Identifying “the wrong side of the tracks” in wealthy suburban areas

In wealthier suburban areas, where are the “wrong side of the tracks”? One writer explores this question in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs:

Pity the poor people of Wilmette. Most of them have done quite well in life. They’re doctors, academics, architects, attorneys. But they have the misfortune of living down Green Bay Road from — and sending their children to New Trier with — people who’ve done even better…

They don’t just do it in Wilmette, either. I once met a woman from Kenilworth — the second wealthiest municipality in Illinois, in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the nation — who told me, “In Kenilworth, there’s a ‘kennel’ side and a ‘worth’ side.” She, of course, was from the kennel side, presumably west of Green Bay Road, where the houses are slightly smaller.

There’s nothing more North Shore than trying to convince people you’re not as rich as everybody else on the North Shore — that you’re a member of the lower-upper class who grew up on the wrong side of the Metra tracks. Saying “I’m from the North Shore” — especially to someone whose first exposure to that world was Risky Business, Mean Girls, or Rahm Emanuel’s biography — paints a picture of elitism that many residents would understandably like to disassociate themselves from…

Sociologists would say that poor-mouthing in rich suburbs is a result of the fact that we measure our wealth not in absolute terms, but in relation to those around us. Economist Robert H. Frank conducted a study in which he asked people whether they would prefer to live in World A, a 4,000-square-foot house in a neighborhood of 6,000-square-foot mansions, or World B, a 3,000-square-foot house surrounded by 2,000-square-foot bungalows. Most chose World B.

Three quick thoughts:

1. The term hinted at in the last paragraph above is “reference groups.” Who do people tend to compare themselves to? It is often not in absolute terms but comparisons to people they aspire to be to.

2. Continuing from #1, this reminds me of some recent commentary on the top 20% or so of Americans who feel anxiety about their status and are chasing people higher up in the class ladder even as they are comfortable compared to most Americans. (See the book Dream Hoarders.)

3. Of course, there are residents of the North Shore who are not as well off. Or, suburbs without as much wealth or with significant numbers of poorer residents are not that far away. Are they even visible when the middle to upper classes are only looking at their level and above?

Can you sell a product with the main pitch that it will help consumers “keep up with the Joneses”?

Comcast is currently running an advertisement titled “The Joneses” that makes an explicit connection to keeping up with the consumer’s reference group:

It is regularly stated that consumers want to keep up with others around them. Reference groups matter as look to others around them as they consider what to acquire.

So, can you run a successful advertising campaign based on (1) regular human behavior (2) that is regularly maligned? “Keeping up the the Joneses” is not often a positive term. Instead, it implies striving to be like others. These strivers are not content; they have to earn approval through acquiring what others have. All of this can lead to conformity if everyone is chasing some trend or perceived advantage. Suburbanites have heard this critique for decades: they are trying to look like the leading middle- to upper-class suburbanites. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, perhaps these people are viewed as violating the tenth commandment.

Perhaps this is all meant to be ironic. “Keep up with the Joneses” while winking or doing something unusual with all of that high-speed Internet. But, this commercial does not seem to have that tone. The goal does seem to be to have the same high-speed connection as everyone else. Maybe the true story is something like this: “keep up with the Joneses’ and everyone can use that Internet to hide in their private residences and do their own thing online and in social media.

Many Americans can’t afford a McMansion (even if they might aspire to one)

A recent study suggested Americans aspire to own the larger homes in their neighborhood. By using the term “McMansion,” the study might be read as some as suggesting that this belief is widespread among many Americans. Americans like big houses and they like to look to external reference groups to help guide their own behavior. Isn’t everyone after a McMansion?

Just three little problems:

  1. Many Americans do not live in neighborhoods with McMansions.
  2. Many Americans cannot afford a McMansion.
  3. Not all larger houses are McMansions.

McMansions are particular kinds of houses that require a certain social class and set of resources to acquire. Even in cheaper housing markets, McMansions are not within reach of many residents. Academic articles and media articles journals can use the term broadly but how many Americans truly live in McMansions – 10%? 20%?

At the same time, it is worth looking at the aspirations of Americans. Homeownership, particularly in a suburban setting, is an ingrained goal in American society. And Americans do seem to like bigger homes. But, do they really want a McMansion, a home that can be made fun of by others and with a descriptor rarely used in real estate listings? There is clearly a market for such homes but the buffoonish McMansion may not exactly be the goal of homebuyers.

 

“Having…a bigger McMansion…probably won’t make you happier. At least, not in the long term.”

