We Americans have a tremendous desire for status and prestige. When we work hard for something, it's our second nature to tell everybody about our achievement.

You do it. I do it. We all do it. No big deal if we aren't incessant about it.

But at a certain point, it becomes concerning when we start complaining about our struggles despite being in an extremely fortunate situation.

Let me share one public example and then my own as case studies to illustrate how unaware we truly are about our good fortune.

Being Unable To Recognize American Prosperity

Charlotte from Time magazine sent out this tweet she wrote about everybody's favorite politician, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It's a good in-depth piece about how and why AOC came to power.

American Prosperity

What is strange about her tweet is that she claims people her age (20s and 30s) have never experienced American prosperity in their adult lifetimes.

How could this be when the parents of people her age have been able to save and invest in the biggest bull market in history! If only we were able to rewind time and invest as Biff did in Back To The Future II.

Before rushing to judgment, I did what any rational person would do and tried to understand why Charlotte has had such a difficult time in her life so far.

Maybe she grew up in a poor single-parent household in a difficult neighborhood. Maybe she didn't even go to public college because her parents couldn't afford the tuition. Or maybe she has a disability.

Lo and behold, it was easy to understand her background because her parents have their own Wikipedia pages! I thought only rich and/or famous people have their own Wiki page? Silly me.

Here are some tidbits.

Jonathan Alter (father): A graduate of Phillips Academy (private prep school) and Harvard University. American journalist, best-selling author, documentary filmmaker and television producer who was a columnist and senior editor for Newsweek magazine from 1983 until 2011, and has written three New York Times best-selling books about American presidents

Emily Jane Lazar (mother): A graduate of Hotchkiss School (private prep school) and Harvard University. Co-executive producer of the former Comedy Central show The Colbert Report;three children: Charlotte (b. 1990), a writer for TIME Magazine, Tommy (b. 1991), a producer for HBO Sports, and Molly (b. 1993), who works in venture capital.

Then, of course, there's Charlotte, who also went to Harvard University and is a staff writer for Time Magazine. I don't know whether she went to an elite private prep school or not. But I assume so based on her parents' backgrounds.

Most would agree that if you went to private grade school, private university, and have rich and accomplished parents, you've probably experienced some American prosperity in your life. Some might even conclude that all you've ever experienced is American prosperity.

Yet, I believe Charlotte and other wealthy people like her truly do not feel they have experienced American prosperity because their life is all they know. I'm sure Charlotte is a fine and nice person. She's just a little unaware about how good folks like her truly have it.

As a parent, this lack of appreciation for prosperity is one of my worries of raising my son in a comfortable environment. He'll have a warm home, food whenever he wants, and mostly prosperous friends. When life is so easy, you don't end up pushing yourself to make something of your own.

The lack of struggle is one of the reasons why we considered moving back to Virginia instead of to Hawaii. Just look at how UVA turned it around in the NCAA tournament from losing in the first round last year to winning it all in 2019. Hardship creates hunger and growth! In Virginia, we could send him to a public school and let him experience more racial altercations.

Whereas in Hawaii, we would likely send him to a private school where more classmates looked like him. We'd also probably buy a nice house on or near the beach and finally start living it up in retirement.

But if you start with a Ferrari, how can you ever appreciate any other car when it's finally time for you to buy one on your own?

If you've spent your entire life in a luxurious home, good luck feeling good about renting or buying a place with your own salary.

Financial Samurai Case Study

Now let's look at my own lack of recognizing American prosperity. In the post, The Wide Implications Of The College Admissions Scandal, one of the points I write about is:

The middle class may become wealthier and happier. As college becomes less important in finding a job, there will be fewer people spending four years and borrowing tens of thousands in student loans. With more time and less financial baggage, more people will be able to aggressively save to buy a house, start a family, and save for retirement.

I thought this was a good thing. However, what I didn't realize was that by writing the words “middle class,” based on my current position as a financially independent person, it could be construed as insulting to the “true middle-class” American.

Here is a response from a regular Financial Samurai reader,

Let me start by stating that I love your blog and your views on general and I salute you for your consistent approach. However, one area I repeatedly roll my eyes as is when you describe your upbringing as “middle class”.

Based on your posts, your parents had jobs as foreign service officers for the US Government. That is about as secure a job and lifestyle as one could expect (all living expenses comped by taxpayers). I’m not saying it is a cushy job or easy, as I respect those who do it, but it is an elite job.

Your views are warped and you seem to want to cast yourself as middle class struggle when in reality you had a huge advantage over most of the country.

Maybe not compared to your Wall Street buddies, but compared to most you had a silver spoon. This doesn't discount any of your success, or the impact of racism that you said you faced which I agree is a challenge, but you need to get real on your upbringing and your parents jobs – not middle class.

This is fantastic feedback that shines a huge blind spot on my lack of awareness that I didn't grow up middle class, even though I wasn't writing about my own upbringing to begin with.

All this time, I thought I grew up in an average American household. Here are some data points from my upbringing that made me believe so. My dad verified the numbers.

  • Went to public high school (free) and college ($2,800/year in tuition at The College of William & Mary)
  • Dad went to the University of Hawaii (public), Mom went to National Taiwan University (public)
  • Parents drove an 8-year-old Toyota Camry (bought for $5,000)
  • Worked at McDonald's, worked as a mover, and did random jobs as a temp during the summers
  • Lived in a ~1,700 sqft townhouse that was purchased for $190,000
  • Parents worked at the US State Department and my mom made between $25,000 – $55,000 and my dad made between $15,000 – $119,000 over a 25-year career
  • Dad served in the Vietnam war as a guard in Thailand
  • The passing rate for the foreign service exam is only 3%

Here is the actual townhouse I lived in from Google street view. Ah, the fond high school memories. I had the room with the balcony.

The definition of American prosperity

It's now becoming clear that I didn't grow up middle class, but upper middle class or some would say rich. For example, while some classmates had to walk a couple miles to school, I got to ride a bike. As a result, I could get more sleep and do better in class.

