Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence

Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence

by Rachel Sherman


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A surprising and revealing look at how today’s elite view their wealth and place in society

From TV’s “real housewives” to The Wolf of Wall Street, our popular culture portrays the wealthy as materialistic and entitled. But what do we really know about those who live on “easy street”? In this penetrating book, Rachel Sherman draws on rare in-depth interviews that she conducted with fifty affluent New Yorkers—from hedge fund financiers and artists to stay-at-home mothers—to examine their lifestyle choices and understanding of privilege. Sherman upends images of wealthy people as invested only in accruing social advantages for themselves and their children. Instead, these liberal elites, who believe in diversity and meritocracy, feel conflicted about their position in a highly unequal society. As the distance between rich and poor widens, Uneasy Street not only explores the lives of those at the top but also sheds light on how extreme inequality comes to seem ordinary and acceptable to the rest of us.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Ms. Sherman's book does take absorbing measure of what has become a corrosive reality in New York: the tendency among well-off people to regard their circumstances as entirely ordinary 'Manhattan poor' as others have put it."—-Ginia Bellafante, New York Times

"There's a lot of abstract talk about the 1 percent, but how do they really live? The sociologist Rachel Sherman’s new book, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, draws on her interviews with 50 wealthy New Yorkers to give us a sense. Sherman takes a dispassionate approach to find out how those who are 'benefitting from rising economic inequality' experience 'their own social advantages.' She elicits her subjects’ thoughts about work and productivity, charitable giving, marital discord and more. Worthwhile humanizing ensues, as do plenty of squirm-inducing moments."—-John Williams, New York Times Book Review

"Although it is easy to judge the rich for [their] 'anxieties', Rachel Sherman suggests that this often distracts us from examining the wider 'systems of distribution that produce inequality'."—-Matthew Reisz, Times Higher Education

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691191904
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/14/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 220,485
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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I interviewed Ursula in her spacious apartment on the Upper West Side, in a living room with a view of the Hudson River. Ursula is in her mid-forties, with two children and a husband who earns "two million plus" per year in his job as a high-level executive at a technology company. She has an MBA and a long work history in business. But several years ago she left paid employment, with some ambivalence, when she could not find a meaningful part-time job. She now primarily takes care of her home and children, as well as volunteering at their private school. She and her husband employ a nanny/housekeeper/cook who works about forty hours each week. Their apartment, which they have renovated significantly, is worth approximately $4 million. They spend weekends at their house in the Hamptons, valued at over $1.5 million.

Despite these advantages, which place her well into the top 1 percent, Ursula tends to situate herself primarily in relation to those who have more than she does. During the interview, Ursula characterized her upbringing as "middle-class." When I followed up by asking if she would describe herself now the same way, she said, "Yeah. You know, New York City, I feel like, no matter what you have, somebody has about a hundred times that." She does not feel that she lacks for anything; when I ask what she would do if her household income suddenly doubled, she can only think of "marginal" items such as improvements to the house in the Hamptons. And she does not express envy of people wealthier than she. Yet she is primarily oriented to people with as much as or more than she has, and she rarely talks about herself as privileged or explicitly expresses conflicts about it. Asked if she ever felt guilty about having more than other people, she responded, "No. Maybe there are more people that I know that have more, so, no."

Contrast Ursula to Keith and Karen, a couple also in their forties, also with two kids, who, like Ursula's, are around ten years old. Both Keith and Karen work, though Keith's job as an academic brings in most of their $300,000 household income. Both have advanced degrees. They own a house worth over $1.2 million in a desirable neighborhood in Brooklyn. They were able to buy the house when they sold their first apartment, which they had bought with funds lent by Keith's parents. They have assets of about $500,000 in retirement and college savings, but they dipped into their "emergency savings" and took out a loan to pay for a recent renovation. They do not own a second home, and their children go to public school. They often worry about money.

Because Karen and Keith have significantly less income and fewer assets than Ursula and her husband, live in a more modest home, and send their kids to public school, we might expect that they would see themselves as less advantaged than she does. In fact, however, they were much more likely to talk about feeling privileged, both relative to others in their social worlds and in general. Keith called the loan from his parents for their down payment "the ultimate white-person advantage." Karen said, of the renovation, "We're both horrified by how much money we make and that we even have to have these decisions. I mean, it's ridiculous." She worried that people they knew would see their renovation as "profligate." Keith said, "My feeling is it's a bottomless pit, renovation and home improvement. And I think that six Chinese people are camping out in some one-bedroom hovel in Beijing right now. So, like, the notion that you 'need' something is all BS." He characterized his kids as "living like kings two hundred years ago." Made without prompting from me, these comparisons invoked people with less rather than those with more.

