Habits of the rich: Rationalizing inequality

One striking aspect of contemporary life in the United States (and indeed in many other countries), is the level of material inequality that exists. Such blatant and materially important inequalities demand explanation. Questions like “why do I live in such wealth (or poverty) while others do not?” are ones that call out to be answered any time we are confronted with inequality. As a result, explanations circulate.

We can divide these explanations of inequality into two broad categories: meritocracy and privilege. The meritocratic explanation states that we are rewarded or punished for our works, our actions, our innovations, our labor, or our choices in life. Thus, our relative socio-economic circumstances are the result of our talents and our work ethics. If we are poor, then we have failed to be productive members of society. If we are rich, then we have succeeded and have earned the right to material wealth.

The opposing explanation to meritocracy is privilege. The privilege explanation argues instead that inequality is largely the result of circumstances that pre-date our individual existences and that we have very little control over. For instance, the wealth and income of your parents is a major predictor of your own wealth and income as an adult. Because you do not choose who your parents are and, as a child, had little influence over the accumulation of that wealth and income, the fact that their wealth and income predicts your own is one way we can demonstrate that privilege is a major force in inequality.

Neither explanation appears to comprehensively describe the current distribution of wealth and income. That we live in a system that pays wages for labor does suggest that you are rewarded for your works and are, thus, (at least to some extent) the agent behind your own wealth accumulation. On the other hand, as I’ve already stated, numerous aspects of your circumstance beyond your control have contributed to your capacity to sell your labor for desirably high wages.

Nonetheless, I don’t wish to suggest that these explanations are simply two equally good ones and that the differences are non-consequential matters of personal preference. To the extent that privilege is able to explain wealth distribution, we can characterize the socio-economic conditions in our societies as unjust and contrary to the principles our societies purport to uphold (for example, ‘The American Dream‘). Furthermore, privilege by its very nature benefits particular groups, and they thus come to have a vested political-economic interest in the preservation of that privilege despite the fact that it contradicts the very principles they often pay lip service to. Dealing with this contradiction requires the production and reproduction of ideology, and this is where an examination of discourse can be particularly enlightening.

One type of text I have recently come across are articles that circulate what I will call “the rich habits discourse”. These articles are usually connected to a man named Tom Corley and his book Rich Habits, which has recently been receiving modest press coverage. The book reports differences between the daily habits that rich and poor people reported they undertake daily.

Numerous articles (for example, here, here, here, here, and here) have come out offering advice based on the book’s findings of what rich people do that poor people don’t. For example, this one is titled “Daily habits are the difference between the rich and poor”. Although the articles purport to be providing advice to those of us who don’t happen to be millionaires, I argue that they also serve an additional political, rhetorical purpose, namely to legitimize the unequal socio-economic circumstances that we live in. They do so by representing the rich as different from the poor in ways that cause inequality. Consider, for example, the beginning sentence of one of the rich habits articles: “If you think becoming rich is about luck, think again”.

Although it’s undeniable that what we do during the day has some effect on the material advantages we enjoy, the discourse surrounding “rich habits” attempts to rationalize wealth inequality by erasing the role of privilege in determining our social circumstances. In particular, I’ve observed two rhetorical and discursive strategies that the writers use to legitimize wealth inequality.

Strategy one: Obscuring cause and effect

The basic argument of “the rich habits” discourse is that wealth is the result of doing the right things, having the right daily habits. In other words, some people are rich because they do x, y, and z, as in examples 1 and 2 below.

1. “70% of wealthy eat less than 300 junk food calories per day. 97% of poor people eat more than 300 junk food calories per day.” (Source)

2. “44% of wealthy wake up three hours before work starts vs. 3% of poor.” (Source)

In order to more closely examine these differences, it’s necessary to consider the societies we live in. Richard Florida of The Martin Prosperity Institute has written extensively in The Atlantic in a series called Class Divided Cities (see the first post here) about the geographic divide between the rich and the poor in US cities. He breaks up social class according to three levels, and I’ll describe the two major ones (the third one, the working class, is associated with things like manufacturing, which is rapidly disappearing in the United States, leading to the absorption of the working class into the service class).

