By Vanessa Chen || Contributing Writer
Sociologist Rachel Sherman, who is an associate professor of sociology at the New School for Social Research at Eugene Lang College, came to F&M this past Monday to present her research on the wealthy people of America. She also published her findings in her new book—Uneasy Street: The Anxiety of Affluence.
Movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, and reality TV shows like the Real Housewives series often depict the rich as materialistic, entitled, morally corrupt, and supercilious. These popular media shapes people’s perceptions of the rich and how they live. However, Sherman found that there wasn’t a lot of sociological research done on the wealthy, which inspired her to start her own project. She interviewed 50 elite people living in New York city, with yearly household incomes ranging from 250,000 dollars to millions. They are all middle-aged, highly educated and politically liberal. The range of the subjects’ yearly income and net value is wide, but they all are in the top 5 percent range in America.
Sherman interviewed these people and had them talk about their consumption choices. She wanted to find out how the wealthy grapple with their privilege and wealth while American income inequality widens, and how inequality is naturalized—made acceptable and invisible—for the rich and the general society.
She finds that, far from the stereotypes traditionally associated with the elite, the elite are highly aware of their privilege and feel conflicted about it. They keep their consumption choices very secret; one interviewee says that talking about how they spend money is even more private than talking about sex. Another subject always rips the tags off everything she buys so the housekeeper would not find out how much she spent on everything. They are aware of potential judgement of their spending, so they don’t like to talk about it. Despite the guilt and shame they feel, Sherman finds that they have no desire to give up their way of life and attempt to justify it in many ways.
One way in which they justify their lifestyle is striving to be morally worthy. When interviewed, many talked about how hard they’ve worked to earn their money, subscribing to the idea that they live in a meritocracy that rewards them fairly. When talking about their spending habits, they tend to highlight the instances when they have been figural—instances in which they can afford better but choose not to. When they do talk about their large spending, they frame it in the way of “treating themselves,” “special occasions” or “family oriented.” For example, when the women buy expensive clothes or handbags, they will say that it’s a treat, or it’s because they have to go to a formal event. And all of the wealthy parents spend a lot on their children’s education and extracurricular activities. They feel completely justified in doing so because they believe that their children deserve the best. They talk about how they are especially careful to plant good morals in their kids, teaching them to be grateful instead of entitled. They also say that they don’t care much for the luxury they have now, that they can live without it at any moment. Or they say that they don’t take their expensive lifestyle for granted, but really appreciate what they have in life. They also frame their spending in the New York City context, saying that they have to spend so much because they live in the city. None of their rhetoric change the fact that they indeed spend an obscene amount of money by common standards, but it does help them frame their consumption in a morally acceptable way.
The interviewees also place a lot of emphasis on how much they are just like everyone else. They talk about how they eat dinners at home instead of at fancy restaurants, how they don’t have a second house in the Hamptons, even though the majority of them do own a second home, and how their kids help with house chores just like any other kid. When talking about their lives, Sherman finds that they always compare themselves to people who are wealthier than them, saying that they are not like those people, but are more “normal.” Like the general public, the rich interviewees also have a distorted, fictitious view of how rich people live and behave. They compare themselves to their over-blown view, and deem themselves to be more “normal” than “rich.” They skew their own perception of themselves to be closer to the “middle class,” even though their large spending does not fit the middle-class reality.
Overall, Sherman finds that the elite’s internal landscape is more conflicted and nuanced than most people would think. However, they like to frame themselves as “not that rich” rich people, and “good, deserving” rich people. They distance themselves mentally from the “undeserving rich” in the public imagination, without confronting the hard question of “can anyone deserve so much money, moral or not?” Not just the wealthy themselves, the public in general like to group rich people into deserving and undeserving. They give a pass to who they perceived as deserving rich people, such as the beloved billionaire writer J.K. Rowling, and deem other rich people as lavish and corrupt. This takes attention away from confronting the system that makes such astonishing income gap possible. Instead of passing judgement on an individual rich person, Sherman wants us to think about what keeps inequality normal and invisible, and how we could reverse the widening American income gap.
Junior Vanessa Chen is a contributing writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.