During my time growing up in the Philippines, Zambia, Taiwan, and Malaysia before high school I witnessed a lot of poverty. In comparison, my family was definitely rich. Who gets to live abroad as a child while his parents get to honorably serve their country building foreign relationships? Not many.

Further, being born Asian seems to have given me a leg up in America because how could it not when elite private schools require a higher hurdle rate for admission? Surely these universities must have scientific data behind their decision. Otherwise, that would be discrimination.

For those who have been offended by my belief that the middle class will benefit from the college admissions scandal by helping level the playing field, I apologize. I really didn't mean any harm and will try to only write about wealthy people stuff going forward.

Why We Can't Recognize American Prosperity

Here are four reasons why I think some of us don't recognize our prosperity.

1) Our government and think tanks arbitrarily define middle-class income and status for us nationally instead of locally. Pew Research, for example, believes that a middle-class income ranges between 67% to 200% of the median household income. While some in government, in order to raise the income tax rate at lower income levels, believe rich means earning income over $200,000, regardless of location.

2) Life's struggles. No matter how rich and powerful you are, you will always experience some sort of hardship growing up. Common hardships include divorce, fights, bullying, rejections, mental illness, loneliness and deaths. These negatives are very real and make us feel less prosperous than we really are.

3) Our desire to always compare and want more. Even though my family drove a perfectly fine 8-year-old Toyota Camry during my upper class upbringing, I was envious of my rich friend whose family drove a new Honda Accord. I still remember that new car smell.

Even though AOC attended Boston University for $70,000 a year in today's dollars, she might be envious of Charlotte Alter who attended higher ranked Harvard University for only $65,000 a year.

Conversely, Charlotte might be envious of AOC because AOC, with a less prestigious degree, is the second most popular politician in America. The comparisons go on and on and can make us miserable.

4) We're simply ignorant about how the rest of the country and the world live. We need to travel more. We also should strive to learn another language and immerse ourselves in another culture. If we do, we will better appreciate how good we have things and be able to get along with more people.

Let's recognize our prosperity while trying to remain humble. If we can help others become more prosperous, all the better.

Always attribute most of your success to luck rather than to hard work. You can still secretly work hard behind the scenes, but never let anybody know. Saying you worked hard in today's environment is gradually becoming an insult.

Finally, recognize the growing anger in America towards those who have more and adapt. When in doubt, be respectful towards those who denigrate your efforts. And if you feel that a respectful dialogue cannot ensue, then move on. There are so many better things to do with your time.

Remember, “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.” It is up to those of us with opportunity to help those who do not.

Related posts:

Spoiled Or Clueless? Try Working A Minimum Wage Job As An Adult For Goodness Sake

Your First Million Might Be The Easiest: How To Become A Millionaire By 30

Readers, anybody out there think they grew up middle class, but who actually grew up upper middle class or rich? Why do some people who grow up wealthy not recognize their prosperity? What is your definition of American prosperity? How can we get people to recognize and appreciate their prosperity more?

86 thoughts on “The Definition Of American Prosperity Needs An Adjustment”

  1. “Finally, recognize the growing anger in America towards those who have more and adapt. When in doubt, be respectful towards those who denigrate your efforts. And if you feel that a respectful dialogue cannot ensue, then move on. There are so many better things to do with your time.

    Remember, “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.” It is up to those of us with opportunity to help those who do not.”

    I started in college in 92 and have lived most of my life believing that America was an opportunity zone. That all one had to do was apply oneself, be entrepreneurial, and provide value to their fellow man.

    But, I have noticed something, especially in the last 5 years. America is not an opportunity zone. Not any more at least. During my career, my benefits have been eroded, my effective salary has declined, and my ability to get anywhere financially has been simply stifled.

    This is not what I was sold. My great-grandparents, grand-parents and parents all sold me on American Opportunity. Work hard, apply yourself at a good job and you can live a stable and rewarding life. A college degree would only launch oneself even further.

    However, this was just a feeling I had. That American Opportunity was dying. Then, I came upon this article at The Atlantic,

    Now, it all makes sense. Why 3 generations before me all believed in American Prosperity; but, I have not experienced it.

    And you are darn right there is Anger. And deservedly so. Massive student loans, erosion of benefits, lower effective wages. Reductions in social programs. Tax cuts and tariffs that effectively increase the effective cost of goods for those with lower incomes.

    All while corporations are experiencing never before seen productivity, massive record profits, and huge gains. Those gains used to be shared with America so that the entire nation could prosper.

    But now, their redistributing to the top 10%; however, those at the top have done nothing to deserve them. As a result, they are putting up more and more walls to strip the prosperity and opportunity away from the lower 90%.

    Enormous college costs and massive student loans just to play the game; middle class housing the one could never afford without a 30-year mortgage; then, just when you’re ready to turn the corner, Age Discrimination policies that ensure you’ll never get ahead. Oh, and when you reach the end; we’ll make sure we get anything back through your medical bills.

    Charlotte’s right, American Prosperity is dying and it’s very sad indeed.

  2. David N Wendelken

    Capitalism produces a lot of goods and wealth. That’s a good thing.

    I’m a capitalist and entrepreneur, through and through.

    Unregulated capitalism also produces a lot of pollution, crippled workers, poisoned food, crooked stock and bond markets and services, and impoverished workers.

    This is all documented in the history of capitalistic countries. It’s happened all over the world.

    We have environmental laws to address the pollution. Worker safety laws to address safety for workers, various regulatory agencies to oversee stocks and bonds, and various labor laws to (attempt to) address impoverished workers.

    Those laws are under attack. There are constant attempts to gut them by lobbyists for those who would profit more if those laws were weakened or removed.

    Democratic socialism is an attempt to keep the capitalistic system but make sure that the benefits of goods and wealth are also shared with the workers. It starts with a few basic principles:

    1) No one is entitled to profits at the expense of another’s life or health. For example, it’s wrong to poison people to make an extra buck.

    2) If someone works for a living they should be paid a living. No one is entitled to a business that survives only because its employees are impoverished while working there.

    3) You are not entitled to be a hateful bigot in your business dealings.