First, there is the creative class who generally earn the highest wages and have employment that does not involve manual labor. Many in this class are not necessarily required to be at a particular location to perform their work (that is they often perform much of their work at home or on the road), but when this is required, it is often determined by a routine schedule (for example, 9 AM – 5 PM, Mondays-Fridays). There are, of course, notable exceptions, attending physicians in hospitals, for example, might maintain much less consistent hours and often engage in a lot of physical labor. Hence, these are generalizations based on trends not absolutes.

The second class is the service class who generally receive the lowest wages, and they are the fastest growing class. Their employment is in such areas as the food and retail industries. Thus, their work is likely to involve some amount of physical labor (for example, stocking shelves) and is far less likely to be associated with a regular schedule. They may, for example, work late into the evening one day (for example, a shift from 1-10 PM) and start work relatively early in the morning the next day (8 AM-5 PM). Often those in the service class will work multiple jobs, piecing together part-time and/or full-time employment.

It’s also important to point out that the two classes live relatively segregated existences. In my own city, Atlanta, Georgia, there is a clear divide in the geography of where rich and poor live as illustrated by the map below.

What does this have to do with the habits of the rich and the poor? Well, if we return to example 1 above, the fact that the wealthy eat less junk food than the poor is not at issue. However, the question here is what caused what? The articles I have looked at present the causal direction as this: The wealthy eat less junk food, and this somehow (perhaps through keeping them healthier and thus more able to work) contributes to their wealth. However, junk food is an inexpensive and convenient way to take in calories. Preparing fresh food is a time-consuming endeavor that requires access to means of preparing it (that is you need a moderately well-stocked kitchen) and a place to buy fresh food, which is not always readily available since many of the urban areas that the poorer service class live in are classified as food deserts. Thus, we can also explain the inequality in food consumption by saying that it is caused by existing wealth inequality. Being rich causes rich people to have easier access to healthier food through, for example, living closer to places to buy fresh food, having greater wealth to purchase healthy food and the implements with which to prepare it  (see this study), and a more predictable work schedule to allow for planning meals.

We might say the same about the second example as well. Considering the nature of service-industry work, it’s not surprising to find that poor people have different sleep schedules. Thus, we could say that having white-collar employment permits the rich to have more routine sleeping patterns that often involve waking up long before they need to be at work. The work the poor do may often necessitate a more flexible approach to sleep (or in general getting less sleep, as suggested by this study). Thus, an alternative explanation is this: the rich have more routine sleep schedules as a result of their wealth.

Strategy two: Naming the activities of the rich and the poor differently

In addition to obscuring the direction of causality, the discourse of rich habits uses an additional (but related) strategy of using different names for the activities of the rich and the poor. This strategy is very apparent in example 3 below.

3. “Taking a long, leisurely lunch isn’t a wealthy habit, either.  Instead, 55% network, wheel and deal between bites.” (Source)

While the poor apparently take “long, leisurely lunch[es]”, the rich “network”.  The writers want us to believe that the difference in terminology is substantive and represents entirely different activities. To some extent this seems accurate. When I consider what is meant when people use the word networking, I come up with the notion of intentionality. The recognition of the power of social relationships for achieving professional goals has led to a great deal of discourse on networking, and savvy professionals make use of a growing number of resources for intentional approaches to the process (for example, an article at Forbes titled “5 Ways to Use Your Network to Grow Your Business“).

While this intentionality no doubt exists, there is another element to the notion of networking that is being obscured in the rich habits discourse. Consider the pictures below. Which of the three feature people engaged in networking? How do you know?

