Over lunch in a downtown restaurant, Beatrice, a New Yorker in her late 30s, told me about two decisions she and her husband were considering. They were thinking about where to buy a second home and whether their young children should go to private school. Then she made a confession: She took the price tags off her clothes so that her nanny would not see them. “I take the label off our six-dollar bread,” she said.
She did this, she explained, because she was uncomfortable with the inequality between herself and her nanny, a Latina immigrant. She had a household income of $250,000 and inherited wealth of several million dollars. Relative to the nanny, she told me, “The choices that I have are obscene. Six-dollar bread is obscene.” An interior designer I spoke with told me his wealthy clients also hid prices, saying that expensive furniture and other items arrive at their houses “with big price tags on them” that “have to be removed, or Sharpied over, so the housekeepers and staff don’t see them.”
These people agreed to meet with me as part of research I conducted on affluent and wealthy people’s consumption. I interviewed 50 parents with children at home, including 18 stay-at-home mothers. Highly educated, they worked or had worked in finance and related industries, or had inherited assets in the millions of dollars. Nearly all were in the top 1 percent or 2 percent in terms of income or wealth or both. They came from a variety of economic backgrounds, and about 80 percent were white. Reflecting their concern with anonymity and my research protocol, I am using pseudonyms throughout this article.
We often imagine that the wealthy are unconflicted about their advantages and in fact eager to display them. Since the economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” more than a century ago, the rich have typically been represented as competing for status by showing off their wealth. Our current president is the conspicuous consumer in chief, the epitome of the rich person who displays his wealth in the glitziest way possible.
Yet we believe that wealthy people seek visibility because those we see are, by definition, visible. In contrast, the people I spoke with expressed a deep ambivalence about identifying as affluent. Rather than brag about their money or show it off, they kept quiet about their advantages. They described themselves as “normal” people who worked hard and spent prudently, distancing themselves from common stereotypes of the wealthy as ostentatious, selfish, snobby and entitled. Ultimately, their accounts illuminate a moral stigma of privilege. The ways these wealthy New Yorkers identify and avoid stigma matter not because we should feel sorry for uncomfortable rich people, but because they tell us something about how economic inequality is hidden, justified and maintained in American life.
Keeping silent about social class, a norm that goes far beyond the affluent, can make Americans feel that class doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter. And judging wealthy people on the basis of their individual behaviors — do they work hard enough, do they consume reasonably enough, do they give back enough — distracts us from other kinds of questions about the morality of vastly unequal distributions of wealth. To hide the price tags is not to hide the privilege; the nanny is no doubt aware of the class gap whether or not she knows the price of her employer’s bread. Instead, such moves help wealthy people manage their discomfort with inequality, which in turn makes that inequality impossible to talk honestly about — or to change. The stigma of wealth showed up in my interviews first in literal silences about money. When I asked one very wealthy stay-at-home mother what her family’s assets were, she was taken aback. “No one’s ever asked me that, honestly,” she said. “No one asks that question. It’s up there with, like, ‘Do you masturbate?’ ” Newsletter Sign UpContinue reading the main story
Another woman, speaking of her wealth of over $50 million, which she and her husband generated through work in finance, and her home value of over $10 million, told me: “There’s nobody who knows how much we spend. You’re the only person I ever said those numbers to out loud.” She was so uncomfortable with having shared this information that she contacted me later the same day to confirm exactly how I was going to maintain her anonymity. Several women I talked with mentioned that they would not tell their husbands that they had spoken to me at all, saying, “He would kill me,” or “He’s more private.”
These conflicts often extended to a deep discomfort with displaying wealth. Scott, who had inherited wealth of more than $50 million, told me he and his wife were ambivalent about the Manhattan apartment they had recently bought for over $4 million. Asked why, he responded: “Do we want to live in such a fancy place? Do we want to deal with the person coming in and being like, ‘Wow!’ That wears on you. We’re just not the type of people who wear it on our sleeve. We don’t want that ‘Wow.’ ” His wife, whom I interviewed separately, was so uneasy with the fact that they lived in a penthouse that she had asked the post office to change their mailing address so that it would include the floor number instead of “PH,” a term she found “elite and snobby.”
My interviewees never talked about themselves as “rich” or “upper class,” often preferring terms like “comfortable” or “fortunate.” Some even identified as “middle class” or “in the middle,” typically comparing themselves with the super-wealthy, who are especially prominent in New York City, rather than to those with less. When I used the word “affluent” in an email to a stay-at-home mom with a $2.5 million household income, a house in the Hamptons and a child in private school, she almost canceled the interview, she told me later. Real affluence, she said, belonged to her friends who traveled on a private plane.
Others said that affluence meant never having to worry about money, which many of them, especially those in single-earner families dependent on work in finance, said they did, because earnings fluctuate and jobs are impermanent.
American culture has long been marked by questions about the moral caliber of wealthy people. Capitalist entrepreneurs are often celebrated, but they are also represented as greedy and ruthless. Inheritors of fortunes, especially women, are portrayed as glamorous, but also as self-indulgent.
