Are you rich? Who knows what qualifies as wealthy in these topsy-turvy times? Do people who make $400,000 every year whine that it's unfair to describe them is "rich?" Yes. Let's take their money.

The recession has launched a bizarre and tiresome new brand of self-pity among people who have absolutely no sense of perspective about their own fortunes. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post both have sentimental stories on their plight today.

The gist is this: People who make $250,000 are, as the Journal puts it, wealthy "by any statistical measure." Statistically speaking—by which we mean as pertains to reality—people who earn a quarter of a million dollars annually live in the top two percent of households in the U.S. in terms of income. Almost everyone in the country makes less money than they do. The median household income in this country is $50,000

But they don't feel rich. Why not?

It is a tricky situation in which some Americans find themselves after a long boom: They are by no means struggling, compared with the 98% of Americans who make far less, but depending on where they live and the lifestyle choices they have made, they don't necessarily feel rich, either. Worse, in their view, they are facing the same tax rates as those making millions. Some of the expenses are self-inflicted — like private-school costs and conspicuous consumption. Others, though, are unavoidable, like child-care costs, larger health-care deductibles and education expenses, especially college.

There is nothing tricky about it. Many high-income families are, like James Duran, who tells the Journal he is "barely getting by" on his $400,000 salary, struggling. They are struggling because they spend more money than their incomes can justify. There is no deep psycho-economic insight to be found here: People who have lived beyond their means suffer budgetary stress. The rational solution is to reduce your spending to a level commensurate with your income. Which would require, in turn, altering your lifestyle. But the Journal presents its wealthy whiners as the victims of a vicious trap in which their expenses are immutable, and they are unfairly being tagged as rich.

Here are some of the expenses with which wealthy people are saddled:

  • "Education costs, which are far outstripping wages and income, are especially worrisome for this income bracket because upper-income earners are much less likely to receive the kind of financial aid that lower income levels can expect."
  • If you can't afford to pay for college, don't pay for college. It works for the 62% of high school graduates who don't go on to four-year institutions. [pdf]
  • "Changes to the tax code don't generally make adjustments for high costs of living in particular areas of the country."
  • We're inclined to agree with this—living in cities is expensive! Except the median income inside cities [pdf]—$43,800—is lower than it is nationwide, so other city-goers seem to be able to get by OK on less income.
  • "[H]ealth- care expenses have gone up 4.16% annually, while wages and income have risen only 3.7% over the same time span."
    Median household health care expenses in 2006 were $1,185, or .4% of $250,000. [pdf]

In reality, the vast majority of expenses that rich-but-not-feeling-it families live with are the result of choices—their homes, their televisions, their cars, their clothes. It's mildly interesting, from a vengeful class-warfare perspective, to read about the fact that they must make the sort of more reasonable choices that the remaining 98% of us have been making all these years. But should we feel badly for them, or redefine our notions of wealth downward—against all available evidence—in order to validate their feelings?

"I'm not after sympathy. We are blessed. What I want is a reality check on what rich means," Ms. Parnell says. "I can pay my mortgage and I can buy some clothes. I'm not going without, but I'm not living a life of luxury."

The woman who said this is married to a man who also told the Journal that he tithes $1,300 each month to his church. Which, now that we think of it, is a fairly good definition of "rich."

[Photo by David D. Muir via Flickr.]