Those struggling $300,000-a-year households in the WSJ

A terribly boring story, spiced up by the minor discomforts of the rich

This Wall Street Journal day-in-the-life-of story from a couple weeks ago is even more boring than its headline—“What It’s Like Being a Middle Manager Today”—suggests.

That’s right up there with “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.”

Here’s the lede:

The parking lot at Fair Isaac Corp. in San Rafael, Calif., is empty when Michelle Davis pulls in at 6 a.m.

For the next 8-½ hours, the 36-year-old analytics director will shuttle through nearly back-to-back meetings at FICO, a company best known for calculating consumer credit scores. At 2:30 p.m., the mother of three will leave work to pick up her children from summer camp. Technically, she’s off the clock, but she’ll keep an eye on her BlackBerry long into the night.

Welcome to middle management circa 2013.

Zzzzz. Ruh? Oh, sorry. There’s more, though. I wouldn’t bother about this if it were merely dull and without any narrative arc or special insight at all, but trudging through the rest of the piece, I discovered this gem:

She earns a good living, making more than $150,000 a year—nationally, the median earnings for middle managers just tops $90,000—but it doesn’t go far in Marin County, Calif.

Together with her husband, a senior engineer at a cloud computing company, they earn nearly $300,000, though mortgage payments for their modest Terra Linda home, bought a couple of years ago for $680,000, eat up a lot of the family paycheck.

Here we go again with the “$300,000 isn’t a lot of money” thing. I don’t care where you live in the United States, $300k a year goes far. It does in Marin County, too, even if it doesn’t go as far as it does in, say, Humboldt County. The median household income in Marin County is $90,000. The median income for a couple who both work full time there is $144,000.

And yes, a $680,000 house is well affordable on a $300,000 income. You’re very roughly talking about a $3,500 monthly payment coming out of roughly $16,500 take-home pay, which leaves a mere $13,000 a month to live on.

Not coincidentally, this anecdote happens to be right in the sweet spot of the WSJ’s audience, whose median household income is $272,000. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, memorably with this instant-classic infographic from January of four households, none of which earned less than $180,000 a year, looking sad and worried about their minor tax increases. The key word in the headline there was “How Much Will Your Taxes Jump?”

Why do journalists at elite publications tend to push this meme? Here’s Felix Salmon five years ago on that:

We judge ourselves by those around us, and journalists have a tendency to be surrounded by people earning well over $200,000 a year. It skews their perspective. It’s worth pausing for a minute to realize that “rich” does not mean “people who earn twice as much as me”. And to remember that in cities like Chicago and New York, there are a hell of a lot of families of four who consider themselves to be middle class and who don’t have a household income of even $50,000.

Again, the median household income in Marin County is $90,000. Don’t give us some sob story about how someone with a 40-hour-a-week desk job who along with her husband brings in $300,000 a year.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,