How Do You Define Wealth? Public opinion surveys suggest that almost all Americans — regardless of how much money they make — characterize themselves as "middle class." So where is the dividing line between middle-class and wealthy? Author Robert Frank discusses how wealth is defined in the United States and overseas.
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How Do You Define Wealth?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

There are a few bright lines to describe our economic status. The government establishes a poverty line. You can argue whether it's the right number or not. But below that number, you're officially poor. We almost never say lower class.

Public opinion surveys suggest that almost every American, no matter how much they make, regard themselves as middle class. And then, there is a range of ill-defined terms: well-off, upper middle class, affluent, wealthy and rich.

A couple of weeks ago, when Senator Hillary Clinton opposed raising the cap on Social Security payments - above $97,000 a year - as attacks on the middle class, Senator Barack Obama replied that just 6 percent of the country earns over $97,000 a year, and he defined those people as upper class.

Leaving the issue of taxes aside, how much do you have to make to qualify as rich? Some people might say you're rich if you make six figures. Others, that you're not rich unless you own a couple of houses and a yacht. How define rich?

Our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the program: the Opinion Page. In this week, we'll talk with a former Middle East negotiator about the prospect of progress amid lowered expectations at the Annapolis summit.

But first, what's rich?

We begin with Robert Frank, who writes the "Wealth Report" for the Wall Street Journal. He's the author "Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich." He joins us from our bureau in New York.

And, Robert, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. ROBERT FRANK (Columnist, "Wealth Report," The Wall Street Journal; Author "Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich") Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And how do you define the difference between middle class and rich?

Mr. FRANK: Well, if you look at the national statistics, the top 1 percent of Americans, by income, earns at least $277,000 each. A top 1 percent household would earn around $400,000 per household. If you measure it by wealth, the top 1 percent of Americans are worth around $6 million. And the top 8 percent are worth $1 million.

So generally speaking, in my view, the top 1 percent makes you pretty definitively rich in America. So that would be $400,000 income per house or at least $6 million in net worth per house.

CONAN: That's a lot of money.

Mr. FRANK: It is a lot of money. But what's interesting is there are sort of two realities for wealth in America today. There's the national picture, which shows that, you know, having $1 million is fairly special. And then, there's the world of Richistan, which is composed entirely of millionaires.

And in Richistan these days, having $1 million just gets you in lower Richistan. It doesn't really get you much of a house in, let's say, New York or San Francisco, and doesn't really get you the things that most people would think rich people could afford.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. One of the arguments, in fact - again, going - aside the issue from taxes, but the arguments that the Senators Obama and Clinton were having, whereas she was saying, look, $97,000 a year, it's a big difference as to whether you're living in rural Illinois or in Manhattan. The fire captains make $148,000 a year in New York City.

Mr. FRANK: That's right. Even butlers today are making more than $100,000. So it really does depend, you know, where you are physically. You know, if you're in New York or California, $97,000 is middle class. But if you're in Arkansas or Mississippi or the interior parts of the country that are less well-off, that's a significant amount of money. So I think it really depends on what part of the country you're in and what social class you're in yourself.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in this conversation.

800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

Let's begin with Leann(ph). Leann is calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.

LEANN (Caller): Hi. My comment is that I don't think class has a lot to do with how much money that you make. I think that upper middle class or lower class, it - you could make the same amount of money and, you know, you can make 20, $25,000 and be in upper-class, you know, and upper middle-class kind of family.

CONAN: So that…

LEANN: So…

CONAN: What we, Americans…

LEANN: So I think…

CONAN: …refer to class, Leann, I think what you're saying is that we're referring to a certain set of values?

LEEANN: Yeah, I think it's the certain set of values and how you live your life and what kind of things you're attracted to. I don't think it has a lot to do with money. I mean, there are people who consider, you know, themselves $35,000 millionaires. But I would consider those people might be upper middle class. It just depends on who you are and where you do live in the country.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for that.

And, Robert Frank, it's interesting, a lot of the ultra wealthy, the new ultra wealthy, particularly that you interviewed for your book, "Richistan," they define themselves as middle class and then there's sort of (unintelligible) meeting middle-class values.

Mr. FRANK: Exactly because most of today's wealth, in fact, 85 percent of today's multimillionaires made their money themselves, they did not inherit it, and they all started out middle class or even lower.