A journalist discusses keeping up with the Joneses and includes this bit involving McMansions:

So what does this mean for the drive to keep up with the Joneses? It means that having a nicer car, a bigger McMansion, a greener lawn or even the latest iPhone probably won’t make you happier. At least, not in the long term.

How many suburban status symbols can you include in one sentence? While this piece summarizes the detrimental effects of spending in order to keep up a wealthier reference group around us, this reference to McMansions is not unusual. Here, the McMansion stands in for a pattern of excessive consumption, a consumer good that isn’t necessary, requires long-term debt, and doesn’t really lead to long-term well being (at least such satisfaction based on comparisons with others).

Perhaps the more scandalous suggestion here is that the iPhone could function in the same way as a McMansion. The iPhone costs a lot less, is much more common (at least 500 million units have been sold – imagine that number of McMansions), and might even enhance sociability (as opposed to the McMansions emphasis on private space). The iPhone is a status symbol in its own right. But, the iPhone doesn’t attract the same level of criticism…

Ten enviable, but not necessarily realistic, TV homes

Take a closer look at the sometimes ridiculous dwelling places of ten well-known television shows.

There are few things quite as frustrating for those bunked away in crappy, overpriced rentals as watching sitcom characters putter around in homes that—in real life—would be astronomically expensive even with a steady income (which television characters often mysteriously lack.) Whether it be the NYC-based Friends apartment or the California-cool New Girl loft that’s causing a big dose of sitcom real estate envy, do have a look at some of television’s most enviable living situations—presented below in order of least to most realistic.

The Cosby Show and Big Bang Theory take the honors as the most realistic. Even as the average new American home has increased over the decades, might TV homes have increased even more?

As this is not the first article I have seen on this topic in recent months, I wonder what the outcomes of such analyses. One way to go would be to get into a discussion of how realistic TV shows should be. How much should television portray real circumstances of Americans who as a whole have a median household income around $50,000? In order to be good shows, do they have to present something close to reality? Or, do Americans prefer entertainment that is more aspirational? Perhaps there are audiences for both though the general trend seems to be that fans are not very worried about whether the homes are realistic.

A more interesting route would be to consider what effect these depictions of homes have on viewers. As sociologist Juliet Schor argues, does this give viewers a different reference group? Schor suggests when Americans see “normal” TV life – which, in reality, it typically upper class life even when the characters are supposed to be middle or working-class – they readjust their own consumption patterns to match those on TV. So, if viewers of Sex and the City see single women in New York enjoying rather large apartments, they then expect to find such places for themselves and might be beyond their means to make it happen.

Evidence: TV shows can lower fertility rates

An article about the cultural power of television discusses several studies that show TV programs can lower fertility rates:

Several years ago, a trio of researchers working for the Inter-American Development Bank set out to help solve a sociological mystery. Brazil had, over the course of four decades, experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000. What made the drop so curious is that, unlike the Draconian one-child policy in China, the Brazilian government had in place no policy to limit family size. (It was actually illegal at some point to advertise contraceptives in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.) What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor: television.

Television spread through Brazil in the mid-sixties. But it didn’t arrive everywhere at once in the sprawling country. Brazil’s main station, Globo, expanded slowly and unevenly. The researchers found that areas that gained access to Globo saw larger drops in fertility than those that didn’t (controlling, of course, for other factors that could affect fertility). It was not any kind of news or educational programming that caused this fertility drop but exposure to the massively popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night. The paper also found that areas with exposure to television were dramatically more likely to give their children names shared by novela characters.

Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. Exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement “led to significantly lower fertility”—an effect equal in impact to adding two years of schooling.

In a 2009 study, economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster detected a similar pattern in India. A decade ago, cable television started to expand rapidly into the Indian countryside, where deeply patriarchal views had long prevailed. But not all villages got cable television at once, and its random spread created another natural experiment. This one yielded extraordinary results. Not only did women in villages with cable television begin bearing fewer children, as in Brazil, but they were also more able to leave their home without their husbands’ permission and more likely to disapprove of husbands abusing their wives, and the traditional preference for male children declined. The changes happened rapidly, and the magnitude was “quite large”—the gap in gender attitudes separating villages introduced to cable television from urban areas shrunk by between 45 and 70 percent. Television, with its more progressive social model, had changed everything.

Four quick thoughts:

1. Such shows (TV and radio) have been used deliberately by public health organizations to fight AIDS. It is one thing to hold training sessions and open and maintain clinics but it is another to have successful soap operas that promote certain behaviors.

