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Leaving aside mathematical quibbles, in common speech we normally associate the middle with the average or thereabouts. However, when it comes to talking about income, the use of “middle” becomes so strange that it distorts public discussion.

Someone on, say, three times an average wage cannot sensibly claim the term “middle income”. The meaningful term is “high income” or “rich”. Those on greater multiples can be described as “very rich”, “filthy rich”, “obscenely rich” etc. etc. but NOT “middle income”.

Now, some rich people lay claim to the term “middle income” because they spend their money in a praiseworthy way (e.g. school fees, their home etc.) leaving little to spend on, say, entertainment and holidays. Such spending decisions might attract the terms, “prudent”, “sensible”, “family oriented”, but they have no bearing on categorization of income.

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6 Comments

  1. Colm,

    Surely middle income is the median income.

    Michael Taft has done a bit of work on what is the median income in an article he wrote on his blog in 2006 that looks at median income as opposed to average income.

    If societies with more equal societies do better accross a range of measurements (‘The Spirit Level: Why more eqqual societies almost always do better’). Then the objective should be to bring more people into or close to the median income (including through policies such as capping salaries or income and wealth taxes).

  2. Joanna,
    Thanks for the comment and for the link to Michael’s piece.

    In principle I don’t mind if “middle” is defined as “median”. However, more people have a quicker grasp of “average” and in any event my point is that rich people or earners in the top deciles are constantly allowed distort public debate by describing themselves as “middle income”.

  3. That is true but there is also the Irish Times practice of referring to people on median incomes as “middle class” and giving the impression that people that are struggling are swanning around on sunshine holidays with their privately educated children get off school.

    The use of the word average in the report on sick leave in the public sector has also given rise to a lot of misleading comment. No mention of the fact that one finding in the report that puts the word “average” in a very different light is that 5 per cent of all absenses lasted longer than 20 days and that these instances accounted for almost half of all days lost to absense with the average absense lasting 62 days. As I have heard someone pointing out some people in the Civil service suffer very serious illnesses during their working life such as cancer. Obviously long absences due to very serious illness will bring up the average.

  4. You probably knew this, but anonymous is of course me!

  5. I agree. Essentially what bothers me is that debate can be distorted so easily and journalists facilitate it.

    I’ve not seen the A@CG’s report but again on the subject of public debate, I’ve been appalled by the media coverage which leaves anyone with basic numeracy gasping for clarification.

    Incidentally, it may be that the fault is with the report and its writers. Anyone writing a report has an obligation to make the full truth clear to a reader. Misleading figures or figures open to bizarre interpretation have to come with warnings attached and references to fuller explanations.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] presented as hard done by. (“Middle” is the hidey hole of the majority of rich people: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/middle-income-and-a-distortion-of-public-debate/ ) iii) The trick is completed not simply by reducing “rich” to the top 1% but by saying that […]

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