Squeaking by on $300,000 a Year - A Portrait of Two Economies

If you haven't read the Washington Post's article about the hidden effects of the recession upon families that seem to have it all, or the comments, it's a must-read. For many of us, $300,000 is much more than our yearly household income, so the article's descriptions of an affluent community's standard of living seem unfamiliar. If you can put aside the wonder at someone having a gardener in the first place, it is fascinating to read about how people who are accustomed to the best go about tightening their belts. In an area with ties to Wall Street, the recession began with the collapse of Bear Stearns in March 2008. Now, churches trying to reach out to families hit hard by layoffs struggle against the sub-culture's reluctance to talk about it.

"There's an image people are invested in that makes it hard for this to be talked about," says Bob Steed, sitting next to his wife, Nancy.

One way to encourage a more relaxed view on life? Have a recession party, where the booze is proudly Costco and the dress code is "old clothes."  The article does a great job at depicting the real pressures and loneliness of a life in which cheap wine and dressing to un-impress are a big deal. Especially interesting are the observations about consumption, the difficulties some are having with adjusting to a no-shopping lifestyle and a party in the Hamptons where no one would share their name with the reporter. For some reason, it made me think of descendants of the people from the Great Gatsby, continuing a way of life that is deeply ingrained for them and a curiosity to us outsiders.

The article closes with a description of the nanny's perspective. She lost a union job when a cement plant closed: "I hit my recession 15 years ago in the Catskills," she said. Unlike most of the people in the upscale neighborhood, she lost her home and hasn't gotten it back. She also has no health insurance.

I think all change is difficult for humans, so if the people making $300,000 a year say they are having a hard time changing their lifestyles, I believe them. It's just important to keep in perspective what kinds of changes we're talking about--the difference between a kid having to keep a perfectly serviceable cell phone, and someone losing their job with good benefits and their home. If nothing else, the article showed me why New Dream's message about consumption has such a long way to go: people are fiercely identified with their stuff, and the never-ending novelty they're accustomed to. So much so that they're saddened by its loss, and talking about it is taboo.

Tags: Bailout, Downturn, Recession, Stuff, Wall street

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