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Blue-Collar Affluence

May 22, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ One of the persistent American myths is that the wealthy dress in pinstripe suits, work for big institutions, drive fancy cars and belong to clubs where they talk about the stock market.

It is a notion that is perpetuated in advertisements, novels, and media. It is often confirmed in surveys, sometimes because the surveys are conducted by or for big financial institutions with preconceived ideas.

But a study for Cigna Corp., while perhaps perpetuating some of the myths, also reveals some aberrations from the traditional picture.

The affluent, it shows, are as likely to be self-employed as to work for a company or organization. They rate real estate over securities. Big cars, clubs and vacation homes aren’t very important to them.

What the survey doesn’t show is that many of the people who qualify as wealthy by the survey’s definition also consider themselves to be blue-collar workers. Your own survey, in the privacy of your own home, might confirm this.

This is Cigna’s definition of the upper affluent: A minimum annual household income of $100,000 or a net worth of $500,000, excluding primary residence.

One private observation, conducted on a home improvement job in a New York suburb, shows that a local electrician, an immigrant, fits that category. A part-time plumber - he works fulltime for the town - also qualifies.

The electrician, who drives a panel truck from his home to the job of the day, charges $40 an hour, which translates to $320 a day, $1,600 a week or $80,000 a year. His office is in his home. He has no other business address.

His four assistants, in training, are billed at $35 an hour and paid less than one-third that amount. Assuming they are paid $10 an hour, which they say they are not, the electrician ″earns″ $800 a day for his assistants.

Of course, he has expenses and equipment costs and down time. He must do the bookkeeping, and sometimes he must fight to get customers to pay bills. He must solicit business and pay for advertising. And each job is his reputation.

With the home repair and renovation business booming, he has lots of work, but of course he must put something aside for those idle days that might come when the economic cycle turns. His income isn’t assured, as in a salaried job.

Still, by reasonable calculations, the electrician fits the definition of upper affluent. He shows it too, by the spacious, expensive house in which he lives. But he also has an eye for other real estate: He owns a rental house.

The plumber is enormously skilled and conscientious, and his services are in great demand. He seldom delegates the work, preferring to do the toughest jobs himself. His phone is always ringing; he is always working. There is no time for clubs, not when you work hard both day and night, and weekends too.

He lives modestly but comfortably in the same house in which he was brought up, but he has altered it greatly over the years, not by hiring a renovator but by doing the design and carpentry and plumbing and stone work himself.

He believes in real estate, which is something you can control and improve, rather than securities, which are more like abstractions. He owns three rental houses in town, which he maintains himself. He owns them clear; no mortgages.

If not by his income then by his real estate holdings, apart from his own primary residence, the plumber fits the Cigna definition of the upper-affluent class. In his town, houses sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He would, of course, be as awed as the electrician would be by that categorization, because he considers himself a man ″who works with his hands.″ And, of course, his clear head, which isn’t confused by popular myths.

End Adv PMs Friday, May 22.

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