Picture 1: Source: Uniting Business Network

Picture 2: Source: Wikipedia, Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper, by Charles C. Ebbets

Picture 3: By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I suspect that you thought Picture 1 best represents networking (especially if you paid attention to the captions)You probably noticed, however, that there’s a great deal of similarity between the activities pictured here. In all three, we can see people talking. In all of them, there appear to be multiple different conversations taking place within the same space. Drinks are being consumed in Picture 1, while food, drinks, and cigarettes are being consumed in Picture 2. We can easily imagine that work, in the sense of the nature of people’s employment, is being discussed in both Pictures 1 and 2. We might suspect that there is goal-oriented interaction taking place in Picture 1, but this is most certainly the case in Picture 3 as well and could be happening in Picture 2 as well. 

Without knowing what the people are talking about, however, I felt that Picture 1 best represents networking (and indeed it was the only one I found through searching for “networking”). I believe this has to do with the idea that networking carries with it not just a meaning of work-related or goal-oriented talk but also an aspect of whom our talk is directed at. We cannot simply talk to anyone and expect to have it fit neatly within the category of networking, even if that talk is work-related and goal-oriented. Instead, one of the key aspects of the meanings of networking has to do with the social class of the individuals who are meeting and talking. Here we’re able to read off the social class of these individuals by looking at their appearances. People in Picture 1 are wearing suits and ties and are thus clearly representing themselves as members of a higher class, whereas those in the other pictures do not present themselves in this fashion. Thus, they are not networking, while the people in Picture 1 are.

If I am correct that networking and other words assigned to the activities of the rich have a social class-related element to their meanings, then this calls into question the argument of the rich habits discourse. It suggests once again that cause and effect are being confused. Thus, instead of being rich because they network, we call what the rich do networking because they are rich and are talking to other people who are also rich.

Final thoughts

My intention with this post was to make the argument that the rich habits discourse serves a purpose that is not explicitly stated in the articles, namely to rationalize the inequality that exists in our societies, particularly the United States. The ideology these articles circulate serves the interests of the wealthy by presenting their wealth as a direct effect of their own productivity (represented by their daily habits). In other words, they are rich because they have earned that position in a just, meritocratic system. To make this argument, however, the rich habits discourse uses certain discursive strategies that are of questionable validity. First, the rich habits discourse confuses cause and effect, presenting the daily habits of the rich as the cause (as opposed to the effect) of their wealth. Second, it makes classist distinctions between the activities of people, for example, praising the rich for engaging in networking, while ignoring similar activities by the poor which might simply not be labelled networking (due to the class-specific connotations of that word).

If you’ve also noticed the rich habits discourse, I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments section. Also, if you’ve noticed any other similar discourses, feel free to point them out. I also wonder to what extent you believe the rich habits discourse is representative of a broader media bias that attempts to legitimize societal inequality and what further evidence you might have for this.

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Posted in Language and social class, Media discourse and media bias
3 comments on “Habits of the rich: Rationalizing inequality
  1. Mai Kuha says:

    I found your discussion of “networking” insightful.
    Another possibly similar item I’ve noticed is “loitering”. A few summers ago, I decided to try an adventure/experiment: finding out whether you can get from Muncie to Bloomington entirely by means of mass transit. (You can’t.) That’s how I found myself at a dismal Greyhound stop in Anderson. It was a dangerously hot t-shirt day and there was nowhere to wait for the bus that didn’t stink of cigarette smoke, so I went to stand in the shade of the budget Chinese restaurant (wearing an old T-shirt and jeans or something like that). Shortly, an employee came out and said apologetically: “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you can’t loiter here.” I complied without a fuss, but I have to confess that my inner reaction contained an element of “I’m not loitering! I’m a college professor!” 🙂
    That incident made me think, not just about the social construction of who “loiters”, and where, but- are some people construed as having more right than others to even take up space, to exist??

  2. Mai Kuha says:

    (An extra copy of “T-shirt” ended up on a line where it doesn’t belong, so please ignore that. Looks like I don’t have an option to edit.)

  3. Ah-ha loitering is a great example! I think that would make for an interesting art project: individuals from different social groups standing near ‘no loitering’ signs.

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