Towards a study of pathological wealth?

Mark Rank, one of my professors at Wash U, opened his class on Poverty & Inequality by saying something like (this is 10-year-old paraphrase, so I hope he’ll forgive my inaccurate memory!), “If you think about it, it’s strange that we spend so much time studying poverty and the poor, and not affluence. After all, we know why people are poor: they don’t have enough money. And we know what it does to people’s hopes and health and life chances to live in poverty. What we don’t know nearly as much about is how people can get so obscenely wealthy, why people pursue wealth to the exclusion of happiness and overall well-being, and what it does to the individual psyche, and to our society, to have such sustained and excessive wealth.”

That comment has stuck with me for a decade, and it replayed through my mind during my reading of a few different books this fall. One, We Used to Own the Bronx, I picked up quickly as I was grabbing a couple of books for myself during a library trip with the kids. It is the story of Eve Pell, a former debutante from a wealthy family in New York, and while it is mostly a memoir, it tells an instructive story about the insidious effects of wealth and privilege on this family. One of the most notable points was that, even in denouncing her family’s sense of entitlement and superiority and the ways in which they eschewed authentic connections for those mediated by layers of paid help, she complained rather bitterly at being left out of her father’s will, as though, after all, intergenerational transfer of property is some kind of inalienable right.

Somewhat similar was Slaves in the Family,a rather remarkable effort by one descendant of slave owners to track down the descendants of those enslaved by his family. There was a lot going on there, including his struggles with the painful legacy of his ancestors’ actions, but, given my context at the time, I thought most about what the book had to say about wealth. It was wealth that allowed some people to purchase others and wealth and the pursuit of more wealth that prompted that evil action. It is, perhaps, the clearest example in history of the horrible, horrible consequences of having too much.

One of my students chose the book Affluenza for the reading reflection assignment that I use to open the fall Social Policy and Programs class. The assignment is designed to get students to engage with a piece of popular literature about the social condition that they might not otherwise choose, not immediately connected to their area of practice, and look for insights that might inform their advocacy and/or social administration. I hadn’t read this book yet, so I decided that I should. For the most part, this wasn’t a book that really spoke to me personally. As my students know, I don’t really watch TV, I rarely buy new clothes, we don’t really do ‘entertainment’ or ‘recreation’, my kids will only get 2 presents each from us this Christmas–mostly I work and hang out with my kids, activities that tend, particularly because of the focus of my work, to keep me rather insulated from commercialism. But I definitely saw some ways in which the lessons of this book, really a sermon on anti-materialism, resonate with social work practice, sometimes in surprising ways.

One point was that the Internet has become much more a tool of e-commerce than a revolutionary democratization of knowledge. For those of us committed to social justice, we have to care about the openness of this medium and the ways in which it, too, is shaped for corporate ends. It also occurred to me, in the section on student debt, that social work students’ debt levels may, indeed, influence graduates’ career paths. If I was graduating with more than $20,000 in student debt, it might have been harder for me to pursue advocacy (initially often a low-paying field) rather than management or private practice. How much do you think that the out-of-pocket cost of social work education influences subsequent professional specialization? The authors also stressed that we increasingly see ourselves as consumers, not citizens, a realignment that erodes the social contract and support for public goods (parks, public schools, libraries)–this is a now-familiar argument (perhaps most famously associated with the ‘Bowling Alone’ thesis), but, here it was presented as one that can be influenced even by individuals in their own behaviors as consumers, or not. Finally, and perhaps most associated with the title of this post, they cite numerous indicators of the social and psychological toll that unceasing pursuit of wealth has on individuals and families. It made me wonder how much of social workers’ collective energies are spent dealing with these symptoms: families that spend little time together, addictions that self-medicate stress, anxieties related to perceived inadequacies…what I take from this is not a ‘so we all just need to spend more time around the campfire’ kind of message, but, instead, that it really is all of this wealth that is noteworthy, and that, if we dedicated some of our study to why we have a society that allows people to accumulate so much, we might find that we build structures that prevent others from falling into such deprivation. And that, in fact, everyone is better off.

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