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What It's Really Like to Be Rich

Kimberly Palmer
Mining magnate Gina Rinehart has said Australian wages are damaging economic development, even going so far to provoke a stinging rebuke from Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Wealth--who has more of it, how it was earned, and how it's spent--has been a centerpiece of the presidential race this year. Now, a new report from the Pew Research Center shows what self-described upper- and upper-middle class Americans really think about their lives, and what less-fortunate Americans really think of them.

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Upper- and upper-middle class Americans describe themselves as happier, less stressed, and healthier than lower-income Americans. They also made it through the recession relatively unscathed and report enjoying their careers more. Around 1 in 3 upper-class Americans say they "frequently experience stress," while close to 6 in 10 lower-class Americans report doing so.

That stress is closely correlated with financial hardship: While just 7 percent of upper-class adults say they struggled to pay their rent or mortgage in the last year, 45 percent of lower-class adults say they had trouble making housing payments. Lower-class respondents also report being much more likely to lose their jobs, with a quarter experiencing a layoff or job loss within the past year, compared to 7 percent of upper-class adults and 12 percent of middle-class adults.

The better health of wealthier Americans also appears to reflect their access to healthcare: 45 percent of lower-class respondents say they had difficulty accessing or affording medical care within the past year, compared to 11 percent of upper-class Americans.

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Not surprisingly, wealthier Americans also feel more optimistic about their future financial security. Four in 10 are "very confident" that their savings will last through retirement, while just 1 in 10 lower-class respondents said so.

Meanwhile, most lower-class respondents say they are pessimistic about the future of the U.S. economy, while most upper-class respondents are optimistic. (Middle-class Americans also reported more optimism than pessimism.)

Wealthier Americans are also more likely to feel like they're "making progress in their careers" (84 percent of upper-class respondents report doing so) compared to middle-class respondents (76 percent) and lower-class respondents (54 percent).

Those positive feelings apply to rich people's personal lives, too. The vast majority of upper-class Americans say they are "very satisfied with their family lives; just 57 percent of lower-class Americans say the same. Upper-class Americans are also more likely to be content with their housing situation.

Still, wealthy Americans didn't escape from the recession without a scratch: Four in 10 said they have "cut back on spending." (Eight in 10 lower-class respondents reported doing so.)

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As for what poorer Americans think of their wealthier compatriots, many of their beliefs fall along the lines of expected stereotypes: Respondents describe wealthy Americans as greedy and less honest than average Americans, but also more intelligent and harder working. Most respondents also say they think wealthy Americans fail to pay their fair share of taxes, another frequent source of debate in the presidential election. Even upper- and upper-middle class respondents say wealthy Americans pay too little in taxes.

Americans of all financial levels also agree that the gap between rich and poor has widened. (Census Bureau statistics confirm that observation.) Still, respondents' own self-identifications demonstrate the potential for economic mobility: Just 1 in 3 self-described upper-class respondents said they grew up with similar privilege. A similar proportion said they grew up in a lower-class family.

While the amount of money it takes to feel "rich" varies widely by location, respondents estimate that a family of four would need to earn over $100,000 a year. Three in 10 thought they would need to earn at least $250,000. Respondents say it would take $70,000 a year for a family of four to be middle-class.

That figure is far less than the median household income in the United States, which the Census Bureau reports is close to $50,000.

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