April 20, 2018

(AP Photo / Ross D. Franklin)

Let’s say that you make more than $500,000 a year. You have a million bucks in the bank. Maybe you have a second home in the Hamptons. You’re rich, right? Well, to most people, it certainly looks that way. But even if you’re part of the 1%, you might not think of yourself as that wealthy. Rachel Sherman is a professor of sociology at The New School and the author of Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence. She interviewed 50 wealthy New Yorkers about their attitudes toward their money. What she found was surprising, and impacts the lives of even those who might not have a million dollars in the bank. 

Three Takeaways 

  • Sherman actually had a lot of trouble getting people to talk about money. It was “more private than talking about sex,” according to one interviewee. And this discomfort surrounding wealth manifested itself in other ways. Sherman notes that another interviewee actually hid price tags on clothing and household items from her nanny.  
  • This unease about affluence reflects society’s complicated and contradictory ideas around wealth. Consider how Bill Gates, with his self-made fortune and foundation, is viewed, as opposed to someone like Paris Hilton, whose public image is far more extravagant. According to Sherman, Americans simultaneously desire to be wealthy and are often skeptical of those who are rich. 
  • Reluctance to talk about money is extremely important, especially for public policy. There’s a “silence around talking about class,” Sherman says, “and that helps us imagine that class privilege doesn’t exist. It helps wealthy people manage how uncomfortable they are with inequality.” Sherman believes that this discomfort surrounding wealth - the desire for the rich to see themselves as not actually all that rich - is distracting us from bigger questions about entitlement and distribution. 

More Reading 

  • If you think there’s a gap between middle class folks and the wealthy, check out the gap between the wealthy and the super wealthy. 
  • A while back, we talked with David Callahan, who says that the rise of philanthropy among billionaires is having some unintended consequences
  • Turns out, the same families that were rich in 15th century Florence, are still rich in 21st century Florence.

class divide, middle class, wealth, Rachel Sherman

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