Being rich is a relative sort of thing. If I live in Small Town, USA, make $35,000 a year, but can buy a decent house in a decent neighborhood for $60,000 I may have as much discretionary income left-over as someone living in Big City, USA making $100,000 a year, but limited to expensive housing options (or a very long, expensive commute).
At least, that’s my reaction when I hear people say that living in the States automatically identifies us as rich compared to the rest of the world. My argument (in my head) goes something like this: if I make $35,000 a year living in a $60,000 house I may have as much discretionary income as someone in Small Village, Third-World-Country making $5000 a year living in a hut that cost next-to-nothing to build, and has no mortgage.
But, that’s the problem with assessing wealth by relative standards, isn’t it? What if I lived in a hut here in Small Town, USA? Couldn’t I still survive? Then wouldn’t I have a ton of money left over? So am I not filthy rich? If I didn’t give in to the social pressures to own a car, order cable, eat out, and go to the movies, then wouldn’t I need huge silos, like Scrooge McDuck, to store my excess money so I could swim in it from time to time?
A law professor from the University of Chicago, Todd Henderson, received an incredible backlash from the public after he posted a blog article describing how his family is “just getting by” on more than $250,000 a year. His point was to speak out against potential federal tax increases that would affect his tax bracket the most, but in the process he wrote of the possibility of having to cut retirement savings, fire his gardener and nanny, and cancel his cell phones and “some cable channels” (yes, “some”).
But, I feel a lot of compassion for Todd Henderson, and not just because of the horrible backlash, or the death-threats he and his family have received as a result of his article. I feel compassion toward him because he is another victim of the relative wealth myth.
So are we. In feeling that we need to live in this or that neighborhood, in this or that size of house, that we need to drive this or that car, or a car at all, we have also become victims…and culprits.
The problem is that though we are very rich we (generally) have not allowed ourselves to feel rich. Instead, we have allowed our culture, media, TV commercials, and neighbors to convince us that we are just getting by, and that cutting our cable or not having a car would be a tragedy. If you are “just getting by” with a roof over your head, a car that runs, and a TV to watch, then you are by no means “just getting by.”
I am guilty, too. Sara and I began this month trying not to eat out at all, and are now ending this month succumbing to the pressures of busy schedules and cultural expectations. Not that eating out is necessarily bad. It’s just that not being able to give it up for a whole month is an indication that we have this disease, too.
We wealthy Americans feel like we are not rich or are just making ends meet while so many frivolous and unnecessary expenses eat up our budgets. And that is bad–not the expenses, necessarily, but the feeling–because it means we will never seriously consider the command Jesus gave the rich young ruler: “sell all that you have and give to the poor.” (Mark 10:21)
We are very rich. And we must learn to use money better so that we can be rich in good works instead. (1Timothy 6:17-18) We must learn to feel rich, and to admit we are rich. Then we must start working on feeling like giving it all away. It’s not really ours, anyway.