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Q&A: Sociologist takes on myths about wealth and morality

Why We Wrote This

We asked readers to share what concerned them the most about the recent college admissions scandal. Sociologist Rachel Sherman responds to questions about the advantages and moral dilemmas of the wealthy.  

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Actress Felicity Huffman leaves the federal courthouse after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme in Boston April 3.

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The college admissions scandal is raising concerns about whether society gives elites a pass when they behave poorly – and whether the United States really does have a meritocracy.

Rachel Sherman, a sociologist at the New School in New York, is helping to sort myth from reality. The author of the 2017 book “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence” spoke with the Monitor recently when we brought her questions from our readers. 

Among the topics she addresses: stereotypes about the affluent. “The admissions scandal highlights [how] we imagine that rich people are morally compromised: They just don’t think the rules apply to them; they’re sort of greedy,” she says. “The people who I interviewed don’t want to be seen as wealthy. Some of them are very invested in other people not knowing how wealthy they are.” 

Dive even deeper into the idea of “meritocracy” in this article’s companion audio story. You can find it at the end of the deep-read version.

As the wealth gap in the United States has grown, so has the outrage. But at a time when much attention is focused on the privileges and excesses of wealthy elites, what can we learn from delving beneath the stereotypes? 

The Monitor gathered readers’ responses to the question “What concerns you the most about the college admissions scandal?” and asked Rachel Sherman to weigh in. A sociology professor at the New School in New York, she conducted in-depth interviews with 50 affluent New Yorkers for her book, “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” published in 2017 by Princeton University Press. 

Professor Sherman spoke with the Monitor by phone earlier this month. Below are excerpts from that conversation, including a companion audio piece, edited for clarity and brevity.

Many reactions to the college bribery scandal boil down to the idea that money has a bad influence on people. One reader wrote, “Our society tends to tolerate rule bending from the elite.” Were the people you studied concerned about the influence of money? 

Mostly what they worry about is that their kids will become the negative stereotypes that we often hold of wealthy people: entitled, materialistic, [or thinking] that they’re better than others. They are really trying to produce children who aren’t like that. Nobody wants their kids to be spoiled.

But the thing with wealthy parents is that their kids actually do have all these material advantages. They are getting fantastic private education and all kinds of enrichment experiences like travel and internships. It’s a really difficult path to walk to try to produce kids who have “normal” kinds of values while still enjoying all of these opportunities.

One reader was disturbed by harsh judgments in reaction to this scandal, especially those that went after the kids. What do you see at play when our society loves to watch the rich and famous on reality shows but people are also quick to condemn?

We have this really strong ambivalence about the moral status specifically of wealthy people. We see a kind of public acclamation for people like Bill Gates or other really major philanthropists. But we also see a lot of critiques of entitled wealthy people.

The admissions scandal highlights [how] we imagine that rich people are morally compromised: They just don’t think the rules apply to them; they’re sort of greedy. The people who I interviewed don’t want to be seen as wealthy. Some of them are very invested in other people not knowing how wealthy they are.

Courtesy of Princeton University Press
Rachel Sherman, a sociology professor at the New School in New York, conducted in-depth interviews with 50 affluent New Yorkers for her 2017 book, ‘Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence.’

Is there a productive way to critique wealth inequality and behaviors that people see as wrong but at the same time not stereotype rich people?

All of this [focus on individuals] is sort of a distraction from the bigger problem of wealth inequality. In the U.S. we map very closely people’s position in the social distribution onto their moral status as individuals. So the people in the middle class and working families, they’re the ones who are seen as morally good, like the moral backbone of America. And then both at the top and the bottom you see these really strong moral critiques of people for not working enough and for consuming too much.

We should be talking about why distributions are like this, which has to do with policy, with the way that wages are paid and the way that taxes are levied, primarily. It doesn’t matter how nice of a person you are if you have as much money yourself individually as 10% of the population. Maybe you shouldn’t have that much money.

Many readers commented on elite admissions really favoring people with advantages such as legacy connections or the ability to hire private advisers. How reflective were the people you interviewed about their advantage when it comes to opportunities such as education?

Most of them did not have college-age children or even high-school-age [children]. Those who had more progressive politics were really aware of the educational advantage that they could give their kids by putting them into private school. And those parents tended to have a strong commitment to public school both as a social good and as something that would be good individually for their own kids. They care about their kids being “exposed,” a word they often used, to different types of people from different racial and class backgrounds. But in the end, they mostly take their kids out of those schools and put them into private schools, because they don’t want their kids to be, in the words of one father I interviewed, a “guinea pig.” In New York City, until [they think] the public schools can match the private schools, they’re going to put their kid in private school.

The people who are less progressive politically just take for granted that their kids are going to go to private school. But they do care about which kinds of private schools the kids go to. They are trying to produce these unentitled kids, so they want to make sure that they’re in schools that are grounded or that have good values or a lot of diversity.

People often talk about our society as operating based on merit, but one reader voiced a common critique, calling the college bribery scandal “one more rip in the myth of the supposed American meritocracy.” How do you see the debate about meritocracy influencing the wider dialogue about inequality? 

The idea of the American dream obviously is really fundamental. And then that’s combined with this moral notion of meritocracy, which really is a moral claim about deservingness – the idea that you deserve what you can get through your own hard work and intelligence. [But] you can look around you and see lots of people who are working hard who are not wealthy. 

Dive Deeper: Why does the meritocracy myth persist?

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That notion of meritocracy legitimates the structures that we have and places the moral burden on the individual – that if you haven’t made it, it must be your fault. That’s a very convenient narrative.

[But we need to look at] the problems more specifically that are associated with these inequalities. At the bottom: poverty and lack of access to various kinds of resources. At the top: disproportionate influence.

Now we’re seeing a lot of very prominent critiques of philanthropy from liberal elites. The fact that a single person without any background in the field can influence a whole city’s educational system [for instance], seems to me and many other people deeply problematic.

It’s really important to be talking about the systemic or structural conditions and laws that are producing inequality, and how is it possible to counteract those.

Thanks to Esteban Rodas, Mary Hughes, and Gerry Zyfers for comments that helped shape some of the questions for this interview. You can see full comments by them and several others who shared ideas on this theme by scrolling through the list below.

This article is part of our “Your Monitor” initiative.

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