    Police services are socialism. We all chip in and get the advantage of police protection.
    Used to be only the rich had police and they paid them, so the rest of us got abused and only the rich got protected.

    Fire departments are socialism. We all chip in and get the advantage of fire protection. Crassus, the richest man in republican Rome, made his fortune with a private fire brigade manned by slaves. They would rush to the site of a fire and beat up anyone trying to put out the fire. If you paid them, they would try to put out the fire for you, otherwise your property burned. Now we all get fire department protection.

    The SEC is socialism. We all chip in and get the advantage of transparent, mostly honest dealings in stocks and bonds. Can’t count on that in some other countries, there it’s “Buyer beware”, just as it used to be back when our market wasn’t regulated.

    I could go on and on.

    If logic doesn’t work, and like many, you need FEAR FEAR FEAR to motivate you to action, poor and middle class folks outnumber rich people. Guillotines are easy to make and operate. The lives and fortunes you save by making sure workers are well paid and treated may be your own. Check out the slave revolts of Spartacus, the Jacqueries all over Europe, and various labor revolts and revolutions around the world. Even if some rich folks win in time, there are often a whole lot of dead rich folks before that happens.

    1. Social Capitalist

      Nothing to fear but fear itself. My first thought after reading this post.

      I share many of your same views on capitalism/socialism. After growing up poor I am lucky AND worked hard to be where I am today.

      We should not denigrate hardworkers but we should recognize that there fewer aces in the American deck because 40 yrs. of supply side economics have taken their toll.

  3. Even if you are lower class, middle class, or upper class, you can distinguish yourself by taking the time to immerse yourself in financial education. There are many situations where the wealthy wash away their earnings with poor financial habits, and the less well-off upstage the “wealthy” with savings, discipline, and focus.

    The younger generation lean too much toward wanting entitlements, when they should really steer towards the importance of education.

    1. I’m not so sure about that. Yes you hit the lotto if you were born in the US but only if you are born in the top 10% (I think I was). A super majority of people born in the US with very poor economic mobility and can’t afford to miss a single paycheck didn’t hit the lotto. But like the this post hits at, everything is relative. There is always a lot of places that are far worse. But it is easier to focus on the many countries that would have been better to be born into.

      I’m probably a top 6% or so but if I was 18 today. I could never hope to have the same success making the exact same decisions I did to get me here.

      1. Mr. Hobo Millionaire

        >>I’m not so sure about that.

        David, I couldn’t disagree more. It’s indisputable, that no matter WHERE or HOW you were born in the U.S., you have a leg up on most the rest of the world. How do I know that? There is no one, and I mean NO ONE, trying to sneak out of this country into another… and there is for sure no one getting on a rickety boat trying to leave the U.S. to sail across the ocean to reach prosperity in another country. Being born in the U.S. is a GIFT that too many people don’t appreciate. Furthermore, there are a number of immigrant stories of families who started with nothing and achieved great wealth here.

        1. Peter Kallas

          There’d be far more people leaving the u.s. and migrating if they had the means. Legal immigration is a looong strenuous process that confuses most and costs resources = a ton of time and a ton of money. Very few in this country have both those things. The one’s that have those means generally have dual citizenships for a reason.

  4. Perhaps this is too mathematical for people to grasp. The magnitude of income and wealth inequality is a problem because it’s been increasing since the 80s. If you look at the data, you’ll see a divergence in the mean and median. The gains of the stock market have disproportionately gone to those with the most wealth. People on the whole are terrible at finance; they don’t do a good job saving or investing so they didn’t glean as much benefit. In the past, people have relied on pensions and home equity. Now pensions have gone by the wayside,and the typical American doesnt know much about saving for retirement. What I see is a separated middle class–lower and upper without much of a middle. Not everyone is driven by money or has the investing know-how to save appropriately. Should they be relegated to the lower class for this?

    1. SmokeEmIfYouGotEm

      I wanted to see what the history of the S&P 500 looked like, just for some better context. It astounded me that it grew at a fairly linear rate until the 1980s and then shot up exponentially. The interesting thing, it that since then, each boom and bust cycle is fractal of itself. It’s at that point I realized why having just a little wealth at the right made some people fabulously wealthy some 30 years later.

  5. LOL almost NO ONE alive has experience rationing of basic goods, sugar, metals ( think war pennies), fabric… only WW2 genration and most are passed on. Nor have they experienced any great health threat like the spanish flu where people were quarantined in their homes. Millennials haven’t experienced prosperity because they have never experienced hardship that threatened their lives.

    1. Guess you didn’t hear about de-industrialization in the rust belt, the opioid epidemic, mass incarceration, the decline in life expectancy for white working class males, or the 550,000 homeless people in the US. The annual median income for a HOUSEHOLD in my hometown was $18,559 at last census. No hardship you say?

      1. Heard about it but it is all personal choices that gets people there and small numbers. 550k of 320 million is nothing….. .0018% Also they no longer want to be called homeless the PC term now is Urban Hunter Gatherers.

      2. Socem get the negativity out of here. Cut the excuses and find a way to increase your income. Don’t do drugs. Don’t break the law. Leave the rust belt if you have to. Exercise more, don’t eat too much, and don’t smoke if you want to increase life expectancy. Averages are averages for a reason, please you can do better. Think where you’d like to be 10 years from now and plan it out and you’ll get there!

        1. There’s a difference between ‘negativity’ and acknowledging reality.

          Hardship exists = acknowledging reality.

          Hardship exists and it’s the worst ever and there’s nothing I can do boohoo = negativity.

          You’re reading the second one, but all that was written was the first one.

