Poor little rich me

Oh, remember the days when poverty was cute? You ate Ramen noodles and shared a pizza with a dozen friends because collectively you could only afford to buy the one pie.

Oh, those were the days.

At least those are the days politicians have been recounting during this presidential election year to try to appear to be just like real people, Americans who are struggling paycheck to paycheck.

Ann Romney, Vice President Biden, New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie and Michelle Obama “all either disinterred impoverished ancestors or harked back to their own days of voluntary poverty,” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote this week.

In her Republican National Convention speech, Romney said she and GOP presidential candidate Mitt “ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish. Our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses. Our dining room table was a fold-down ironing board in the kitchen. Those were very special days.”

“Of course, Mitt was the son of an auto company CEO who became governor of Michigan, and Ann had gone to the tony Kingswood School (since merged with Cranbrook) where the present-day tuition is $28,300 for day students and $38,900 for boarders. They were both rich — if not in great wealth, then in promise,” Cohen wrote.

As Cohen pointed out, Michelle Obama recalled that the president used to pick her up “in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by in a hole in the passenger-side door.”

“Of course, the couple in that car had both graduated from Harvard Law,” he added.

There is a great difference between voluntary poverty and crushing poverty, Cohen noted. “Poverty, after all, is not about bookcases made of planks and bricks but about utter hopelessness. The poor do not have affluent parents. The poor do not have college degrees. The poor often do not even have high school degrees. What is it like to be 50 and suddenly out of work? What is it like to send out your 100th or 500th résumé? What is it like to spend your savings on long-term medical care so that you get reduced to poverty?”

Cohen makes the case that stories from candidates about their financially leaner days might not be so endearing to the shrinking middle class.

On Wednesday, two days after that column, a new report from the Census Bureau found that the middle class lost ground again last year, falling to an all-time low in their share of how much income they take in, reported The Post’s Carol Morello.

People with annual incomes between $20,263 and $62,434 collectively earned less than 24 percent of all income in 2011, even though they made up 40 percent of the population, Morello reported. The top fifth increased its share to half of all income. The top 5 percent gained the most income, rising almost 5 percent in a single year.

So here’s the Color of Money Question of the Week:

What do you think of politicians using, as Cohen said, stories about their impoverished ancestors or their own days of voluntary poverty to connect to voters? Send your responses to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Be sure to include your full name, city and state and put “Poor Little Rich Me” in the subject line.

Rich? Not Me

A new Pew Research Center survey found that one in three Americans now says he or she is part of the lower or lower-middle classes, compared with one in four Americans who identified as such four years ago.

Not only has the lower class expanded, its demographic profile also has shifted, wrote Rich Morin and Seth Motel about the study. People under age 30 are disproportionately swelling the ranks of the self-defined lower classes. The shares of Hispanics and whites who place themselves in the lower class also are growing.

“As they look to their own future and that of their children, many in the lower class see their prospects dimming,” Morin and Motel wrote. “While the expectation that each new generation will surpass their parents is a central tenet of the American Dream, those lower classes are significantly more likely than middle or upper-class adults to believe their children will have a worse standard of living than they do.”

Live Chat Today

Join me today at noon ET for my online chat with Brad Fortier, author of “Dear Kate: Reflections on Risk and Rewards After the Storm.” Fortier’s book was the August Color of Money Book Club pick.

You can send in your questions early, of course, join me live or read the chat archives later.

Love the One You’re With

I was rather intrigued by a report in Time magazine with the headline “Proof That Loyalty Is For Suckers: Best Customers Get Penalized With Higher Bills.”

“Companies play up the idea that their products and services come with special introductory rates for new customers, rather than noting that there are penalties for customers who stick with the business for the long haul and don’t complain,” wrote Time’s Brad Tuttle.

As an example, a report by the Texas Office of Public Insurance Counsel found that customers who have used the same insurance company for more than eight years would save 19 percent on their premium–$194 annually—if they switched insurance companies, Tuttle reported.

“This study supports what we have believed for a long time. Consumers must shop their policies to ensure they aren’t overpaying for insurance,” said Deeia Beck, executive director of the Texas agency.

The study also found that nearly 60 percent of drivers rarely or never shop around for auto insurance policies

So, the bottom line is: If you’ve been with a company for some time, do a check and see if they can make you a better deal. If they won’t, then shop around for a new business relationship.

Gone but Not Forgotten

I was sad to learn that Eileen Ambrose is retiring her personal finance column for the Baltimore Sun after 13 years.

You might think I would be happy to have less competition. But I’m not. I’ve often featured Ambrose’s columns in this weekly e-letter because the more that’s written about personal finance to help people manage their money, the better.

“My first Sunday column talked about the most common money mistakes derailing people’s financial futures,” wrote Ambrose. “The advice then still holds true: Live within your means. Take full advantage of your 401(k). Maintain a diversified portfolio. Don’t time the market. Develop a financial plan. Read the fine print.”

Ambrose will continue to contribute to the Baltimore Sun newspaper online and print.

Tia Lewis contributed to this report.

You are welcome to e-mail comments and questions to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name and hometown; your comments may be used in a future column or newsletter unless otherwise requested.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.”
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