And then there's the guy I interviewed, Tim Blixseth, who's a billionaire. And when I asked him what it's like to be rich, he said, look, I'm just a middle-class guy.

And, you know, middle class, you have a billion dollars in your bank account. But his identity, he grew up middle class, his values were still middle class, and that's who he saw himself as, as a middle class guy. And I think that's very common with today's wealthy.

CONAN: And it's interesting that the term middle class - universally accepted -the terms lower class and upper class both come larded with a whole lot of baggage.

Mr. FRANK: That's right. Nobody wants to be anything but middle class these days, and - including the upper class, which was sort of surprising to me because, you know, a lot of people would be honest in aspiring to be part of the upper class or the elite or the wealthy, but the wealthy themselves - very uncomfortable with being labeled as wealthy.

CONAN: Who are the wealthy? What does this demographic look like?

Mr. FRANK: Most of them are white men in their 40s and 50s, although, wealth, increasingly, is diverse in terms of race and gender. Most of them got wealthy by starting their own companies and then selling those businesses in what's called a liquidity event. And the liquidity events are the main reason why we have so much wealth today.

And, you know, most of the people I am talking about here are worth 10 million or more. That was my cutoff for what wealthy is in America is 10 million or more. And most of them are entrepreneurs who really see themselves as hardworking, again, middle-class people, who just happened to get a lot of money from selling a company.

CONAN: Hmm. Here's an e-mail. We have this from Jillian(ph). My husband and I were amazed to realize that when we combined our incomes, our household income annually is over $100,000. We thought we should feel rich, but after our modest mortgage payment, two car payments, daycare and groceries, we're just scraping by. How can this be? I don't think we're alone in feeling like we're doing something wrong, even though we're watching every penny.

Mr. FRANK: Well, it's - you know, if it's any comfort, the wealthy feel the same way.

I went to a group in New York called TIGER 21, that's kind of a group therapy for the wealthy. It's where people worth 10 million or more get together and they, you know, they share their problems with each other. And this group spent most of the day worrying about not having enough money, because everything that they purchased was so inflated and was going up - the prices were going up so fast that they were worried of running out of money by the time they retire.

So inflation, I think, is much greater in people's lives than the government would have us think. Government says inflation is around 6 percent. But for the wealthy, it's around 12 percent. And I think for most people, it feels like more than 6 percent.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Now, this is Rock(ph). And Rock is with us from Payson, Arizona.

ROCK (Caller): Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

ROCK: I happen to be an artist and I have some galleries in some pretty expensive places around the country, like Aspen, Jackson Hall, places like that.

And a few months ago, I was talking with a gallery in Aspen, asking - but most of the clients they had there were millionaires, and I said, no, they're a dime a dozen (unintelligible) with billionaires. But I had told your screener, Neal…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROCK: …that in my opinion, what makes a person wealthy or rich is people who can come in - and I call it buy on the spur of the moment. They don't have to think about payments. They don't have to think about what's coming up tomorrow, the next day and that. They might walk in and buy a 10, $20,000 painting without batting an eye. Now, to me, these people are rich.

CONAN: That is a definition of rich, when you think as much about the purchase price of a $20,000 painting as you do for a pack of gum.

ROCK: Yeah, they're impulse buyers.

CONAN: Impulse buyers.

Robert Frank, what do you think? How does that definition work for you?

Mr. FRANK: Well, that is a great definition, and that is one thing that I found in my book is the ease with which a billionaire could decide to buy a house or, you know - in one case, I was with the guy in the book and he decided to buy a Bentley. We drove by the showroom. He just decided on the spur of the moment to buy a $200,000 Bentley.

But when you mentioned in Aspen that millionaires are a dime a dozen, it really is true. The number of millionaire households in America has more than doubled over the past 10 years. There are now 9 million millionaire households in America. And there are a half million households worth 10 million or more. So to most people, $10 million sounds like a lot of money but there are half million households in America worth that amount. So when you're in this world of Richistan, you can be worth $10 million and see so many people worth so much more than you that you suddenly feel middle class.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And…

Mr. FRANK: …especially in a place like Aspen.

ROCKLEY: Yeah.

CONAN: And Rockley, I hope every one of those half-million homes has one of your paintings in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROCKLEY: So do I. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Good luck, Rock. Thanks very much for the call.

