So Rachel started an interesting discussion on her blog about income classes and their relative definitions in Brazil and the US. Feel free to read it here before you read my entry.
I decided to put in my two cents in my own blog, 'cause, you know, I can do that. Here's my take on all this class stuff: it's far too subjective and relative for us to put these labels on people, labels like "upper middle class" or "Class B" or whatever. Individual people's definitions of "rich" and "poor" are very different and depend a lot on what they've grown up with. Different countries define their own wealth and the wealth of others in different ways. There are different theories on how to define social classes, how to divide incomes, how to compare incomes and wealth between countries, etc.
Then, of course, all of these class discussions get clouded by judgement. Both "rich" and "poor" get treated as dirty words; people place judgement on whether others "deserve" to have the income they have and to use it the way they do. Some judge the poor for being poor; some judge the rich for being rich. Income and social class starts to turn into a question of character, but in many cases, it's only because those who are being judged feel the need to defend themselves.
It all just feels so useless to me. I think each country needs to define its own poverty line and offer social services according to it, and I think that can be pretty much the only concrete data we have.
As a foreigner from the "first world" living in the "developing world," it's almost certain that I'm "richer" than many people in my new country. But I'd like to share how I define rich: in my opinion, someone who is "rich" is able to live their life according to their own values. There are many people who have relatively high incomes in their society (or compared to other societies) but who may not know what their values are or who, for whatever reason, are unable to live by their values.
I'm being very general. What I'm trying to say is that I've had to really grapple with thoughts like these this year, because I'm living in a place where I am "richer" than most of the community. I mean that Alexandre and I have an income that's higher than that of most of our neighbors', but I'm also sticking to my definition in that we're able to live our lives according to our values. We're "rich" because we have choices. We're able to choose to do/buy things that make us happy (or to choose not to do or buy things). Sometimes, it's because we have the financial means to do so, but other times, it's because we're lucky enough to have the education and life experience to know what we want and what's good for us, personally. I used some important words in that sentence: luck, education, and life experience. I believe all of those things also define someone as "rich".
If you realize that you don't value the things that people with more money than you value, then you won't feel bitter toward them for having the financial means to acquire things that you don't have the means to acquire. I'm not saying people necessarily need to lower their standards. I'm saying they need to truly evaluate their priorities. If you're one of those people leaving nasty, bitter comments on Rachel's blog because she and her husband choose to pay for a maid or have their groceries delivered, you need to sit back and ask yourself what it has to do with you, what the alternative is, what you really want for you, and how you can get it.
I know people (most of them, here in Brazil) whose salaries are 4-5 times what Alexandre and I bring in together, but whom I don't consider rich because they are so lost in terms of values and priorities. They're so busy chasing what they think they're supposed to want that they don't even stop to question whether they do want it or to what extent these things will improve their lives. I know people who are "poor" because they're unhappy and can't figure out how to fix it, and this definition of "poverty" is true for people with high salaries or low salaries (also relative terms). I don't like to be around these kinds of people. It's painful to see.
I know people with these same high salaries who are completely satisfied with their lives and their life choices, even if they've chosen things that I wouldn't have necessarily chosen.
I know people who have much less money than I have who are happier than I am at this stage in my life. I consider them "richer" because they have access to things I currently don't have access to: friends in town, a rewarding job that fills their time, and kinship and camaraderie in their day-to-day exchanges with people. But I have the perspective to see that these are things I value and that these things, not more money, will make me happier.
I also think I'm "rich" because I have the perspective to know that things could be a lot worse: they have been, and I feel grateful and lucky every day for coming as far as I have in my life. I don't judge others who may have faced obstacles similar to mine and who didn't get past these obstacles, because there's no way for me to know what held them back and not me. It always comes back to luck in my mind -- luck that I had resources and that I recognized them as such when they came to me.
So in general, I feel very rich here. I feel rich because I have had so many amazing experiences in my life and because I'm able to recognize that; I feel rich because I have the education necessary to solve most of the problems in my life (and also to prevent many others); I feel rich because I know myself and the concrete things I value. I feel guilty when this "wealth" isolates me and when I consider that even giving all of my salary away and living with less financially would not really make anyone else's life better in the long run.
None of us are going to single-handedly change the income gap in Brazil; we're probably not going to see much of a change in our lifetimes, either. If this disparity bothers you, you can do what makes you feel better about it, whether that's voting for social programs for the poor, or volunteering, or donating your own money, or buying less, or working less, or working more, or hiring poorer people to work for you, or not hiring poorer people to work for you. You have to sit down and think about it by yourself.
But I just don't think there's any productive space for judgement in this discussion. (For some of us, that means we can't judge ourselves, either.) But there's no point in criticizing people for minutiae, like whether they send their kids to private school or not, whether they have a maid or not, or what neighborhood they live in. There's no need for us, when dealing with each other on a daily basis, to try to fit ourselves or each other into class classifications. I think all we can really do is try to be nice to people and be patient with each other.
Feel free to continue the commenting on Rachel's blog rather than mine.