  6. I was born and raised in India in the 70s. Every year during rainy season our house used to get flooded from the rain water (mixed with copious amounts of open drain water). My parents used to drain out the water using buckets for hours and sometimes days. We had running water first time in our house when I was 10. We had toilet inside our house when I was 14. The first vehicle in our family was the bicycle that my dad bought for me when I was 17 because I did well in studies. The neighborhood that I grew up in was filled with unemployed youth and was teeming violence and gang wars. My parents always said the only way out was through education. My father got loan to pay for me and my brothers education.
    Came to the US as a graduate student in the 90s and my brother in early 2000. In about 20 years my brother and I are both multi millionaires living in SF bay area. So when the likes of AOC come on TV and talk about a tough childhood and how it is difficult to get ahead in America, my blood boils. It makes a mockery of the billions of kids born worldwide who have to go through some real s**t in life. You want socialism go to Venezuala. India tried socialism for decades and changed to capitalistic model in the 90s. It has lifted millions of people out of poverty. Instead of bitching and moaning about how tough you have it in life, realize that you have been handed the biggest lottery there is in this world: To be born as a US citizen!!

    1. Sanjay – I understand where you are coming from as I have a similar story.

      I would say though that the most important privilege you can have in life is having parents that believe education is the way out. Shockingly, I have now learned living in the US for over 30 yrs, this is incredibly rare in middle and lower class families in the US.

      In the US, parents (assuming you have two, which in itself is rare in many communities) seem to think that throwing a ball back-and-forth is the way out of poverty. Backup plan being to sing and dance. Worst case, the nebulous – “live your dreams”. Although Indians love Bollywood, it is not the case that the average Indian family believes their kids should realistically pursue this route as a serious career. However, that is the reality here.

      Having air-conditioning without understanding how it works doesn’t automatically make your life better!

    2. The median and mean in this country are diverging. To me, this is more about where the US is headed in terms of class… not a comparison to poor conditions in other countries. If we don’t defend our standard of living for all Americans then where will we end up?

  7. In the united states:
    Rich equals everyone with more than me.
    Poor equals everyone with less than me.
    It doesn’t matter what your actual income or wealth is.

  8. Another Reader

    Thanks, Sam for detailing Charlotte’s biography. Looks like multiple generations slinging this garbage for money. power. and prestige in Charlotte’s case. Charlotte will likely be around for awhile, but AOC will likely be dumped by her district, many of whose residents are already unhappy about her lack of a local presence and services for the community through her office, which her predecessor was apparently quite good at.

  9. nofreelunch

    Always remember the story: Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer now dead, and I were at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel ‘Catch-22’ has earned in its entire history?” And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?” And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”

    So apparently AOC and Charlotte are discontent they they don’t have enough, when that is more than the average person has had. What if someone actually has less, but feels that they have enough? Is that the unfair part? The difference in the feeling?

    1. Another Reader

      AOC and Charlotte are after power and prestige. They want to shape the world according to their vision and make you like it. They have enough money, but not enough power over others.

  10. Its a good topic to raise. Prosperity is a very relative concept. In Australia we haven’t had a recession or since 1992 – the longest economic expansion of any country ever. And yet, people are pretty unhappy, including unhappy about their economic situation. Our national debt is at all time highs, energy prices are at all time highs (despite Australia being the biggest producer of natural gas on the planet) and in Sydney we have more warm, sunny days than just about anywhere else. Something isn’t right.

    I earn a high income – do I feel rich? Not really. We still have to careful about what we spend and how we spend it. I should feel rich, but I don’t. As I said, its all relative.

    I think part of it is political. Politicians are constantly telling us that we are poor, time-starved, struggling (we use the word “battler” in Australia) and they have the perfect policy to fix it. Unfortunately, all we hear is the negative. No politician who ever wants to get elected is going to tell people how well off they are (unless they’re the party in power of course).

  11. I know this article talks about more – but I don’t understand the end game of the Democratic Socialists, as in what would be their utopian world. It seems like they want to penalize and tax the heck out of anything (people or business) that can “afford” to pay more, then I guess the government becomes more of a welfare provider of housing, healthcare, schooling (although why would you aspire to go to school if you are being provided for), jobs, free money, ….

    I personally think Capitalism has worked pretty well for the United States. I don’t see any other country doing better than we are. Not saying we can’t learn from other countries and become better, but to throw out Capitalism in favor of Socialism doesn’t seem like the right approach. I view the job of the government to provide a level playing field for opportunity, but it is up the individuals to take advantage of that opportunity.

    1. The “end game” of the Democratic Socialists is to save capitalism by preventing a proletarian revolution. That’s what the New Deal was about. That’s what the recent resurgence of these reformists is about too. The Dem-Socs fear the renewed struggles of the working class and so they want to fend it off by throwing workers just enough crumbs to keep them from open revolt. This differs from the traditional capitalist response, which is just to smash any such struggle with brute force. Two different strategies with the same ultimate goal: preservation of the profit system.

      This doesn’t come from nowhere. It originates in the growth of political opposition within the working class to social inequality, which is fueling an international strike wave. Last year, more than half a million US workers went on strike, a 20-fold increase over 2017. The class struggle is back in a big way.

      Last week, Ray Dalio, the former CEO of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, published an essay warning that the United States may be on the brink of social revolution. He wrote: “Disparity in wealth, especially when accompanied by disparity in values, leads to increasing conflict and, in the government, that manifests itself in the form of populism of the left and populism of the right and often in revolutions.”

      He added that “we are now at a juncture in which” the growth of social inequality, unless reversed, would lead to a “great conflict and some form of revolution.”

      1. Very good point, I concur. Taxes might be preferable to guillotines to the 1 percent. I live in a democratic socialist country and am the envy of my family back in the US because I have peace of mind regarding healthcare costs and university tuition for my children. Yes, we are heavily taxed, but we get something in return.

        1. I am also a refuge who left a deeply impoverished part of the United States for a chance of basic survival. But I ended up in a third world country instead of Western Europe.

          Anyway, even in Europe the Democratic Socialist model came in as a bulwark against proletarian revolution. It’s easy to forget now, but in the early twentieth century the appeal of the October Revolution was huge. There were major revolts in Finland, Hungary and even Germany. Finland went the Soc-Dem route. We know what the route they took in Germany.

          The thing is, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall means the Dem-Soc model can only last for so long. Austerity is becoming a reality even in the Nordic countries. As a part of that drive to roll back the portion going to working people, right wing extremists are now again on the move in Europe and taking government seats all across the continent. This is all related.