I wonder, Robert Frank, again getting back to this demographic issue. I guess the assumption would be that the vast majority of those super rich people you're writing about would be Republicans as opposed to Democrats.

Mr. FRANK: Well, that was my assumption when I went into this project. But what I actually found is that a growing number of today's wealthy are actually Democrats and they call themselves progressives.

And if you see what's happened with the amount of money the Democrats have raised in this recent election cycle versus the Republicans, the Republicans are suddenly panicked by the fact that so many of today's wealthy are moving toward the liberal Democratic side of the political spectrum that the traditional party of wealth, the GOP, is suddenly trying to figure out, well, how do we recapture that audience? And there is a whole wave of progressive politics that is taking place within the multimillionaire population.

I look at this group in Denver that singlehandedly funded the 2004 elections in Denver and really turned that legislature from a Republican to a Democratic one. And the Republicans never expected it because they thought, well, the rich are all Republicans. And it's turning out to be much more complicated than that.

CONAN: Does that suggest that at least a significant percentage of those people would be willing to pay more taxes?

Mr. FRANK: What's fascinating is that they are. And not only in the interviews that I did, but also we're seeing very publicly Warren Buffet come out and say, the rich should be paying more taxes. A billionaire bond trader named Bill Gross came out, recently said the wealthy should pay more taxes. I think really for self-preservations and sort of enlightened self-interest, today's wealthy are saying, look, inequality has gotten so large that we have to do something to mitigate it. Otherwise, the future of wealth in America could be in jeopardy.

CONAN: We're talking today about the definition of rich and what you would have to make to consider yourself rich.

Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

When we come back, we'll be talking about attitudes of wealth among different racial groups.

I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about where we draw the line between middle class and wealth. What's your definition of rich? What would you need to make, what would you need to have in order to feel rich?

800-989-8255. Drop us an e-mail: talk@npr.org. You can send us comments on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Here are some of them we had just received in the last few minutes.

There are many stages of rich, writes Teresa(ph) who lives - listens to KJZZ in Phoenix, Arizona. For many, it would simply be the luxury of not worrying about whether or not you can afford that $20 dinner. For others, whether or not you can afford that $26,000 Prada purse. Rich is having more money than you need to pay the bills and buy nice things for yourself and your friends. Rich is having enough money to smile at your own good fortune. And, she also said some nice things about this program.

Here is another one. This is one from Richard(ph). I believe that anyone can live richly without necessarily being wealthy. It's a state of mind more than a size of your pocketbook. I'm lucky enough to consider myself upper middle class, but don't feel that that's necessarily made my life richer. In fact, my wife and I have to work so hard to maintain our financial lifestyle. It actually takes away from our real life.

And a quick question: Does my IRA, which is my entire retirement fund, qualifies part of my net worth? If it does, I'm a millionaire. But I don't expect to be able to take more than $50,000 a year out of it. I have always wondered whether that was included in statistics like the top 6 percent to have a net worth of $1 million or more.

Well, let's ask our guest. He is Robert Frank, who writes the "Wealth Report" column for the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of the book "Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich." We have a link to that, excerpt from that book at npr.org/talk. And Robert Frank is with us from our Bureau in New York. So does Josephine's IRA - does that count as part of her net worth?

Mr. FRANK: Yes. And not only does her IRA count as part of her net worth, but her house also adds to the net worth. So if you look at the number of millionaires that we have created over the past 10 years, a lot of it, I think, is due to the increase of real state prices. And so those 9 million millionaire households or those half million households worth 10 million or more, a lot of that is real state and IRAs which, let's face it, most people can't spend those everyday. So they maybe rich on paper, but they're not rich in their life.

CONAN: And they may be less rich on paper today than they were yesterday.

Mr. FRANK: Exactly.

CONAN: Joining us now from her home in Maryland is Michelle Singletary, financial correspondent for the Washington Post and a personal finance contributor for NPR's DAY TO DAY. Michelle, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wonder, do ideas of wealth differ among different ethnic groups?

SINGLETARY: You know, I don't think so. In this country, because everything is defined a lot about how much stuff you have, I think for many groups, it's a same thing, you know? How big is your house? What kind of car do you drive? Can you send your kids to college? I mean, I think across the board. I think the feeling of - that you are inadequate comes when you can't do all of those things. And most Americans can't.

