Oh Brother

01.19.13

Income Inequality Within Families is Emerging as a Major Issue

As a society, the U.S. has been grappling with rising income inequality. It is also now becoming a major issue inside families as members’ financial fortunes diverge.

Income inequality isn’t just bad for our economic health. It’s bad for our mental health. Working for decades as a psychotherapist has accustomed me to listening closely. And—in and outside the office—I’ve lately been hearing painful stories told about how families, friendship circles, and neighborhoods are being strained by ever greater wealth differences among their members. Yes, some folks have always earned more than others, and people have always had greater or lesser luck and success. The small town in Vermont where I grew up for awhile had its local millionaire, and his children owned a trampoline and we didn’t. But the situation now is different. As the rich have gotten massively richer, the emotional climate has deteriorated for all of us. People now routinely tell me about the impact on them of wealth gaps so yawning they threaten the bonds of affection and blood.

Some examples? A woman who could easily afford to pay the college tuition for much less well off nieces and nephews, doesn’t. She feels she’s worked harder than the others, and resents being put in the position of seeming selfish. Meanwhile, the rest of the family resents her turning her back ... A man sells the beloved family property because he’s tired of maintaining it alone—though it breaks the hearts of his kin who cannot pay what would be their fair share, and who consequently have no say in the decision. A brother, guilty that he had better educational opportunities than his siblings, repeatedly pays off his sister’s credit card debt—even as he dislikes the way she implies that he owes her. A businessman jets half a dozen neighbors to his home in a warm climate to give them a vacation they cannot afford; he feels beneficent. While grateful, they feel small and weird. Kind of like they’ve just received charity from a feudal lord.

The evidence of stress is not just anecdotal. Research suggests that people indeed feel worse as disparity increases. An abstract in the British Journal of Psychiatry succinctly sums up a global overview: “Greater income inequality is associated with higher prevalence of mental illness and drug misuse in rich societies. There are threefold differences in the proportion of the population suffering from mental illness between more and less equal countries. This relationship is most likely mediated by the impact of inequality on the quality of social relationships and the scale of status differentiation in different societies.”

In other words, people feel generally worse about themselves the more they feel they earn less and have lower social rank than those around them. The term ”relative deprivation,” used in other disparity studies, applies. We are acutely sensitive to slight differences of status, and the wider the income gap grows, the more people experience relative deprivation, even if by objective measures they have more than enough. Dissonance emerges between what people know (I have plenty) and what they feel (I don’t have as much as he does. That breeds first envy or resentment, and then shame. And when many people feel relatively deprived, and a few feel on top of the heap, not only do real interests diverge, but interpersonal tensions increase. The sibling with children in private school, and the one who can’t afford it, no longer have the same stake in passing the budget override to fund local public schools. And, at Thanksgiving dinner, that conversation about taxes can quickly go south.

Conversely, when people feel more equal, they feel happier and closer. For the past few years, I’ve been interviewing fishermen and their families on a Maine island, and over and over I’ve heard islanders utter more or less the same words. (I’m offering a composite here.) “We had little when we were growing up. But, you know, it didn’t matter. We had a good time. “ Why? I ask. Well, … really—I get told repeatedly—I think it was because everybody was in the same boat.

Gradually I caught on. My interviewees knew that they could deal with backbreaking work and the tough times because they felt they were in it together with everyone else. Or, as one woman observed, “We didn’t know we were poor until I grew up and then I was like, ‘Wow we were poor!’” No one earned much. Everyone pitched in to help when someone was slammed.

Meanwhile, in suburban and city worlds many people have siblings or friends who go into finance, or start a business, or join a lucrative law firm. And even if other siblings do well and become firemen, plumbers, teachers or architects, or even pediatricians and public defenders, the income differences, decade by decade, just keep growing. And the ones who don’t make it into the top 1 percent, or 10 percent, just keep finding it harder not to feel one down, their labors subtly—or not so subtly—devalued.

A brother, guilty that he had better educational opportunities than his siblings, repeatedly pays off his sister’s credit card debt—even as he dislikes the way she implies that he owes her.

We’re unsure just how to traverse this new terrain. Years ago, visiting Ghana, I heard stories about how, when families became more affluent, they added rooms to their houses for their relatives. But that seems not to be our way. Here owners of McMansions tend to favor empty rooms over poor kin. So, too, with friendship. True or not, our national myths suggest that the ambitious, like Jay Gatsby, know to leave old ties behind as they jump aboard the passing yacht and begin their journeys toward “crazy” rich.

Meanwhile, I hear stories of friends who stop traveling together because the luxury one pair takes for granted is out of reach of the others. Or of dinners where the wealthiest friend picks up the check while everyone else looks at his/her sneakers. Or of extended families whose Christmas celebrations seem modest to some and like a nightmare of materialist extravagance to others. Or of kids’ birthday parties when the mom who bakes cupcakes and makes a piñata feels like a chump beside her children’s friends’ parents who hire caterers and entertainers. Meanwhile, she implies that “homemade” is morally superior.

In part, I’m just describing the normal discomfort that constitutes adulthood. But the wealth gap has stretched us so far apart that the disparities heighten negative feelings among people who would otherwise feel closer and more at ease. On the one side, there is envy, shame, inadequacy, longing, deprivation, and a sense of being left out. On the other, superiority, disdain, guilt, and a fear of being befriended or loved for all the wrong reasons. I don’t know what will happen next. Some people may simply find ways to sever their awkward ties that chafe. But the experiences of the Maine fishermen suggest that reducing extremes of rich and poor would be the better way for us to go; even, perhaps, worth its weight in gold.