09/06/2012 08:05 am ET Updated Sep 06, 2012

Low Salaries On Capitol Hill Feed 'Culture Of Made-Up Poverty'

Kim Stiens

WASHINGTON -- The talk about money in politics doesn't usually extend to talking about whether those who work in politics have a right to complain about their salaries.

In a recently published piece, Kimberlee Stiens, a 26-year-old writer and office manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, argues that the middle class in general, and young congressional staffers on Capitol Hill in particular, have little to complain about, at least financially.

"I am sick of hearing about the trials and tribulations of the middle class," Stiens wrote in "Why You're Not Actually Poor." The title was later changed to the even-more-provocative "DEAR MIDDLE CLASS PEOPLE: YOU ARE NOT ACTUALLY 'POOR'" on xoJane, Jane Pratt's women-focused website.

Given that I encounter more than one panhandler on my walk to work each day, it seems delusional that anyone complains that $35,000 a year makes them poor. I live in D.C. and work on the Hill, where there's a culture of made-up poverty. Many staffers work long hours and live in shared housing, but they all tend to make salaries of at least $25,000 with health benefits (and they have plenty of opportunity to move up after they put in their time). Everyone complains about being poor, but then they go out to drinks each week.

It's not that they have it easy. They just don't understand how much easier they have it than some.

They also have it worse than some who they are likely to come across on a regular basis. While the federal poverty level for a family of one in the District of Columbia is $11,170 -- for a family of four it's $23,050 -- many people in D.C. live on much, much more than that.

The wealthiest neighborhood in the United States is in the D.C. area, according to Forbes. It's a section of Chevy Chase, Md., which has a median household income $250,000 and a median home price of more than $1 million.

In 2011, Bloomberg found that the D.C. metropolitan area is the richest place in the United States:

Federal employees whose compensation averages more than $126,000 and the nation’s greatest concentration of lawyers helped Washington edge out San Jose as the wealthiest U.S. metropolitan area, government data show.

The U.S. capital has swapped top spots with Silicon Valley, according to recent Census Bureau figures, with the typical household in the Washington metro area earning $84,523 last year. The national median income for 2010 was $50,046.

Prices and salaries in the area are so inflated that Virginia state Del. Barbara Comstock felt comfortable telling McLean Patch that a person earning $250,000 per year has to "work hard to make ends meet because we have such a high cost of living...That's not rich in our area."

It's certainly richer than what congressional staffers make. The Washington Times wrote earlier this year about staffers' relatively low salaries, the most common positions paying between $30,000 to $60,000 per year:

The average legislative counsel in the House made $56,000 last year, less than in 2007. While pay for parking-lot attendants in the House increased from $26,000 to $49,000 in the past decade, pay for staff assistants, who make up the bulk of the House’s workforce, rose from $26,000 to $30,000. That puts them in the bottom fifth of the region’s college-educated workforce.

The Huffington Post recently caught up with Stiens to talk about $250,000 incomes, congressional staffers and if it's ever acceptable for a person who goes out for drinks to complain about their finances.

The Huffington Post: Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed your piece. Can you tell me what you were responding to in it?

Kimberlee Stiens: Honestly, it was all inspired by a single incident. I was talking with some of my peers at my workplace about a new mailing they were working on, which was for our Club of 1,000: donors who contribute $1,000 at once or have a monthly commitment of $100.

And one person said something off-handed about how many of our supporters can't afford to donate $5, let alone $1,000 (as many of them have significant medical issues and are supporting us because we advocate for ending penalties for medical marijuana).

Something went off in my head. The vast majority can afford to make a $5 one-time donation to a charity. Sure, a lot of people are very poor and that's not a good use of their money. But most people, the vast majority, could swing $5 if they chose to. I looked around the room, sort of thinking aloud at this point, and said something about how people who can donate $1,000 to us aren't necessarily rich at all. That anyone in that room could afford to donate $1,000 to any charity they chose. It's far less than even 10 percent of our income. They had this idea that a $1,000 donor was a rich person, when really, it could have been any one of us.

I'd never really thought of myself as being a potential $1,000 donor before!

HuffPost: Did it make you see your own finances differently? Or make you think that people seem to have inaccurate perspectives on their own finances?

Stiens: Both. It definitely made me change my own perspective, and it seemed to change the perspectives of the other people in the room. After they thought about it, they all readily acknowledged that, yeah, they really could swing $1,000 if that was how they chose to prioritize.

HuffPost: Talk to me about what it means to be poor. In your piece, you seemed to really take issue with congressional staffers who call themselves poor, and who at the same time go out for drinks. What do you see as the problem with that?

Stiens: I certainly don't want to say that "poor" people aren't allowed to enjoy things in life. I mean, I don't really take umbrage with the fact that tons of very poor people have cable TV, which, if you watch everyday, is actually one of the cheapest forms of entertainment.

But people on the Hill sometimes seem to think that being poor is simply not being able to afford to live by yourself and be able to do all the things you want to do. Like, if you have roommates, you're automatically poor. That seems absurd to me...[W]e all feel poor sometimes, but it's often because we just don't have a perspective on what that word really means, in a non-relative context.

There's one way that I think of it: That absolutely any problem I have in my life, financial and otherwise, there's people out there with all the same problems, and more, and they have to deal with them on half my income.

HuffPost: You wrote in the piece that you grew up actually poor -- can you say what that means? And do you think that influences how you feel about congressional staffers saying they're poor?