I thought it was really interesting, the last discussion about, you know, what is wealth because we really use - we don't use those words correctly. There is net worth and then there is a feeling that you're rich and so you live above your means. And to me, net worth doesn't necessarily include - I mean, technically, it includes the equity in your home, but we now see what that market is like, what the real estate market can do.

CONAN: Yeah.

SINGLETARY: And a lot of that equity can be gone, you know, tomorrow. And so many people borrow what they thought was their wealth in their house but with really somebody else's money.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And now, they're going to have to come to terms with all of that.

In terms of how people look at it, I would assume that the terms lower class and upper class for African-Americans, for example, would have the same baggage that they do for white Americans.

SINGLETARY: Absolutely. I mean, unfortunately, more African-Americans are lower income - it's the word I'd like to use.

CONAN: Well, I was saying - I said earlier, lower class is a term we hardly ever use.

SINGLETARY: Yeah, because it sort of makes it sound like you're, you know, ghetto.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah or low class.

SINGLETARY: You know, lower income. And, you know, the - listen, the average or the median household income in the United States is still below 50,000. It's 48,200 according to the lab data from the Census Bureau. So the vast majority of the country is still, you know, really literally, I mean, living paycheck to paycheck. When a family says I have $100,000 or $200,000 and I'm just getting by, that's a lie. What it is is that you can supply your needs, you just can't get all your needs and your wants.

CONAN: Hmm. It's interesting that $48,000 median income figure - that means half of Americans make more than that annually and half make less than that annually.

SINGLETARY: That's right.

CONAN: And you double that and you're almost exactly at that $97,000…

SINGLETARY: That's exactly right.

CONAN: …figure that Clinton - Senators Clinton and Obama were arguing about.

SINGLETARY: Right. That's right. And you know, what's interesting - there was a reporter for the Post, Michael Fletcher, who just did a column or article that found that nearly half of African-Americans that were born to middle-income parents in the late '60s are now in poverty or near poverty status, which tells you how tenuous it is, this wealth that we think that we create for ourselves.

CONAN: Or this idea that once a family starts moving upward, it continues on that path.

SINGLETARY: I think - yes, because the new money tends to buy things as opposed to creating, you know, appreciable assets. You know, you'd talk to most families - most of their assets are in their home, and then the next biggest thing is their cars. We spend more on our cars than we do sending our kids to college because they are borrowing money to go to college. And so that's why it's so important that people - when we do these kind of segments, these shows, that, you know, people realize that you can't look at, you know, what other people are doing. You got (audio gap) you have to spend below your means to really, truly feel wealthy.

CONAN: We borrow money to buy our cars, too.

SINGLETARY: Yeah, unfortunately so. I mean, it just the money that we put in cars and when - and the moment you drive it off of a lot, it depreciates. It's just mind-boggling to me. I mean, I keep my car until they push me off the road and I'm on a first-name basis with the toll truck drivers because I want my net worth to truly be that. I don't count, you know, my equity. I look at the cash I have, the money I have in my retirement account, and the fact that I can be able to send my kids to college without them borrowing a dollar in debt.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Nancy(ph). Nancy is with us from San Antonio in Texas.

NANCY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Nancy.

NANCY: Yeah, listen. I was just struck. I've been listening for a while. I was struck and I agree with what this caller just said, or the guest.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

NANCY: I'm not sure who she is.

CONAN: It's Michelle Singletary, but go ahead.

NANCY: Okay. I grew up fairly wealthy. I mean, really, my mother didn't work. We lived overseas. As Americans we had a maid, beautiful home, swimming pool, wonderful lifestyle. Then, I came to the States to go to college or got married. And I spent all my money at Neiman Marcus and Saks and I always expected to live that way.

My husband had a bankruptcy in the '80s, like a lot of people, and I was just - I really learned that wealth is a relative thing. You know, I drive our car now - we have since divorced. But I drive a car now, a 2001 Toyota Corolla that I bought at a rental company. And it's got 165,000 miles on it. I shop at Big Lots, the Dollar Store. And I tell you what, it's all a matter of perspective, because I'm very proud of the fact that my kids have all gone to college. The third one is about to graduate. I have student loans I need to pay back.

I'm 57 years old and I'm still working. But I hear these people talking and it's like, it's a relative thing, you know? If you're used to a certain level, if you're used to shopping at Neiman's and Saks', I mean, it's very, very hard to see until you loose everything. But that's not really essential. You can shop at Target. You can go to Kmart. It's not going to kill you.

