A Pew Research report on the middle class has determined that our happiness depends on where we live and how expensive it is to live in our neighborhoods. Dwelling in an expensive area, says the reports, leads to higher stress levels as the age-old pressure to keep up with the Joneses continues to plague members of the middle class.
Living comfortably and within one’s means were main determinants of how satisfied people were with their financial situations. While 43 percent of survey respondents from low-cost areas stated that they felt that they “live comfortably,” only 37 percent of those living in a medium cost area and 39 percent of those in a high-cost area felt the same way. Higher-income individuals living in more expensive areas were less likely to have paid off their homes, and more likely to suffer more serious financially-related stress than their lower-income cohorts. For instance, only a fifth (22 percent) of high-income residents had paid off their mortgages, versus one-third (31 percent) of low-income middle class homeowners.
There are differences in how much discretionary income is left at the end of the month as well 41 percent of low-cost dwellers had money left over after paying basic expenses, versus only 34 percent of those in high-cost areas. Residents of medium-cost neighborhoods were—truly—in the middle, with 37 percent stating that they have some spending money left after paying off bills. When it comes to just meeting expenses, nearly a quarter of residents of medium- and high-cost living areas (23 percent and 22 percent, respectively) said that they do so, versus a mere 14 percent of low-cost residents.
It seems that more money brings on more stress for many Americans. Why? “First, one needs to recognize that the group of people defining itself as ‘middle class’ is very, very diverse,” Jeanne Hurlbert, PhD, says. “This is not at all surprising, because Americans from a wide range of income groups define themselves as ‘middle class.’ So, in part, the findings reflect the fact that individuals in higher-income areas—who themselves have higher incomes—are living a very different lifestyle than individuals in less affluent areas.”
Hurlbert, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University, contends that study results indicate that many Americans are succumbing to social pressure to maintain a particular lifestyle. “Individuals in higher-income areas are living much closer to the limits of their income in order to pursue that lifestyle, according to these data. In the more affluent areas, individuals appear to be placing themselves under financial strain in order to pursue and maintain a particular lifestyle,” she says.
“Sometimes described colloquially as ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’ this pattern was described as early as the 19th century, when [Thorstein Veblen] wrote of ‘conspicuous consumption’ and the attempt of the upper-middle-class to emulate the lifestyles of the upper class. In part, these data may reflect that process,” Hurlbert explains.
“They may also reflect the dynamics of social networks. The individuals living in affluent areas are likely to be connected to individuals at similar, upper-middle-class incomes who are similarly pursuing ‘conspicuous consumption.’ Each individual’s consumption behavior, then, is reinforced by the people with whom he or she works, lives, and socializes—the members of his or her social network,” adds Hurlbert, who runs Optinet Resources, LLC, a group that helps entrepreneurs build social networks (www.optinetresources.com).
Standards regarding salary vary for those who live in expensive versus those lower income middle class neighborhoods. Among residents of the medium- to high-income areas, an $80,000 annual salary was considered necessary for a family of four to consider itself “middle class,” says the Pew report. However, for those in low-cost middle class areas, a $70,000 a year salary would suffice. Nearly a third (30 percent) of residents of high-cost areas considered a $100,000 a year salary necessary for a family of four to live a middle class lifestyle.
Considering the personal and financial stress that social pressure to attain more and more material goods has caused, will things change? Will the green movement affect our purchasing priorities? One can hope.
“Despite the high cost of gas and the environmental ramifications of low-mileage vehicles, Hummers, Land Rovers, and that type of vehicle become emblematic,” Hurlbert says. “So, although it might seem paradoxical that individuals in higher-income areas—who have higher incomes themselves—are feeling greater financial pressure, the pattern is actually not that surprising. The broader question is whether and how social policy can change the behavior, given the economic and environmental implications.”