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What median income can buy depends on where you live

Lily Liu’s family makes about $50,000 a year, which is about the same as the national median income. But she lives in Paducah, Ky., which has a local median income of about $30,000 a year.

Each year, around the time that the U.S. Census Bureau  releases median income data, we are treated to slideshow lists of cities where your dollar stretches furthest. They're often smaller, southern cities like Paducah, Ky., where families making the national median income of about $50,000 a year can live well. John Hasagawa, a professor at Paducah School of Art and Design and his wife, Lily Liu, who works part-time at Bryerpatch Studio, a fine-art quilt gallery, earn just about the national median. They rent a pretty, brick home in the arts district of Paducah for a thousand dollars a month. Hasagawa's job offers health insurance and a 403(b) retirement plan. And while daycare for their younger son eats up $500 a month, they still had enough money left over to travel to China, where Liu is originally from, for several weeks this summer.

"I think we're better than middle class," Liu said. "We may not have lots of money saved in the bank, but our kids are happy. We're able to travel. We have a car. We have everything I can dream of."

Income Upshot:
How people at different incomes live, work and play. A new data interactive from Marketplace's Wealth & Poverty Desk. Try the interactive.

Living in an inexpensive place, however, has a catch. Each town and city across the United States has its own median income. In Paducah, it's only about $30,000 a year.

"Incomes vary significantly throughout the United States," said Gordon Green, a partner at  Sentier Research, a data consulting firm that specializes in income statistics. "If you want to understand how people are doing in a particular area, you need to compare their income against the median income for the area."

Blaine Hebert, a sexton at Grace Episcopal Church, and his wife Erin, who works part-time in art galleries, are making the Paducah median income - and they're living paycheck-to-paycheck.

The young couple frequently expresses their gratitude for what they have, but they're struggling. They own a home thanks to a program that assists with downpayments if recipients commit to stay in the neighborhood for a set period of time. They rely on WIC, food assistance, for their year-old daughter. And while Blaine's job offers health insurance to him and the baby, Erin can't afford it. She was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in college and would need to fork over around $600 a month for coverage.

"It's a little tumor," Erin said. "But it's been a big challenge to pay for insurance."

When they learn that they're statistically middle-middle class for Paducah, the Heberts sound unsettled.  

"It just doesn't feel like middle class," said Blaine Hebert. 

"It doesn't give me much to dream for," said Erin. "I keep wanting to pull us up even more. And if we're already in the middle, I don't know what's above this." 

Field production for this story was provided by independent radio producer, Rebecca Feldhaus Adams. 

Income Upshot:
How people at different incomes live, work and play. A new data interactive from Marketplace's Wealth & Poverty Desk. Try the interactive

About the author

Noel King is a reporter for Marketplace's Wealth and Poverty desk.
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I think your tool may be a bit broken. I'm guessing that Warren Buffett's income is above more than 96% of American families...as well as Marrisa Mayer (also coming up at 96%)...and wells as my family's no-where-near-that income (also coming up at 96%).

You may be correct but not necessarily. Warren Buffet's wealth is greater than the top 4 percentile, but his actual income might not be.

Census data is NOT being used best when it is being compared to individuals' finances.

This is a really interesting tool but I think it could be made more useful. I know census data is all collected on the basis of household income, but providing more of a breakdown of what a "household" means for the zip code would allow one to better compare themselves to the local median. So for example, the median income for a household in my area is about $75,000 (yeah yikes, it's not posh place either) but without knowing how many adults are living in these households it's tough to compare oneself. It's also interesting that the marriage statistics are presented but not how many households have children.

My comment actually concerns the thow-away comment at the very end of this story, not in the transcribed text above. It was an invitation to play an interactive "game" called "Income Upshot". As I type this there are two banners in the text of the story above.

Marketplace listeners are some of the brightest and best informed people in this country. Afterall, we are educated by such luminaries as Kai Rysdal, Paddy Hirsch and David Brancaccio. (I miss Tess). So I am somewhat insulted by your attempt to disguise data mining as a "game". Please have more respect for your listeners. Rebrand this as a "poll" or "survey".

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