Rich Girls II

June 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

More on that Gallup poll in the previous post about Paris, Lindsay, Nicole, and Britney. Around the time I was looking at these poll results, a friend wrote about her daughter’s thirteenth birthday party. “After a year of getting to know these [13-year-old] girls, I've really started to care about them and like them. I think they are good at heart. Some of them come from extremely wealthy families and are spoiled rotten, so it took me a while to find the love for some of them.”

I was reminded of the movie “Thirteen,” in which a girl of modest means is corrupted by a wealthier classmate. Poor girl looks up to “cool,” rich girl; rich girl seduces poor girl into drugs, shoplifting, sex with boys. It’s a cliche, but at least it’s a low-budget, indie version of the cliche.

Like other cliches, it confirms a widely held view, in this case that having a lot of money is dangerous, especially because it can lead girls away from conventional middle-class ways.

(Are there similar tales about boys? I can’t think of any. Rich boys in American stories can be cruel — they can also be helpful — but they seldom corrupt the ordinary boy’s morals as is so common in the fallen-woman stories.)

Ms. Hilton and the others are considerably older than thirteen, but the money-vs.-morals theory retains its attractiveness even when we think about these twentysomethings. Gallup offered four choices for people to explain what caused the problems of these celebs.

“Having too much money at a young age”
“The pressures of fame at a young age”
“Negative influences of the Hollywood culture”
“Parents doing a poor job raising them”

Here are the results:
Too Much Money is the clear winner.

I don’t know the systematic evidence on child-rearing and what might cause girls to have problems. But Gallup respondents didn’t know either. Besides, even if we know that something is true in a general sense, it is impossible to know if it applied in any individual case. So what we’re looking at here is not solid reality; it’s people’s beliefs about reality, specifically about the effects of money.

Those beliefs seem to be rooted in a relentless belief that only middle-class morality will work. It’s a Goldilocks view of socio-economic status. We believe that poverty is not good for kids, but we also see dangers in great wealth. The middle-income range is just right.

I wonder if people in other societies take a similar view, especially in societies with less of an egalitarian ethos and with some trace of aristocratic tradition. The British may not be pleased with the behavior of the younger generations of the royal family, but I don’t think they attribute the shortcomings to an overabundance of money. It’s also possible that within an upper class, drunkenness and adventurous sexuality are not seen as inherently bad. Fidelity and sobriety are middle-class virtues, not nearly so exalted at the outer reaches of the social distribution.

There also seems to be some ambivalence here about middle-class aspirations. We would all like to have more money, though not too much more. (Ask people what the “right” income would be, the income that would allow them to live comfortably, and you’ll usually get a number that’s about 25% higher than what they’re currently making.) Historically, the American pattern of upward mobility is that parents want their own children to have it better than they did. Parents want to be able to buy stuff for their kids. They don’t want their kids to be at all deprived. Yet, there seems to be a nagging fear that giving kids these advantages might also spoil them.

We project that fear upward. I’m not going to give my kid enough to spoil him, not on my income and not even if I were making 25% more than I do now. But the Hiltons, and even those people who make twice what I make — they’re the ones who risk spoiling their kids.

The irony, of course, is that this analysis is relative to one’s own income, and at all levels throughout the broad spectrum that think of themselves as middle class, people may be applying the same moral-economic formula. Someone who makes half as much as you do may see you as one of those rich people who spoil their kids.


Unknown said...


I largely agree with the points that you're making in the post. The US certainly places a premium on middle class morals, which results in a great deal of hostility toward both wealth and poverty.

However, as a researcher that studies inequality, I wouldn't really describe the US as a country with an egalitarian ethos. At least not one that translates into any sort of political will. We certainly value the middle class, but compared to Western Europe--Britain and Ireland included--we do very little to generate a more egalitarian income distribution. While, ironically enough, the countries with royals do quite a bit (or maybe it's not ironic, and the tradition of noblesse oblige has survived).

These policies, in turn, create a much more egalitarian income distribution, and make it a lot easier to like both the wealthy and the poor. There's less social and economic distance between you and them.

For example, I have several friends from Norway, and my sense from their stories is that there are fewer visible inequalities. Poverty isn't a real issue, as government transfers provide for you in economic downturns, while growth in jobs is maintained via public employment and active economic policy (granted, some countries have been more successful than others). Wealth does exist, but typically not to the same degree that it does in the US--either in yearly income, or in inherited wealth. There's just a lot less inequality in other affluent countries.

Therefore in the US, I'd guess that some of the hostility toward the wealthy and the poor--and the value placed on middle class morals--is a way to deal with just how affluent the top 1% and .1% are, and how poor those in the bottom 20% of the income distribution are in this country. They may be wealthy and successful, but we're raising out kids "the right way". Or conversely, they're poor therefore they're lazy and raising their kids the wrong way (I won't make any arguments as to how prevalent either mindset is, but I've had students offer laziness up as a reason for poverty on multiple occasions).

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for this comment. I agree with everything you say, and I'm especially intrigued by the idea in the last paragraph. I wonder how we might get data on it.

I'm not sure that "egalitarian ethos" was the precise word I should have used, but I certainly didn't mean to imply that the US was actually more equal. I was referring to US beliefs.

A couple of weeks ago I posted some data on ideology and mobility (May 28, 31). As you say, the US has a much more skewed income distribution. It also has somewhat less mobility than many European countries. Yet Americans are more likely than people in those countries to think that their society is the land of opportunity and equality.

maxliving said...

"(Are there similar tales about boys? I can’t think of any. Rich boys in American stories can be cruel — they can also be helpful — but they seldom corrupt the ordinary boy’s morals as is so common in the fallen-woman stories.)"

What about The Great Gatsby, where the simple midwesterner is shocked by the lavishness of the extremely wealthy? While Nick doesn't get drawn into the frenzy of that social scene, some of his friends do.

SARA said...

Personally, I believe that it's how you raise your child, the love you give them, the lessons of life that you instill in them, that makes them into good standing all starts in the home. One has to have some empathy for someone like P.Hilton..a product of society? who don't hear about the poor ugly duckling that gets into makes $$ selling the rich and famous (and yes, female because sex sells)...and sad to say, society buys into it.
This is off topic , but have you ever noticed all the junk newspapers at check out counters staring people in the eye? I don't know who buys those papers...all the times i've been in the store I've never seen anyone buy one and yet it's a billion dollar industry.