Stiens: I had a sort of weird situation growing up. My dad wasn't really able to hold down long-term jobs, because he was an alcoholic. And my mom is actually a Canadian citizen, and wasn't willing to give that up when she married (I'm really not sure on the specifics), so she wasn't able to legally work in the U.S. until after I went to college.

So money was very tight all the time. We didn't live on public assistance either. I don't know if it was because my parents were too proud, or they thought the problems would be temporary, or if it was simply that my mom couldn't do the application as someone without legal standing and it never occurred to my dad. But we only had food stamps for perhaps a year, when I was in high school.

The area where our poor-ness was most apparently to me, however, was medical care, because we never had insurance. If I felt sick, I felt bad about saying anything, because I knew it would be expensive. So, over time, I just learned to ignore it or deal with it.

So when I see staffers, even those making only $27,000 a year salaries, knowing that they have healthcare, and what a significant financial lift that is, it's even harder to feel sympathetic.

I have a pretty good employer medical plan. I went to the ER for the first time in my life a couple months ago, and it only cost me $150! I was amazed!

Being able to take a day off because you're sick without losing a day's pay, or having a two-week paid vacation, these things are amazing, and are unheard of in the world I used to live in -- both as a child and after college, working fast food.

Not to mention that there are few places in D.C. where you need to have a car. You can readily find group-housing situations. It's an expensive city, but there are many ways to save money.

I think there is also a competitiveness that helps drive it. I mean, political types are often competitive by nature. And nobody wants to feel like the poorest guy in the room. So if you feel like you don't make enough money to go to drinks for everyone's birthday, or to a movie every weekend or up to NYC for Labor Day, when it feels like everyone around you can, it probably drives that "poor" feeling.

HuffPost: How have people responded to your piece?

Stiens: People generally got that I wasn't trying to attack them, that I was just trying to offer a different perspective that made me feel a lot better about my situation.

But when it re-posted on xoJane, people went crazy there. They really, really hate the implication that someone on $49,000 a year in Boston isn't poor.

It turned into a poor-off -- people just basically trying to say that the hated the piece, and their opinion was valid because they're poor, and listing everything bad that had ever happened to them, or the awful place they had to live. Which was sooo very much the opposite of the reaction I was trying to incite!

HuffPost: How old are you and how much do you earn at your current job? And how do you feel about your own finances?

Stiens: I currently make $39,000 a year. I generally feel good about my finances. I don't feel rich, but I have a reasonably nice basement apartment, and I can walk to work, and I don't have to worry about over-drafting my bank account

And I am 26 years old.

HuffPost: I think one reason people can buy drinks while still complaining about being poor is that drinks are relatively cheap and accessible, while the bigger things -- cars, clothes, houses, paying off student loans, being able to afford children, etc -- may still be inaccessible.

Stiens: I read a fascinating story in Businessweek once along the same lines, of very poor people whose big indulgence was a Sprite at lunch.

If you pay $5 a drink, get two drinks a night, that's only 10 outings before you've spent $100, not even counting tax and tip. And if you toss in occasioanlly going out to lunch or dinner, buying clothes (I'm an eBay fanatic, though I rarely spend more than $10 on a piece of clothing), or what have you -- it adds up to real money fast. And then you find that those things you mention seem so far out of reach.

I do think, however, that there is a major problem with many people's barometer of being poor being whether or not you can afford to buy a house. We have this obsession with home ownership, when it is not always a winning proposition, and it's not the best solution for everyone, and it's expensive. There's nothing wrong with renting forever -- personally, I love the idea of having repairs made that don't cost me anything and happen while I'm at work!

So, I definitely don't think that the inability to save tens of thousands of dollars for that down payment makes a person poor.

HuffPost: You wrote in your piece about the federal poverty level. But even American poverty is pretty luxurious compared to poverty in some other countries. What do you think constitutes real poverty?

Stiens: I'm reluctant to draw a bright line, but I think real poverty involves food uncertainty, homelessness (or living in dramatically substandard housing). The inability to get life-saving medical care.

I think that, in America, if at the end of the month you've paid the rent, fed yourself and anyone you're responsible for, have clothing on your back, the lights are on and the heat is paid for, and the reasonable assumption that all of this will be true next month -- that's a start. I won't say that people in that situation are NOT poor, because there can always be extenuating circumstances.

But generally, if you are not so dogged by expenses that you have to worry about making the basics each month, and especially if you have enough left over to save anything, or buy drinks, or go out to dinner, it's harder for me to compare that to someone else who doesn't know where their next meal is coming from and be able to say "Yeah, both of these guys are poor."

HuffPost: Virginia Delegate Barbara Comstock made the case that a person earning $250,000 per year has to "work hard to make ends meet because we have such a high cost of living...That's not rich in our area." What's your response to that?

Stiens: I think that unless that person has significant medical debt or other sort of extenuating circumstances, I would definitely disagree. At $250,000, especially for one person, unless you've got a crazy expensive house or something, "making ends meet" is probably not a concern.

Even after taxes, that person is bringing in $6,875 a month. So, a nice place to live, food on the table, clothes for work... those things are not an issue at that income level...Again, if they have cancer or something, or a lot of kids, that answer might be different.

The fact that one has rich neighbors does not make one poor. Maybe they're not "rich" but they're definitely solid middle class!

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the corrupting influence of money on our politics Sept. 6 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

Do you have no complaints about money? You may be interested in this slideshow of D.C.'s most expensive real estate listings:

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