          Even in the dog-eat-dog US, there is a huge drive against “entitlement” which apparently means the horrors of people getting back social security money they paid to the government or pensions that the bosses agreed to pay.

          Alan Greenspan just published a long piece arguing that unless the “entitlement programs” — weak as they are comparatively speaking — are done away with, the US economy will collapse again. As he points out all the hubbub about “growth” is mainly financial speculation fluff. Every 10 point growth on Wall Street leads to less than a 1 percent increase in GDP. And we all know that even GDP is a seriously flawed measure.

          Look at the factories. If they’re idle, there’s a storm a brewing!

        2. Not going to college is a viable option for many. So that drops the price to zero. As far as healthcare, many employers offer plans where you can get insured for as little as $67/month. That’s cheap in my opinion. So what’s all the fuss about the expensive education and healthcare? It’s overblown in my opinion. You can get by just fine without crazy expensive education and as long as you’re insured appropriately, healthcare costs shouldn’t hit you too hard.

          1. It was a viable option. Now there are no viable options for a lot of people outside of the coastal cities. College is too expensive and the mines and mills are mostly shuttered or scab plants where you make McDonald’s wages if you’re lucky enough to get a job.

            As a self-employed single male in the United States who grossed 48,000 in 2016, the cheapest healthcare quote I could find anywhere after 2 months of constant searching was $1100 per month. And it came with almost no coverage and a $5000 deductible. So I took the tax penalty and went without. Then I left the country.

            1. Your point on McDonald’s wages is completely false. You ever heard of waiting tables? (Can easily double McDonald’s pay). Also cutting grass is an extremely reliable moneymaker that earns way more than minimum wage…. easy money. Like I said, find an employer and they will sponsor your health insurance to where you only pay a fraction of the cost. It’s pretty simple stuff…. and your point about non coastal cities is just completely false. There’s easy money factory jobs in nearly any city that pay 25+/hr with no college degree. Some of these places will literally hire anybody as long as you can pass a drug test. And finally, truck driving is a solid way to make cash if you’re up for the challenge. There’s so many opportunities, just have to keep the eyes open, utilize the internet and talk to the right people.

            2. I’ll give you a great example. Person I know is a bank teller working part time while attending college full time. He lives at home with mom and dad. College tuition is 3k per semester so 6k/yr. He made 20k last year from his job and so he easily cash flowed his tuition and saved a good amount as well. He’s already been offered the promotion and will likely quadruple his income over the next 1-2 years once he graduates. Seriously Socem, open your eyes to reality. There are so many opportunities. Quit spreading myths about how there aren’t many job opportunities when that’s the opposite of the truth in the USA.

          2. Where do you think healthcare costs are paid from? You might be insured through your employer, but they are paying the lion’s share of the compensation. That’s part of your overall compensation and as healthcare costs balloon, wages stagnate.

            In fact, when you count compulsory payments rather than simply looking at your tax rate, US citizens are some of the most highly taxed workers in the world, ahead of Canada and most of Europe at ~43%.


            Turns out letting middlemen profit off of healthcare drives prices up. Who knew?

  12. I’m not taking one side or another, but I think it would have been fair to the author of the TIME piece to at least include her very next tweet — linked to the one you screenshot — where she says she is *not* talking about her personal experience. It just makes your dive into her wikipedia parents seem a bit disingenuous is all. I say all of this being a loyal reader and someone who respects you, Sam.

    1. Don’t think understanding her background after her claim is disingenuous at all. Nor is linking to her tweet if you click the tweet in the post, where you will see her backtracking and all the responses. Did you not click her tweet in my post?

      Why not share your opinion? Nobody is going to bite your head off in sharing some thought here.

  13. The problem is when people grew up dirt poor and have fortunately made it- They don’t want their kids to grow up like they did. So, They give and provide the best for the kids of what they did not have.

  14. This is an excellent article. Love the back to the future reference but I do believe it’s Back to the Future II that Biff get’s the Almanac and gets rich.

    This article highlights that it is important to stay humble and be thankful on a daily basis.

    “Hardship creates hunger and growth!” This is an excellent point that should motivate us to take more risks and strive to be better. Learning from our mistakes and being beaten down will make us immensely stronger if we allow it.

  15. Sam you definitely grew up middle class :) It’s just today’s American middle class has declined so much since the 90s, that the middle class in the 50s now look like upper class, and those seniors who have government pensions now look like 1% to the rest of us.

    There was a time when a blue collar factory worker can support 2 houses, 2 kids in college, and 2 cars, and retire comfortably with one job for life with pension, and proudly called themselves middle class. Those days were gone. People blame the Vietnam war, Reaganomics, Japan, collapse of Communism, NAFTA, China, etc.. They’re probably all true, in a sense that unlike post WW2, there’s no longer a commitment for society’s elite to support individual seeking dignities in stable jobs. I personally have changed 6 jobs and got fired once in my 20 year career, my parents had 1 job their entire life in Taiwan.

    Instead of relying on social commitments, we now rely on asset management. FIRE movement is our generation’s grass-root response to address not only the lack of safety net, but the anxiety about losing our social status (will we be forced to relocate to cheaper area and selling our $M homes in glamour cities? will I be laid-off in the next downturn?). I suspect such anxiety actually fuel the rise of asset prices, especially home prices in coastal cities, and low interest rates. It looks like there’s no easy solution for this.

    1. I donno man. Getting to bike while some HS classmates had to walk to school makes me pretty rich!

      It’s interesting about the decline of the middle class standard… or at least the perceived decline.

  16. A complete lack of perspective and self awareness is a trend among progressives. She and her ilk illustrate it with every tweet, article and statement. Respectfully, I’ve seen a few things here that were also a bit kooky. “The government should mandate a year of travel” and the belief that a BART janitor who frauds his way to a 260k annual income is illustrative of how any low level cleaner nationwide can get ahead are two that made me double-take. Welders and plumbers, yes, janitors in Oklahoma- they need to develop their skillset.

