I always love to peruse the photos, jobs and wages of the 150 or so people that Parade Magazine features in its annual review of people’s wages in the United States. This year, only a sampling of the featured made it to the print addition. To see the full survey, you have to go to the website and click through 157 slides (and thereby have a chance to ignore 157 sets of online ads!).
The print edition continued Parade’s pursuit of all things celebrity. The one full article was about an actor in a situation comedy about a white collar workplace titled “The Office.” The three sidebar articles on the one full page of people and what they earn compared the lives of three real people with television characters with the same jobs, all from situations comedies. Parade titled these sidebars “TV vs. Reality.”
If you wanted to learn something other than the fact that an Indiana park superintendent likes his real job as much as Amy Poehler likes her play job on “Parks & Recreation,” you had to slog through 157 slides online.
Fortunately, I’ve done the work for you. Here is a graph that clusters the various amounts people earn in increments of $5,000, except at both ends of the graph, i.e., the amounts at the extremes are $10,000-$20,000 per year; $100,000-$110,000; $110,000-$125,000; $125,000-$250,000; to a million; and over a million. Remember that we are talking about individual, not household, income:
Based on four great divides on the graph I identified, I created four income categories:
- Struggling: Under $40,000 in annual income
- Today’s middle class: $40,000-$80,000
- Today’s upper middle: $80,000-$125,000
- Wealthy: More than $125,000
I also divided the people into four groups, as noted on the graph:
A: Artists, craftsmen, musicians, entertainers
G: Government and public employees
X: Private-sector employees
B: Business owners
I did not put anyone making less than $10,000 a year on the chart, as these were all part-timers or volunteers, with a sprinkling of a few more A-types. Note that Parade segregated celebrities into their own article, which differs in the past when the earnings of an Oprah or a Michael Jordan made it seem as if the only way to riches was to become an entertainer or professional athlete.
Here is the chart.
Before commenting, I first want to address the issue of whether the Parade list reflects reality. Parade itself says that the median annual income in the U.S. is $28,580; median means that half of all people make less and half make more. The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics tells us that mean income, what we call average, is $43,460. When mean is significantly larger than median, it usually means that a few big numbers are driving the average up. In income terms, that means that a very few people are making a lot of money, while most people make very little.
Just looking at the chart it seems as if the Parade survey pretty much reflects reality, as far as mean and median incomes go. While I am concerned that there are no Fortune 1,000 executives or high-powered attorneys on the list, there is a wide spread of different professions, so let’s assume that the Parade list is a reasonably accurate reflection of the current salary situation in the United States.
What can we learn?
First and least is that you better not try to earn a living as an artist, crafts person, entertainer or writer unless you intend to be very successful.
It’s also interesting to note that the public sector has a far more equitable distribution of wealth, with most public sector employees making what I call middle or upper middle class incomes and only one that barely makes it into the bottom echelon of the wealthy. In the private sector, by contrast, if you want to make it into the upper middle class or be wealthy, then you had better own a business. In fact, if we took out the artists and public employees, we are left with a graph in which there is a very uneven distribution of wealth between employees and business owners.
Right-wing politicians and the news media want to hammer public workers as a chief cause of our deficit problems. Instead, perhaps we should emulate the public sector model. We know that public workers tend to be more well-educated than private sector employees, plus the public employee is more likely to be unionized. So the key to obtaining an upper middle class income, but not get rich, may be to get more education and join a union.