Did Income Inequality Force Poor People Into Debt?

More

Wealth might not trickle down. But lifestyles do.

When rich people spend more money on certain things, middle-class people spend more money on those certain things, which encourages lower-income people to keep up. So while you're trying to keep up with the Joneses, the Joneses are trying to keep up with the Rockefellers.

In the 2000s, high spending trickled down, but rising incomes did not. Instead, they stagnated for the middle class. As a result: debt. Lots and lots of middle-class debt.

Economist Robert Frank explains the phenomenon, and why we should care:

People do not exist in a social vacuum. Community norms define clear expectations about what people should spend on interview suits and birthday parties. Rising inequality has thus spawned a multitude of "expenditure cascades," whose first step is increased spending by top earners.

The rich have been spending more simply because they have so much extra money. Their spending shifts the frame of reference that shapes the demands of those just below them, who travel in overlapping social circles. So this second group, too, spends more, which shifts the frame of reference for the group just below it, and so on, all the way down the income ladder. These cascades have made it substantially more expensive for middle-class families to achieve basic financial goals.

The phenomenon was real. Savings rates in the late 00s plummeted for America's poorest 40 percent, and even turned negative. But did wealth gap force them to do this? Was it their old life that became unaffordable, or was it their new appetites?

Jump to comments
Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

Just In