As we have seen, the people I interviewed are objectively advantaged in terms of income and wealth. But like Ursula and Keith and Karen, they varied in terms of whether they talked about themselves as privileged and what kinds of feelings they expressed about it. Because privilege is always relative, their orientations had a lot to do with which kinds of other people they compared themselves to. People like Ursula, whom I call "upward-oriented," downplayed their advantages by comparing themselves to others in a similar position or to those who had more. In fact, they were likely to locate themselves, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, "in the middle." They tended to recognize privilege only indirectly, using euphemisms such as "lucky" or "fortunate." They talked less about money unless I asked them directly about it, and they expressed fewer conflicted feelings about privilege per se. Instead, they talked more about feeling anxious and at risk. I describe taking this stance as "aspiring to the middle." "Downward-oriented" people like Keith and Karen, on the other hand, were more likely to describe themselves as privileged and to talk about people with less. They also talked more frankly about money and described struggling with feelings of discomfort about their advantages.

These orientations were not set in stone. Many people used both upward- and downward-oriented discourses over the course of our conversations, as I will show. And even when they seemed consistently upward- or downward-oriented, these stances might have had more to do with the conversational situation we were in than with some "permanent" orientation. Yet I did find patterns. Overall, those who openly recognized their privilege lived in more diverse worlds, both literally and imaginatively, than those who did not. They were more likely to have colleagues, friends, and/or family members from more varied backgrounds and with fewer resources. And they were usually more liberal or progressive politically, which made them more likely to have a structural understanding and critique of inequality. Upward-oriented people, in contrast, moved in more homogenous social and family circles, had experienced less class mobility, and espoused more conservative politics (relatively speaking).

The one exception to this pattern was among women in the highest-earning families in my sample, those with household incomes of over $5 million per year and assets of over $20 million. These stay-at-home mothers described themselves as privileged even when they did not have especially liberal politics or diverse social networks. They were "upwardly mobile" in the sense that they had been raised upper-middle-class but were now much more wealthy than that. More important, I think, was that it was essentially impossible for them to face upward, simply because there were so few people above them. For the most part, however, income and assets were not correlated to whether people would face upward or downward.

We might imagine that upward-oriented people simply don't notice that they are privileged. Social-psychological research on relative advantage, though much less developed than that on relative deprivation, has suggested that people in advantaged groups may not recognize their advantages because they see their situation as "normal" or "neutral," while the minority position stands out. The classic example of this tendency comes from studies of race and whiteness: white people's experience tends to be seen as neutral, while that of people of color is seen as "exceptional." But my interviewees are not in the numerical majority, as whites have historically been in the United States; nor is wealth analogous to whiteness, because it is not taken for granted in the way that whiteness is. "Middle-class" status and cultural capital, as opposed to "working-class" status, are often taken for granted, but wealth is not. Furthermore, as I have noted, the people I spoke with live in or just outside the most unequal city in the United States at a moment when economic disparities are especially prominent. And of course downward-oriented people do recognize and talk openly about their privilege relative to a wide range of others, indicating that it can be visible.

So, I argue, it is not that the advantages of upward-oriented people are actually mysterious to them. Instead, like Hillary Clinton defining herself as "dead broke," they are working hard to avoid defining themselves as privileged. Rather than trying to include themselves in exclusive categories of those who have more, they try, interpretively, to have less. In fact, by framing themselves as "in the middle" they try to attach themselves to the morally worthy category of the "middle class." At least to some extent, I suggest, these self-interpretations deflect conflicts they feel about having more than others. Instead of making them feel worse, as theories of relative deprivation might suggest, seeing themselves as having less actually makes them feel better. Downward-oriented people are more willing to acknowledge their conflicted feelings openly. As we will see in later chapters, however, people in both categories care about inhabiting their privilege in a morally worthy way.


Like Ursula, the people who tended to situate themselves "in the middle" typically shared several characteristics. First, they or their spouses earned all or a significant portion of their income rather than inheriting it. Some also had family wealth, but their incomes from earnings were significant and seemed likely to cover most of their expenses. They worked (or had worked, in the case of stay-at-home mothers) mainly in finance, business, real estate, or corporate law — fields in which incomes are typically quite high. Second, their friends were relatively similar to them. A few said they desired more diverse social circles, but they tended to be talking about occupational rather than socioeconomic diversity — for instance, businesspeople wished they had more friends who worked in the arts. Finally, they were also likely to identify as Republicans or more conservative Democrats. Most called themselves socially liberal and economically conservative. And all who talked about tax increases on wealthy people were opposed to them.

Like Ursula, upward-oriented people described New York City as an environment in which they were not especially privileged. Maya was an attorney turned stay-at-home mother, married to a corporate lawyer, with an income of over $2 million. She told me, for example, "I don't think of us as really wealthy or not really wealthy. I think part of it is if you take where we are and you put us in Spokane, we're actually really wealthy. But if you put us in New York, we're just — in our circle, we're fine. I mean, there are all the bankers that are heads and heels, you know, way above us." Maya uses the reference to those with more to frame herself as not having that much and casts herself as essentially the same as the people she socializes with ("our circle") — who were primarily her husband's business associates and their families.