  17. Perhaps what Ms. Alter is getting at is that many millennials unfortunately only know a post 9/11 world.

  18. Thanks for this post. Interesting read. I think we underappreciate how lucky we are to grow up in a stable and rich country with a lot of opportunities. In The Netherlands, because of the social (but expensive) system we’ve built, even the poorest people in the country are a lot richer than 80% of people in the world…

    But our society has become so materialistic that we cannot/do not appreciate the basics in life.

    “But if you start with a Ferrari, how can you ever appreciate any other car when it’s finally time for you to buy one on your own? ”

    Couldn’t agree more.. Whether it’s a Ferrari, education, house, vacation, etc., if haven’t experienced or seen people living with little or almost nothing, you don’t appreciate is enough..

  19. One of the most interesting things I’ve observed is this White Woman Social Justice Warrior Savior type archetype.

    Many come from privileged backgrounds, yet gang up on people for saying or doing anything wrong. They either feel guilt for being privileged and white, or they are like White Supremicists.

    You see them on Twitter, many who have purple hair or are divorced, single or childless. They seem to try and lash out and get really offended by anyone b/c they didn’t have enough love and support growing up.

    It’s strange!

    1. There does seem to be a ” demographic type,” at least on Twitter. I wonder if there are more studies on this. I get pounced on sometimes and there becomes this bully gang mentality. Very interesting!

  20. I guess Charlotte is trying to channel the poor huddled masses. It’s “we” in a collective sense, right? She had a privileged childhood and should appreciate her prosperity.
    My background ranged from lower class to upper middle. It was fine. I can appreciate the prosperous life we live today.
    My definition of prosperity is very basic. Food, shelter, education, safety, internet access, financial security, and time to do what I want. Life is good.

  21. Monetary Prosperity:

    At the top of the Roman empire, I’m sure there was someone shoveling horse manure off the streets saying, ” what prosperity”.

    Fortune is for the bold.

    True prosperity:

    Hug your kids every day and let them know how much you love them.


  22. For those who may not know, National Taiwan University IS the #1 top university in Taiwan where much of the lawyers, doctors, engineers are bred from. So Sam, you mom went to an very elite school, even though it’s a public school! :)

    1. The Harvard of Taiwan I hear! :)

      She also got into Duke for a Master’s program in biology but decided to be with my dad instead.

      Good genes from mom. Thanks mom! Couldn’t have done it without you.

      1. Sam,

        Funny you mentioned that. It did came across my mind to mention it’s like Harvard/Yale in Taiwan but didn’t end up writing that.

        Indeed, good genes always helps!

  23. Fire Year FIRE escape

    I suppose also grew up in an upper middle class family. I had never really thought about it until I started to travel. Even if you travel somewhere nice like Spain you will realize there are things you take for granted back home, like heating, they just dont bother with it and its cold there in the winter!

    I think the only way to ground yourself is to get out there, travel volunteer…or I guess move to Virginia :P

  24. There is an American obsession with spinning an origin story about how you grew up middle class in normal circumstances… This is a way of subtly double bragging, not only do you have means now but you ALSO have come a long way by virtue of hard work and talent.

    I used to do this my fair share, but stopped. People of my background are not excited at the implication I’m better than them now and people who grew up wealthy are not impressed by this new money insecure way of thinking. I am investor class today… that is enough of a signal which speaks for itself.

  25. Paper Tiger

    The main point of this article should be that if we continue to elect people like AOC who support the Democratic-Socialist agenda, we’ll eventually ALL be middle class at best, living off social services provided by the government and wondering where our freedoms (and our opportunities to achieve more) went.

    1. What’s wrong with that? 100% people at middle class = happy society.

      or we could have 1% with 100 ft yachts with 20 ft boats inside them, along with the current 40 million in poverty.

      1. 100% middle class? You don’t think the equalizers will carve out a bigger portion for themselves? The 1% with the yachts will just be the governing elites instead of the men of enterprise.
        Or maybe history is no guide. I guess this time it’s different.

      2. @Mark,

        100% of people at the same level regardless of effort = lazy society.

        I work in a government position. It’s a pretty level playing field where working harder doesn’t necessarily get you ahead of the pack. Because of that, many of my co-workers are extraordinarily lazy people. We all work with those kinds of people.

        What’s interesting to me is that some of my co-workers even ask me why I work so hard when “all it does is make you a victim” of more more work with the same amount of pay. They’re bold and upfront about their laziness – even proud of it.

        I hope that your comment never comes to pass. 100% of people in the middle class does not equal a happy society.

        It will equal a lazy society that knows their hard work will not benefit them. Then they won’t even try in the first place.

  26. Funny, it’s the reverse for me. I grew up poor but felt as if I grew up in middle class. Loving parents, a safe place to live (albeit smaller than the average NYC studio for a family of 5), never starved, a free public school education which prepared me well for life and boundless opportunities to realize my fullest potential.

    “How can we get people to recognize and appreciate their prosperity more?” Depends on the environment of how the person grew up. If a person grows up with very little, then the person will appreciate their prosperity a lot more. That seems intuitive to me.

  27. Great read Sam and something to think about. I think we all live in our own little world and assume what we do in our daily lives is considered normal until you meet friends/acquaintances/co-workers that have different circumstances. And by traveling to different parts of the US and other countries where their style of living is quite different that you experience, you feel a mix of appreciation and motivation depending on how you grew up.
    I think being level headed and open minded is key to having that appreciation and being motivated.

  28. That is why many people outside the U.S. thinks we’re bunch of whiners. Which is so true,
    alot of people here in the U.S. don’t realize how good they have it.

  29. Mitchell Schmidt

    I disagree with your last statement, “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.” I believe that everyone has opportunities everyday, but rarely see them, or if they do, lack the courage to act. Seeing opportunities requires us to train our minds to recognize the possibilities beyond the obvious; and that is something that almost everyone can do.

    1. I disagree with your assertion. Someone in Kenya does not have the same opportunity to gain a US government contract as I do as a US citizen. I have less of a chance to get a US government contract as a white male vs a female or other minority or veteran due to US government policies. I agree with the lack of opportunity statement Sam was saying. This is the major crux of the article as we need to redefine our scope of thought to a more global view.

