Unfortunately, Romney’s right that $374,000 isn’t very much — especially for most Americans

Petula Dvorak
Columnist January 19, 2012

Duh. Of course $374,000 isn’t very much.

In fact, in this city and plenty of others, it’s totally 99 percent. So stop going all class warfare on poor Mitt Romney, who had no idea when he dismissed his 2010 speaking fees as “not very much” that they added up to $373,327.62.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

For a guy whose estimated net worth is more than $250 million, that’s pretty much pocket change. And it’s a squirt in the bucket when you’re talking about what it takes to be a power player in Washington.

Heck, that’s not even enough to zero out New Gingrich’s jewelry tab. Wouldn’t you need a million-dollar line of credit at Tiffany and Co. if you were trying to convince a wife to have an “open marriage”?

You’ve gotta earn at least $513,000 each year to join Washington’s 1 percenters, according to a New York Times analysis of the nation’s top earners. (Nationally, you’ve got to pull down only $380,000 to make it into that fabled stratosphere.)

Most people around here don’t come close to that kind of money, despite the Washington area boasting the nation’s highest median household income: almost $85,000. Still, when you’re looking at the world through a 15-percent tax bracket lens, Romney is absolutely correct. That $374,000 really isn’t the stuff of Cristal and Bentleys.

What could that amount of cash do for you if you’re living in the nation’s capital, where even a ride on the Metro doesn’t come cheap?

In Bethesda, you could buy a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom condo for $300,000 .

Oh, ritzy. It even has a view of the neighboring building’s HVAC system.

But then it would be difficult to also afford the initiation fee at the super-exclusive, men-only Burning Tree Country Club. Even a few years ago, that would run you at least $75,000. And that’s a must, if you want to do business in this town.

Nope, can’t afford to eat and play golf. Choices, choices.

How about forgoing golf and putting it all into a house, instead of a condo?

No dice. That won’t buy you one of the cheapest houses on the market in Bethesda, a $522,900 abode described by a real estate agent as a “tear-down.” Oh dear.

And what about tuition? Anyone striving for serious status among the Beltway Bourgeois must have their children at a private school. St. Albans School is a commute into the city, and costs about $35,000. Maybe you could save some money and stay closer to that little condo. Make that Landon School for $31,000 — per child — annually. Ah, much better.

No? Well, if you’re thinking of a Romney-sized family — five kids — that’s nearly half of your chump change right there.

Maybe out in Virginia, that sad little sum will go further.

Take a look at the real estate listings in fashionable McLean. Oh, snap. Looks like we’re back to condo land, although at least you get a two bedroom for your $274,900.

The paltry leftovers from that splurge certainly don’t entitle you to just walk into Tiffany’s in Tysons Corner and buy anything you want. No diamond chandelier earrings ($350,000) to wear to the Kennedy Center, I’m afraid. Even if the plan was to divide them between the mistress and the missus.

This is how we know that the gap between the true 1 percenters and the other 99 percent is becoming a canyon — in the different ways we see this $374,000.

A report last week by the Pew Research Center found that the conflict between the rich and the poor is foremost on Americans’ minds. Class, rather than race, immigration status or age, seems to be what is dividing us. Which is the message that the Occupy protesters have been trying to articulate.

For much of America, the Romney $374,000 is an unimaginable amount. You’d think that it would be enough to do just about anything — buy a house, save for college, pay off the cars and even afford a vacation.

Not really. And that realization makes it all the more difficult to stomach the fact that we can’t survive, let alone thrive, on the median income most of the country is earning. Nationally, that figure is just $50,000 a year.

So when some folks tell us that seven years of salary really is “not very much” — and they are actually right — they are giving us a wake-up call. The gap has got to go.

dvorakp@washpost.com

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