And for me, it was just a very difficult mental shift that I had to make. And when I made it, I realized, my gosh, what's important is I can provide health insurance for my kids. They can go to college. We're happy. We have what we need. We have enough to eat. We have a roof over our heads, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I think that our country is we're so spoiled that we don't realize that it's not all about the stuff you have.

CONAN: I agree with your philosophy, and it's one that can help a lot. And by the way, congratulations on that last kid getting out of college. That's a real achievement.

NANCY: Oh, thank you very much.

CONAN: We appreciate it.

NANCY: And by the way, I have to tell you as a single parent earning $30,000 a year, barely making ends meet, my daughter went to Princeton, graduated from Princeton and had unbelievable grants made available to her. So, you know, anybody who thinks, oh, we can't do it because we're poor, whatever. It's just a question of finding resources and believing that you can have whatever you want. In this country, you can have whatever you want. You just have to find and work for it.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that call Nancy. We appreciate it.

NANCY: Okay.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

And Robert Frank, I wanted to ask you about that. There are a lot of people, though, who do measure their success in life by their income level or by their wealth level.

Mr. FRANK: Well, there are. But the - one fascinating point that was made by the previous two speakers is the whole issue of mobility. And people are uncomfortable with wealth in America because there is a perception that we have some aristocracy, where the rich are getting richer and it's some fixed group that just keeps piling up more and more money while the rest of us are just, you know, treading water.

And - but the reality is that mobility in this country is such that people are moving up into the ranks of the wealthy, and as we just heard, falling off the ranks of the wealthy, to such a degree that wealth has become very fluid in America. And for those who fall off, that's a painful reality.

But I was actually encouraged in doing all this research on the wealthy that, in fact, the wealthy were changing every year. If you look at the Forbes list every year, you know, there are about between 50 and 100 people changed in that list, and I think that's a microcosm for what's happening in wealth in America that people are moving up and off of the list quite rapidly. So everyone has a chance.

CONAN: Hmm.

And Michelle Singletary, let me ask you. In his book, Robert Frank talked to all this unbelievably wealthy people and came to the conclusion that they -each of them would feel wealthy if they made roughly twice of what they already had. Is that a workable definition, do you think, of anybody, at any income level? If you had twice what you had, you'd feel rich?

SINGLETARY: Absolutely. You know, Roper does this study where they look at people's definition of the good life, and it's always if I make twice more of what I make or - an interesting so, they put having a car, and some other things that - or had of having children is the definition of wealth. I mean, it's amazing what people - how do people define wealth.

But, you know, one Sunday, my pastor asked that question: who among you consider yourselves rich? And I go to a very large church, and just a smatter of hands went up. My hand didn't go up. And then, he began to take off the things that really count as being rich.

You know, who could decide what car to drive or what to wear or how many of people had a clean drink of water or could - who had three square meals. And he just started to take off, and I was embarrassed that I hadn't raised my hand. Because, you know, most of us are much wealthier than the rest of the world. And really, there are certainly people in this country who it is not a matter of bidding(ph) a car or sending your kid to school, you can't feed your children. There's a lot of people like that.

But there are a lot of us, who if we put our need first and take care of those and stop whining more - we have people who have cell phones with children and iPods and things like that and don't have a college fund for them, and then they cry the blues when it comes time for them to send their kids to college because they don't have any college money.

But in the course of that child's 18 years, I have had three or four cars enough to send them to a very good state school. So I think we have to redefine what wealth is. Net worth is what you actually own. That doesn't mean the equity in your house, because that's not yours until you sell that home. So if we redefine and look around, if you look in your house right now, if your driving in you car and appreciate the things that you had, you will define yourself as rich and you won't be looking at the (unintelligible), thinking I wish I had more.

CONAN: Michelle Singletary is the financial correspondent for the Washington Post and a personal finance contributor for NPR's show DAY TO DAY. Our other guest is Robert Frank, who writes the "Wealth Report" column for the Wall Street Journal and wrote the book, "Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here some e-mail definitions. This one from Chris(ph). One night, over pizza and beer, my friends and I arrived to the following definition of rich: You're rich if you can fund your lifestyle without working. You're middle class if you can fund your lifestyle but you have to work. You're poor if you can't fund your lifestyle even if you do work.