      Now saying all things being equal, yes the vast majority of people don’t seize the opportunities presented to them, I can get behind that statement with zero hesitation.

  30. I liked this article very much! I grew up poor. Single wide in a trailer park poor. Growing up if I or my siblings got A’s on our report card we got a new pair of socks. I was the kid who always wanted the shirts with an alligator on them, instead I got the penguin. I would kill for a pair of James jeans, instead I got the Dungaress. This lit a fire in me to succeed and definitively shaped my future.

    Now contrast this with my daughter, a soon to be sophomore in college. She has grown up rich. She’s grown up with all the latest fashions, travelling sport teams, summer camps, school trips to Europe. You name it, she’s done it.

    These are two completely different scenarios and at first glance you would expect two totally different outcomes. However, the big difference is the parents. My father was a raging alcoholic and my mother wasn’t much better. I had to basically raise myself. I succeeded in spite of them, not because of them. My daughter on the other hand has two loving parents who are not afraid of discipline. My wife quit her job to raise our daughter. We’ve always had high expectations for her, “probably to high at times” and have raised her to work hard, get good grades, be humble, and help others. I have no doubt she will do very good in life.

    Sam, my guess is that your son will do very well in life despite the fact that his life will be basically “easy.” As parents we have a tremendous influence on our children and the fact that you and your wife will raise him with your values will probably go farther than if he had to struggle himself.

    I got lucky I succeeded. My daughter got lucky she has two good parents. The best thing about this country is that we all have the opportunity regardless of our own situations. For this, I’m eternally grateful!

    Thanks, Bill

    1. Damn, you got the penguin?! I didn’t even get Gap, haha.

      Glad you did well in spite of your parents. I’ll be curious to hear what your daughter does after graduation!

  31. What is funny to me, is everyone grows up to view the world with the view they grew up with. Poor people, middle class, upper class, the rich. Classifications about what it takes to aspire to those levels. The thing that I don’t see mentioned is the media (newspapers/magazines, TV, movies). There was an old joke from Bill Gates about the TV show “Friends” and how they never work and how they spend so much time and money in a coffee shop, they couldn’t afford their apartments. Those people are “middle class” but have to make over $100k to make their life style.

    My point is people are spoon fed from birth by the media what it means to be successful, what it means to be middle class or rich, etc. Prosperity has been defined by consumerism for so long, that generations of people only know how to define their worth by how much stuff they have. That is the problem we have to address. Middle class doesn’t mean you have 3 flat screen TVs all over 65″. It means that you have a stable living environment, can take a vacation, drive a working car and live the “American Dream” as defined in the 1950’s.

    This is where we get political as the younger people who think along the lines of the referenced author and AOC, feel the “American Dream” is the default and no work should have to be applied to get there. People don’t realize that in previous generations, you worked hard to get to that level of comfort, it is not just given to you. If it is given to you that is privilege. I hear people all the time say stuff like “well they drive a new car, why can’t I”. You know you make $80k a year, you can spend the money on a $24k new car, be my guest. Flipping burgers for $10.50 a Burger King doesn’t mean you have the right to a new car unless you earn it.

    I could go on for hours on this topic. I am an American, but grew up overseas for several years. I have see true poverty, I have seen true prosperity. I know what I have, I know what has been given to me and know what I have earned over the last 31 years of work (started at 13). I know the value of a dollar (and Euro, and AU$, and CA$, etc).

  32. Little Seeds of Wealth

    It’s all relative. I grew up in what’s considered an upper middle class background in my country and now I live a bigger lifestyle than my parents as an average tech employee in Silicon Valley. It’s difficult to appreciate how fortunate you are until you put yourselves in other people’s shoes by traveling or volunteering. Staying grounded is very important.

  33. Interesting read, Sam. Like you mentioned it’s super easy to misread our prosperity. But, it’s also super understandable given we are human and typically only perceive our own worlds around us. If comparing the rest of the states, I guess I grew up in the upper middle class for a while. When my parents divorced, we definitely moved down a notch to the middle class. My goals for my own kids are to get out and experience firsthand what it means to live in different financial situations. I would hope this will instill some further appreciation for the lives we have but that may be hopeful thinking.

  34. Financial Freedom Countdown

    I agree with you Sam. Growing up in a third world country and coming to USA was like a dream come true for me. And yet I see so many folks born here with advantages squandering it away. I guess everything is relative

  35. Good article. Despite how comfortable one lives growing up or in present time, until you face real hardship (financial, illness, etc), you have no reference for how good you have it. My teen kids harass me constantly about how I never spend money (despite taking two vacations a year, usually in a condo on a beach BUT we drive, not fly – we should fly per them – one example).

    When I was a kid, I grew up in affluence even though my mom did a great job of shielding it from us as we lived in an upper middle class neighborhood and went to public schools but the lakehouse, beach house, overseas vacations, RV, and airplane made it hard to not know! When I was a teen, it all went away after our family business of over 50 years went bankrupt. At 16, we had next to nothing – all gone. This event altered my view of money as I entered adulthood, in a positive way. I view money as something to save/invest (not spend) in case of a rainy day since I went through a hurricane. My kids have not been through such a financial storm so they feel I live way too tightly.

    It’s all reference.

  36. Anybody out there think they grew up middle class, but who actually grew up upper middle class or rich?

    Yes. This was my scenario.

    Why do some people who grow up wealthy not recognize their prosperity?

    I didn’t realize how good I had it growing up. First off I didn’t find out how much money my parents had saved up and were making on an annual basis until I became an adult when I actually cared to ask them. Second, we lived in a nice neighborhood, but my parents fit the millionaire next door script very well where their home value is a fraction of their income and not the other way around. Third, there were people I knew who spent more so it appeared they were better off. That’s the funny thing with stealth wealth, income/savings: you can see someone’s home/car, but you can’t see their investment account….

    What is your definition of American prosperity?