The negative side of this portrayal may be more prominent in times of high inequality (think of the robber barons of the Gilded Age or the Gordon Gekko figures of the 1980s). In recent years, the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street, which were in the background when I conducted these interviews, brought extreme income inequality onto the national stage again. The top 10 percent of earners now garner over 50 percent of income nationally, and the top 1 percent over 20 percent.
It is not surprising, then, that the people I talked with wanted to distance themselves from the increasingly vilified category of the 1 percent. But their unease with acknowledging their privilege also grows out of a decades-long shift in the composition of the wealthy. During most of the 20th century, the upper class was a homogeneous community. Nearly all white and Protestant, the top families belonged to the same exclusive clubs, were listed in the Social Register, educated their children at the same elite institutions.
This class has diversified, thanks largely to the opening of elite education to people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds starting after World War II, and to the more recent rise of astronomical compensation in finance. At the same time, the rise of finance and related fields means that many of the wealthiest are the “working rich,” not the “leisure class” Veblen described. The quasi-aristocracy of the WASP upper class has been replaced by a “meritocracy” of a more varied elite. Wealthy people must appear to be worthy of their privilege for that privilege to be seen as legitimate.
Being worthy means working hard, as we might expect. But being worthy also means spending money wisely. In both these ways, my interviewees strove to be “normal.”
Talia was a stay-at-home mom whose husband worked in finance and earned about $500,000 per year. They were combining two apartments in a renovation, and they rented a country home. “We have a pretty normal existence,” she told me. When I asked what that meant, she responded: “I don’t know. Like, dinners at home with the family. The kids eat, we give them their bath, we read stories.” It wasn’t as if she was dining out at four-star restaurants every night, she said. “We walk to school every morning. And, you know, it’s fun. It’s a real neighborhood existence.”
Scott and his wife had spent $600,000 in the year before our conversation. “We just can’t understand how we spent that much money,” he told me. “That’s kind of a little spousal joke. You know, like: ‘Hey. Do you feel like this is the $600,000 lifestyle? Whooo!’ ” Rather than living the high life that he imagined would carry such a price tag, he described himself as “frenetic,” asserting, “I’m running around, I’m making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” Having money does not mean, in his view, that he is not ordinary.
The people I talked with never bragged about the price of something because it was high; instead, they enthusiastically recounted snagging bargains on baby strollers, buying clothes at Target and driving old cars. They critiqued other wealthy people’s expenditures, especially ostentatious ones such as giant McMansions or pricey resort vacations where workers, in one man’s sarcastic words, “massage your toes.”
They worried about how to raise children who would themselves be “good people” rather than entitled brats. The context of New York City, especially its private schools, heightened their fear that their kids would never encounter the “real world,” or have “fluency outside the bubble,” in the words of one inheritor. Another woman told me about a child she knew of whose father had taken the family on a $10,000 vacation; afterward the child had said, “It was great, but next time we fly private like everyone else.”
To be sure, these are New Yorkers with elite educations, and most are socially liberal. Wealthy people in other places or with other histories may feel more comfortable talking about their money and spending it in more obvious ways. And even the people I spoke with may be less reticent among their wealthy peers than they are in a formal interview.
Nonetheless, their ambivalence about recognizing privilege suggests a deep tension at the heart of the idea of American dream. While pursuing wealth is unequivocally desirable, having wealth is not simple and straightforward. Our ideas about egalitarianism make even the beneficiaries of inequality uncomfortable with it. And it is hard to know what they, as individuals, can do to change things.
In response to these tensions, silence allows for a kind of “see no evil, hear no evil” stance. By not mentioning money, my interviewees follow a seemingly neutral social norm that frowns on such talk. But this norm is one of the ways in which privileged people can obscure both their advantages and their conflicts about these advantages.
And, as they try to be “normal,” these wealthy and affluent people deflect the stigma of wealth. If they can see themselves as hard workers and reasonable consumers, they can belong symbolically to the broad and legitimate American “middle,” while remaining materially at the top.
These efforts respond to widespread judgments of the individual behaviors of wealthy people as morally meritorious or not. Yet what’s crucial to see is that such judgments distract us from any possibility of thinking about redistribution. When we evaluate people’s moral worth on the basis of where and how they live and work, we reinforce the idea that what matters is what people do, not what they have. With every such judgment, we reproduce a system in which being astronomically wealthy is acceptable as long as wealthy people are morally good.
Calls from liberal and left social critics for advantaged people to recognize their privilege also underscores this emphasis on individual identities. For individual people to admit that they are privileged is not necessarily going to change an unequal system of accumulation and distribution of resources.
Instead, we should talk not about the moral worth of individuals but about the moral worth of particular social arrangements. Is the society we want one in which it is acceptable for some people to have tens of millions or billions of dollars as long as they are hardworking, generous, not materialistic and down to earth? Or should there be some other moral rubric, that would strive for a society in which such high levels of inequality were morally unacceptable, regardless of how nice or moderate its beneficiaries are?