Rachel Sherman: living on Uneasy Street

New School sociologist Rachel Sherman interviewed fifty affluent residents of New York (the most unequal city in the United States) to find out their attitudes to wealth. She writes of her sample:

Most households had incomes of over $500,000 per year, assets of over $3 million, or both. About half earned over $1 million annually and/or had assets of over $8 million. The median household income of the sample was about $625,000, which is twelve times the New York City median of about $52,000. […] They worked or had worked in finance, law, real estate, advertising, academia, nonprofits, the arts, and fashion.

What she discovered in her interviews is presented in her recent book, Uneasy Street, which is full of fascinating insights into what she calls “the anxieties of affluence”, the ongoing struggles her informants experience over how to combine being wealthy with feeling they possess moral worth. This often leads them to emphasize who they are as opposed to what they have. They also repeatedly highlight virtues normally associated with the middle class: hard work, modest consumption, a commitment to ensuring their children embrace similar attitudes. Sherman writes:

They want to be in the middle, not in a distributional sense but rather in the affective sense of having the habits and desires of the middle class. As long as the wealthy can distance themselves from images of ‘bad’ rich people, their entitlement is acceptable. In fact, it is almost as if they are not rich.”

And as long as they can assuage their anxieties in this manner, reframe the issue of inequality in individual terms, then systemic questions remain unaddressed… In our interview, we talk about these big questions, and also about the woman who installed an elevator in her five-storey brownstone during a gut renovation and the people who Sharpie over price tags so their domestic staff don’t see them…

From Uneasy Street by Rachel Sherman:

“Many of the people I interviewed also acknowledged that they thought about money and lifestyle issues constantly and discussed them often with their spouses. Beatrice, who worked in a nonprofit but had inherited wealth, said she and her husband talked about these subjects ‘every minute of every day that we’re not at work’. Some described sharing their money conflicts with their therapists. Others admitted speculating about what their friends and neighbors earned and sometimes judging friends and family members for certain kinds of spending. […] Beatrice reflected at the end of the interview: ‘I’ve now told you everything that I feel is vaguely private about our lives.’ She told me she’d have been more comfortable talking about her sex life.”

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