The 15 items here, some monumental and some small, speak to the everyday texture of that inequality, how it’s calcifying into a lifestyle and culture gap. As we invest less in public services and infrastructures that traditionally help to close the lifestyle gap between affluent and poor, these things might become more privatized, more identified as luxuries rather than staples of civilization, or more confined to those who can afford to pay.
As scholar Pamela Smock concludes, marriage is becoming “an elite custom.” I summarize this research in my book. The affluent get and stay married today at substantially higher rates than the poor and low-income, for a variety of reasons, and for whatever conclusions you might draw from that trend. In the 1970s, men and women divorced at roughly equal rates across income levels. The powerful trend of “assortative mating” describes how like marries like: We tend to marry people with our exact education and earning power. This means that equality is growing within marriages, but inequality is growing across marriages, and in the institution of marriage.
A POPSICLE FROM AN ICE CREAM TRUCK
Remember the humble summer rite of the Good Humor truck with its enticing jingle? Well, ice cream truck operators are wise to the unprofitability of planning a route through “low-income” neighborhoods. “Our target market here is kids with money,” an insider website explains. “You won’t sell anything if you’re driving around in ‘empty-pocket’ or wrong market areas like elderly neighborhoods or low-income housing areas and trailer parks.” As a rule, the Ice Cream Truck Driver must avoid: “Any economically challenged, low income, or benefit/income support areas…” Even the truck-bought sno-ball might become a rich person’s delicacy. Actually, it’s more a middle-class treat, because the site finds that conspicuously “rich” neighborhoods don’t work so well either, owing to overly “health-conscious parents.”
Speaking of health, CDC data find that the very poorest one-fifth of the country is twice as likely to be obese as the very richest one-fifth. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey cuts the data to find that more than 33% of adults who earn less than $15,000 a year are obese, compared to 25% of those who earn $50,000 or more. Affluent Americans have easier access to healthy food cultures (see below), and the resources for private weight control remedies, including weight loss clinics, private gyms to replace public rec centers shuttered in the recession, personal fitness coaches, or cosmetic nostrums like liposuction.
America has book deserts. Children in economically-depressed areas have an average of 0-2 age-appropriate books at home; children in high-income areas have 199. This wouldn’t be as dire if the public book infrastructure—free public libraries, reading-friendly public spaces, public schools, and public school libraries—was generously funded to pick up the slack. But their funding is getting slashed. A University of Michigan study on reading environments furthermore finds “major and striking differences between neighborhoods” based on wealth. In their study, two high-income neighborhoods sported 11 and 13 places that sold print materials for children, including several bookstores. The poor neighborhoods in the same city had a higher density of children, but only four places in each—drug stores, mostly—that sold print material and no book store in either. The income gap in school libraries was even sharper, with low-income school libraries in “serious disrepair,” and a statistically significant gap in the quantity and quality of books between low and high-income neighborhoods. The rich can always buy their own library. The low-income, not so much, and there are fewer public spaces and resources to fill the gap.
A CHANCE TO START ADULTHOOD UNENCUMBERED BY DEBT
Starting adulthood debt-free is becoming a privilege for the few, the trust funded, and the rich. In 2011, two-thirds of college graduates had debt, with an average debt of $26,600. This amount was up 5% from just the year before.
Low-income Americans are twice as likely as their high-income counterparts to go without dental care, including 17,000,000 low-income children. A 2012 Senate subcommittee report concludes that low-income Americans have a “much harder time” accessing dental care, and it’s not part of basic insurance coverage. A dental visit or supplemental dental insurance is prohibitively expensive. Teeth: it’s a rich thing?
A child’s free or reduced lunch status makes them twice as likely to be an “at risk,” unskilled swimmer. Public swimming pools have been a casualty of the recession, even though during the Depression in the 1930s, more than 1,000 municipal pools were built as part of the public works project. Increasingly, swimming, or even the simple joy of jumping into an icy pool on a hot day, belong to children who can go to private summer camps, private swimming clubs, private swimming lessons, or private schools with a pool. I suspect that fewer still enjoy the pleasure of a free, unfenced, swimming hole on public, undeveloped land, with clean water.
Food deserts are almost universally in low-income communities; 2.3 million Americans live more than one mile from a supermarket and don’t own a car. Wealthy districts in America have three times as many supermarkets as poor districts.
In Crazy, author Pete Earley describes how prisons and police officers end up doing the work of mental health institutions and psychiatrists today. The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors reports that states cut $4.35 billion in mental health spending from 2009 to 2012. While 22,000,000 Americans have a substance dependence problem, 21,000,000 don’t get treatment for it. A month-long stay in a private rehab facility would cost around $25,000. And, if growing numbers of therapists in private practice just decide to stop treating patients who rely on insurance—which is already happening because of the frustration of wrassling with insurance companies to extract payment—then they’ll be left treating only mental sufferers who can pay full freight. As it was in the beginning with Freud, so it might be in the future: Only comfortably bourgeois clients can afford not to suffer.
LEARNING TO PAINT A PICTURE, OR PLAY THE VIOLIN
Most K-12 public schools still do provide arts and music education. However, as Secretary Arne Duncan notes, there’s already an “equity gap” in the content and quantity of arts and music education, and the trend isn’t good. The Center on Education Policy finds that since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, 44% of public school districts have reduced instruction time in art and music. State budgets can’t sustain investments in “off-test” subjects. In practice this means that low-income children disproportionately lose the opportunity to enrich their aesthetic and cultural lives: Tiger Mothers will always have the resources to supplement with private lessons, museum trips, concerts, art summer camps, and supplies they buy themselves.
Fifty-seven percent of Americans have less than $25,000 in any kind of savings. Almost all—94%–of households with incomes over $75,000 have saved at least something for retirement, but only 24% of households with incomes less than $35,000. The ability not to have to work forever is likely to get more class-defined, as Social Security frays and pensions through union and public sector jobs go the way of the dodo. Furthermore, the “recovery” in the economy has privileged investors and who already have savings, and hasn’t translated into income gains that might allow a worker to begin saving.
PARKS and GREEN SPACES
This one’s a mixed bag. If you’re low-income in an urban or suburban environment, some research finds that your “spatial diversity” and proximity to parks and green spaces are more limited, but if you’re low-income in a non-urban environment, then you have easier access to green spaces.
You might not be affluent enough to have your child learn about evolution. Some of the deepest red states are also among the poorest, and in these school districts there’s a growing movement to disavow evolutionary theory. The chance to learn about evolution is greater with blue state school districts in more affluent blue states—school funding is typically tied to property taxes—and with nonsectarian (did I mention very expensive?) private schools.
With more states in the last decade having de facto restricted abortion by chipping away at access, we might soon return to the day when access to an abortion, whether abroad or in the U.S., required more money and a black market. Most notable today is the dearth of clinics through the center of the country, including Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming. In this region, 400,000 women of reproductive age live more than 150 miles from the closest clinic. The states with the fewest clinics also tend to have the most restrictions on abortion. Insurance companies won’t be required to provide abortions under Obamacare. Some states already ban private insurance coverage for elective abortion.
Americans are happier overall in times of lower income inequality, according to research by University of Virginia professor Shigehiro Oishi, based on national data from the General Social Survey . This happiness gap isn’t an artifact, entirely, of lower incomes themselves, but of the lack of trust and common destiny that the income gap secondarily creates. It’s the oldest saying in the book that “money can’t buy happiness.” Less income inequality, however, does buy more happiness.
But, if you’re rich, don’t worry. The size of the income gap “had no effect on happiness” for wealthy Americans….just on the happiness of the un-rich.