These people sometimes characterized themselves explicitly as "in the middle" when referring to those above them. Helen was a stay-at-home mother who had worked in banking and was married to a lawyer, with a household income of over $2 million and assets I estimate at well over $8 million, including two homes. She told me, "I feel like we're somewhat in the middle, in the sense that there are so many people with so much money. They have private planes. They have drivers. They have all these things. ... You know, money makes everything easier. It makes it easier for you to do much more, actually. And, you know, we don't have that luxury in that way." Helen's focus here is on the privilege she lacks rather than the advantages she has; although she is not complaining, she is situating herself relative to a particular set of others.

Willa worked in advertising and, with her husband, garnered a $2 million annual household income. They and their children lived in a brownstone worth about $5 million, and she came from a wealthy family. When I asked if she felt either privileged or underprivileged relative to others in her life, she responded: "No. There are always going to be people who make more money than we do. And there are people who don't make as much money as we do. And, you know, we found what works for us, and we're happy with it. I mean, we were joking the other day, when we played the Powerball. And it's like, nothing would change. You know? I mean, we're happy with this house. You know. We have everything that we need. Our life is not going to change if we win the Powerball." Willa also told me, of her kids' position in their private school, "You know, they're right in the middle. There are people [at the school] who have much more money than they do, and there are people who have less money than they do." Willa seems less dissatisfied than Helen. But both women exaggerate the ratio of the people above them to those below. Helen looks up and sees "so many" people with more; Willa creates an equivalence between those above and those below. (Notably, Willa also frames social disparities as permanent, something that will "always be.")

I asked Allison, a nonprofit lawyer turned stay-at-home mother in her forties, how her current lifestyle compared to the one she grew up with. She told me, "You know, I'm definitely much more affluent. But I still feel middle-class." She described her father's managerial job and her parents' household income, when she was growing up, as about $120,000 (itself well above the median at the time). She said, "We didn't take any vacations. We never went anywhere." This sounded very different from her current household income of about $3 million and two family vacations a year (plus millions in assets and real estate). I asked, echoing what she had said, "And so you feel like now it's more affluent, but it's still middle-class?" She responded: "We're definitely middleclass. In New York City, and in that school community, we're def — we're — yeah. I feel like — yeah. Upper-middle-class." I read Allison's hesitant shift from "middle-" to "upper-middle-class" as a result of her desire to define herself as middle-class, combined with recognizing that she can't quite do that, given the obvious differences between her childhood lifestyle and her current one. To support her interpretation, she invokes both her kids' private school and the New York context.

Other upward-oriented people similarly characterized themselves as in the middle, often implicitly, by framing their environments in particular ways. Zoe is a stay-at-home mother with an MBA and a household income of at least $1 million, plus family wealth, whose home is worth over $3 million. She told me "New York is a bubble. Everyone that can afford to live here is pretty well off. So you don't see the downside. Even the [parents of] kids that are going to the schools that we're sending our kids to. They're able to pay forty grand a year to send their kid to school, which is crazy. So you don't see the underprivileged. ... It's sad, but it's kind of like the out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing, where you don't think about it in your — everyone's so busy that you don't think about it." Zoe's comment makes clear that the people she is most aware of are those who are most similar to her, as she conflates "everyone" in New York with the "pretty well off." Her idea that "you don't see the underprivileged" is also notable given that nearly everyone with whom she is likely to come into casual contact is less well off than she, raising questions about whom Zoe chooses both to "see" and to define as "underprivileged." Zoe does not locate herself as "in the middle" because she says she is "pretty well off." Yet she classifies those who are not pretty well off as "the underprivileged," which does situate her, in a sense, in the middle.

I found Zoe's view especially intriguing because, as we talked in her apartment, her housekeeper was working in the next room, offering living proof that not everyone in New York was "pretty well off." So I asked Zoe if she thought about these issues in relation to the housekeeper and the nanny she employed. She responded, "We treat them very well," by which she meant paying them generously, allowing them days off, and giving them used clothing that Zoe would otherwise donate elsewhere. She said, "For sure, with them, I take it into account that they're seeing our lifestyle. And I think it's not fair to try to demand — I want them to be happy." Zoe knows she is privileged in relation to her domestic employees, and that matters to her to a certain extent, particularly because these individual women "see [her] lifestyle" (rather than because they belong to a larger group of less privileged people). She sees them because they see her. But she is not hyperaware of or conflicted about the inequality between herself and her employees in the way that others I introduce later are. Instead Zoe uses a "maternalistic" approach, which positions her as a "benefactor" and does not challenge inequalities between domestic workers and their employers.


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Copyright © 2017 Rachel Sherman.
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