2. These situations provided some fascinating natural experiments. I occasionally ask students this very question: how might you set up a natural experiment to test the effects of television? In the United States, outside of some ultra-controlled environment a la The Truman Show, it is difficult to quickly answer this question.

3. Sociologist Juliet Schor nicely explains the mechanism behind this in The Overspent American. Mass media presents average residents a new, commonly known reference group to which they can compare themselves. Instead of primarily comparing themselves to neighbors or acquaintances, viewers started seeing what “middle-class” or “normal” look like on television and then work to emulate that.

4. Media output is not simply entertainment – something is being promoted. Being able to watch and experience this critically is crucial in a world awash with media and information.

Sociologist: some people working more hours in order to consume more

Sociologist Juliet Schor has over the years written about the consumer habits of Americans, notably in The Overspent American. She argues that part of the reason some Americans are working more is they need the money to consume more:

But it seems the enemy we have met is also us, as Pogo long ago predicted. Juliet Schor, author of “The Overworked American” and “The Overspent American,” finds we’ve radically increased our work hours over three decades. Part of that is due to the weakening of unions, which historically reduced excessive workweeks, Schor says.

But it’s also due to a “dramatic upscaling of the American dream” to include ever pricier McMansions, cooler cars and all manner of material want, she argues.

“Comfort is no longer enough,” Schor says in an interview by the Media Education Foundation. “People want luxury.”

Fair enough, although in Michigan’s economy just pizza and Netflix is a luxury for many. Schor’s point is people are overworking themselves while their employers expect the same. Either way, it’s a mechanistic life, always producing, always plugged in — more like a machine than a mind.

Schor discusses the idea of “reference groups,” people that we compare ourselves to. With new kinds of technology, such as television, more Americans were exposed to upper-scale standards of living beyond what they saw around their immediate vicinity. For example, when Americans watched shows with middle-class values like The Cosby Show, they saw a family with a doctor and lawyer as parents (meaning there is a high household income as well as high status) that rarely had to deal with money issues. Over the long run, Schor argues that Americans came to see that sort of lifestyle as normal, something to aspire to in order to be middle-class.

It seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to get some data to test this question: do people who work longer hours consume more (as a percentage of their income)? Could you control for occupation (some might require more work than others), location, whether there is more than one wage earner in the household, and adjust that once you get certain subsistence levels of income you can “afford” to consume more?

A second question: if Schor is correct that television gave people wider reference groups which contributed to consuming to maintain or raise their status, what effect has the Internet had?

The guilt of over living in a McMansion

While it is clear that a number of people think that owning a McMansion is a negative thing, I haven’t seen as much reaction from the people who actually live in the homes that others would derisively call McMansions. Amidst a farewell to an “environmental pioneer” who recently passed away, here is one person’s experience of owning a McMansion:

Linda tried to live sustainably long before it was chic and was always health conscious. More than a decade ago, she was reading food labels to avoid eating anything with high fructose corn syrup. She was the first person we knew to drive a Prius.

When Alex and I bought a McMansion nine years ago in McLean, Va., after living in a small bungalow, I felt self-conscious inviting her over, as if we had somehow let her down.

Linda became an informal adviser after we sold what Alex called our BAH (big a– house) in December 2009 and embarked on building an energy-efficient home half the size in the neighboring, walkable town of Falls Church. She, John and their son, Eli, were the first friends we had for dinner in June once the house was habitable. We had talked so much about the project that I knew she’d share my enthusiasm. Besides, she’d understand our green house better than I do.

When she saw the spray foam insulation in the unfinished storage room, she lamented that she didn’t have any in her house, which she had retrofitted as best she could. Yes, she had spray foam envy!

While this is just one story, I wonder if it hints at a broader explanation. Are tastes for or against a McMansion be primarily dictated by one’s reference group? Once you are in a McMansion subdivision (not the teardown variety where there could be other home sizes), presumably there is less judgment about the other houses. But if your friends and family don’t approve of such homes, there would be some dissonance.

The key moments for understanding who does or does not buy McMansion would come at two points:

1. When moving into a new house. While it ultimately is a decision made by the future homeowners, all sort of other people include family members, real estate people, and friends have input.
2. When hosting people from outside the neighborhood in the house. This could get particularly interesting if the homeowners and visitors have differing views about suburbs and home styles.

I think we need some research into this topic: what is the lived experience of McMansion owners and what happens when they encounter criticism for their choice in homes?