    Having good parents is what takes a child from the average American lifestyle to becoming a free market champion capitalist in this great country. So wherever I hear a story of someone who’s done so well without good parental support I applaud that so much. American prosperity defined: having the ability to go into whatever field of work you desire. The opportunities are almost endless.

    How can we get people to recognize and appreciate their prosperity more?

    Asking the question, “compared to what?” Reading & traveling. If we know how good this lifestyle really is then there’s not much to complain about. Find great friends and find what you like to do and do those things. Little things like access to food is simply amazing when you think about it.

    Great post today from you FS. Very insightful

      1. I am very thankful for my parents.

        I’m following in your footsteps FS. You’ve been 1 of my biggest mentors believe it or not. My career field is investment banking and I have been saving/investing as much as possible each year so far (while still living a top 1% global lifestyle). I plan to get to the point where I am fully financially independent from an employer by age 29 (that’s what the projections tell me at least). I might continue working, currently undecided. We will see whether this hot job market holds up long enough for the promotions to continue.

        I view money as life energy like Vicki Robin says in her book. It is simply a tool that allows us to act. That being said, money is a form of power and it’s something that can be used for so much good. My entire life I’ve been somewhat selfish with money and I’d like to 1 day get to the point where I can be extremely generous monetarily speaking. I’m still at the phase of life where money is an everyday thought. Another one of my aspirations is to 1 day get to the point where I no longer analyze every financial decision I make personally. It would be nice to turn that off occasionally, I have yet to figure out how to do that.

        Thank you for all your help over the years.

  37. Interesting insights on that woman and her wikipedia parents! It does seem like she isn’t connecting the dots on the privileges she’s had.

    I grew up in a lower middle class/middle class household. However there were many times my parents tried to live a middle class/upper middle class lifestyle and thus spended beyond their means. This lead to struggles with debt for decades. I know my parents wanted to provide the best they could for us so I can’t hold grudges but it is hard to witness them still have problems with money. I’ve tried countless times to help them but it just doesn’t get very far. The best I can do is love them, keep in touch and offer help when they are willing to accept it.

    1. Christine Minasian

      Very interesting upbringing you had…it seems that happens more than not- families trying to keep up with the Joneses and making their life worse! How can we as American’s NOT do this Sam? This creates a lot of heartache for people. Oprah is right… “just be grateful” for what you have.

  38. I used to be a member at a private golf club. Golfing on a weekday, beautiful surroundings, of course a golf cart, and I”m sure most had the latest in golf equipment. It surprised me how much pissing and moaning I heard during the whole round of golf.

    What I don’t understand too is how the democratic party is moving towards socialism, the other party for lower taxes and less regulation, and Asian Americans vote ~70% Democrat.

    Another wonderful article, thank you.

    1. This is not a single dimensional issue of capitalist vs socialist spectrum correlating to voting patterns. Just cause Asian Americans are richer doesn’t necessarily mean they will vote for capitalist causes. I believe a more representative pattern is that rich states vote Democratic but rich people vote Republican.

      1. You make a great point. I think what’s going on is that people are sick of “limousine liberals“ Like the Hollywood liberal actresses who say one thing and do another thing behind closed doors and get busted by the Feds.

        People like Charlotte and her family, if you look at the background, are hard-core liberal supporters. Yet they feign this fake narrative about not experiencing American prosperity while obviously not being the case.

        Exeter Academy and Hotchkiss… come on. Look up all the alumni who went there.

  39. Thank you for the background on that reporter. Family of media savvy people. Could very well be playing to the emotion, moment to get clicks / recognition.

    A lot of this is simply reaction to Trump – the intellectual elite will play any card it can to get him out of office.

    Not a fan of his, but his presence seems to distort issues beyond reality.

    1. Yes. But I think the real problem overall is that people don’t like trying to find their own way. It’s just easier to jump to either extreme, which is exactly what the politicians and media want us to do because it is good for them.

      For the one, it sells papers and gets more web hits, for the other, it focuses their voters (you are good and with us or you are evil and against us). Gerrymandering furthers these extremes as it removes nearly all incentives for compromise, and can actually penalize politicians that attempt to compromise.

      Just because I don’t want to stick my hand in boiling water doesn’t mean I should seek to put it in a block of dry ice. When our only choices are at the extremes, it becomes a coin flip. Not voting just makes it someone else’s coin flip.

  40. I have been brought up in an upper middle class my entire life and its true that as a child getting accustomed to nice things you are not set up as well to struggle out on your own and you no longer can partake of it.

    But what it allowed me to realize was that if I wanted to get to the point of having the nice stuff I had growing up, then I had to work for it and make my own way which is what I did. Of course there are others that refuse to leave the nest and launch out on their own trying to milk the bank of parents for as much as they can. It really depends on the child’s personality.

    As for the Virginia vs Hawaii debate, I think you should go with what you feel will make you happy and not always try to do things for junior’s best interest. Jr is already incredibly fortunate that his folks are essentially stay at home parents and that is the biggest gift you can give to him. But if you are going to be happier in Hawaii I say go for it and don’t guilt yourself that you didn’t expose Jr. to more racial diversity/public schools in Virginia. The overall impact I think in his life will be minimal to be honest as kids will adapt to any situation they are placed in.

    1. I totally agree with xrayvsn’s advice on Virginia v. Hawaii.

      I think we all learn to form our self conception from our peers. “Smart” means we feel more capable than a lot of our peers, but the same person that feels smart in one group might feel much less so at UVA or Berkeley or Harvard.

      It’s much the same to me for feeling “rich.”

      It can get complicated, however. In my opinion, a loving family free from financial stress is “richer” than someone with more money that can’t get enough

      1. I hope this is the case wrt two loving parents. I don’t think the two of us can try harder to be there for our boy. It kinda sets us up for disappointment if he ends up rebelling and stuff.

        1. Joshua Christensen

          I would also suggest moving overseas if you want to get everyone out of there comfort zone. I am personally in the process of figuring this out. I did grow up overseas on US military bases so am biased but I think it was one of the best experiences my parents could have given me…..

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