Being raised by a single mother in northern California (mostly, we moved around a lot) in the 70s and 80s, we were generally in the lower middle-class income bracket. My mom worked as a teacher and/or a substitute, and we usually lived in modest one-bedroom rentals. I was far from spoiled, but I never felt deprived. We had pets, musical instruments, a TV and VCR, good clothes, food, birthday parties, Christmas presents. All the things you think of as normal in a consumer society.

I went to college, took out loans, did a year of study abroad in France, graduated and got a job. I started at $18,000 a year. Five years later I was making $24,000 a year. My goal was to be making $30K by the time I was 30 years old, and $40K by 40. I’ve generally chosen travel and adventure over salary, but along the way I’ve managed to build a resume.

Now here I am. I’m 39 years old and have finally broken the $40K mark. I have my dream job. But it’s still the lowest paying gig in the Foreign Service. I’m living in a house for the first time in my life that has more space than I need and doesn’t belong to a parent, but it still belongs to the government. I don’t have to pay rent or utilities, but our family of three is still living on my one income. We have credit card bills, student loans, a car payment, a cable bill, gas, groceries, etc. Things are comfortable but far from extravagant. Yet something strange is happening. I FEEL GUILTY.

Why do I feel so guilty??? The average salary in the United States in 2010 was $47,140. I still have a few years to go before I’ll hit that point. Our house is 2700 square feet, and more than one person has referred to it as a small mansion. Yet we were just watching an episode of House Hunters and you can buy a similar, if not larger, house in New Mexico at the moment for less than $300,000.

I think there are two main things that are responsible. First, the American Dream isn’t fashionable anymore. Between the recession, unemployment, and the sheer numbers of the human population, visible wealth is almost in poor taste. Values are changing. People want to reduce their impact on the environment and live within their means instead of beyond them.

Second, even middle class American living contrasts starkly with the poverty in Central America. The gross national income in Belize is $3,740. The murder rate is one of the highest in the world. Last year there were 132. In a country of barely 300,000 people, that’s over 40 per 100,000. My home town of Chico, California, has 86,000 people. And you can bet they would be relocating if 35 of their neighbors were killed every year. We’ve only been here for 2 ½ weeks, and one of our fellow employees has already been mugged on the way to work.

I want to be thankful for the blessings that I have. I AM thankful. And I am reminded of the fact that our very presence here is a good thing. The US contributes over $2 million a year in economic assistance programs to Belize, and we help the Belize government fight narcotics trafficking. USAID and Peace Corps have regional development programs. It’s nice to see our tax dollars at work.