This from Arlene(ph): Rich is when you can afford to throw out edible food from the table. Middle class always can put food on the table, and poor, when you worry about putting food on the table and make food purchases based on the money available or money not available.

This from Meredith(ph) in - excuse me, Mary, she calls herself, in South Carolina. To me, if you can afford to hire a cleaning lady or a landscaper, you're rich.

And Robert Frank, I think domestic help was one of the definitions.

Mr. FRANK: That's right. I mean, you know, wealth is really relative and positional. So, for instance, I interviewed a guy who - we're on his 100-foot yacht, and we're looking around the Marina at boats that were two and three times as large as his 100-foot yacht. And he said, you know, this boat today, it's like a dingy compared to these other boats. He felt - I wouldn't say he felt poor - but he didn't feel rich because we were looking at boats that were two and three times as large.

People who have household staff - there's one guy I talked to in the book and I asked him how many household staff he had at his house in California, and he said well, it's probably around 60 or 70, and that took a while to think. And then, his wife came over and said, no, I just counted yesterday, it's 105. So imagine having a 105 people working in your house.

CONAN: And losing track of half of them.

Mr. FRANK: And not knowing their names or even what they do. And so for people who think, well, a household staff is a big deal and maybe they've hired a maid and maybe they've hired a butler. They're looking up to the guy with a 105 household staff, thinking wow, you know, I'm just a dingy in this world of super yachts. And so, its lovely and it is comforting and important to know that we should all be grateful for what we have. But, the fact is wealth is based on what we see around us everyday. And for the wealthy, they see people with so much more money and so much more stuff than they do that they've actually convinced themselves that they're not wealthy.

CONAN: Let's talk to Menish(ph). Menish is with us from Baltimore in Maryland.

MENISH (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Well, thank you.

MENISH: I was calling - I'm calling with my perspective - I'm a medical student right now, and I'll be graduating soon. And I've noticed this issue of perspective on wealth keeps coming up, like, you consider yourself rich based on your perspective of other. And I noticed this in the medical community, where the family-practice doctors are saying, oh, that cardiologist down the street is richer than I am. And the cardiologist claimed that (unintelligible) surgeon down on the street is richer than he is. And I think it's interesting that…

CONAN: And they all look down on the medical student, of course.

MENISH: Well, in a way exactly. Well, for a variety of reasons, people look down on the medical students. But I think that it's interesting because, especially in the medical community, we work directly with people and for people who are significantly poorer than we are.

And so I think it's interesting that we look at the perspective of those that are - you know how it feels, but not really realize that, you know, 50, 60 people coming to our clinics every single day. Most of them are significantly poorer than we are, but yeah, we still have this sense of oh, we're poor, we're poor. And I think that that's very unique to industries like medicine, maybe law, where you deal with patients or clients who are not well-off and yet still have this ability to say I'm poor. I can't afford this than the other like the guy down the street.

CONAN: So like Robert Frank's, using the yacht measurement, they might be measuring the size of the Lexus in the parking lot in the hospital.

MENISH: Exactly, and I think that that's a real pitfall because at the end of the day, I think having a good perspective on what you have and being able to understand that what you have is valuable makes you really capable and competent - in my particular field, a capable and competent physician because you're able to understand that the service you provide and the amount of money that you get for it is invaluable to people who may or may not be able to afford it.

CONAN: All of which suggests and manage, first of all, good luck with your studies and thanks for the phone call.

MENISH: Thank you very much.

CONAN: But it all suggests that perhaps we would all be well advised to every once in a while go see how the other half lives so that we stop using our own narrow definitions of what wealth is and how we compare ourselves to our neighbors or our colleagues and see really what other people are doing. It's really an interesting issue. Michelle Singletary, wish we had more time to talk. Thanks for joining us today.

Ms. SINGLETARY: You're welcome. I appreciate it. And I just want add quickly, a lot of African-Americans already know how the other half lives. Many of them who are middle or upper income are helping family members who are lower income, so we know both sides of that road.

CONAN: Michelle Singletary, financial correspondent for the Washington Post, also a contributor to NPR's DAY TO DAY.

Robert Frank, we appreciate talking to you again.

Mr. FRANK: Thanks, I enjoyed it.

CONAN: Robert Frank writes the "Wealth Report" for the Wall Street Journal and his book is "Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom."

Up next, what it might take to see progress at this week's Mideast peace summit. A former Middle East negotiator joins us on the Opinion Page. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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