No, it is not more stressful to be rich than poor.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 2 2008 6:29 PM

Stress and Class

An NYU sociologist claims, preposterously, that it's more stressful to be rich than poor.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click to expand.

Dalton Conley, chairman of the Sociology Department at New York University, has written extensively about race, poverty, and social class and was himself raised in a housing project on New York's Lower East Side. This ought to inoculate him against the popular notion, cherished by the professional classes, that the BlackBerry-punching haves experience more stress in their daily lives than the indolent poor. Apparently, it hasn't. In a Sept. 2 New York Times op-ed, Conley writes:

[I]t is now the rich who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most. Perhaps for the first time since we've kept track of such things, higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do. Since 1980, the number of men in the bottom fifth of the income ladder who work long hours (over 49 hours per week) has dropped by half, according to a study by the economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano. But among the top fifth of earners, long weeks have increased by 80 percent.


Now, it may be true that the bottom fifth is working fewer hours while the top fifth is working longer hours. The authors of the study in question (PDF) claim no insight as to why this should be so and note that because the observed shift took place fully two decades ago, it "is not likely related to advances in communications technology (such as the Internet) that facilitate additional work from home." Scratch the BlackBerry and the easy availability of wireless Internet off your list of possible culprits. Remember, too, that these findings may be distorted by the survey's exclusion of women and the self-employed. Still, for simplicity's sake, let's assume that the haves are now working longer hours than the have-nots. How does Conley make the leap from saying the haves consume more time on the job to saying, "[I]t is now the rich who are the most stressed out"?

Such a connection may seem intuitive but only if you ignore the difference between the workweek of the typical high-earner and that of the typical low-earner.

For the haves, what does a longer workweek mean? More meetings, almost certainly. Meetings are often dull, but they are seldom stressful. More conversations with the people you manage. These may be exasperating, but when a boss addresses an underling, odds are it's the underling who's going to experience whatever stress the exchange generates. That stress tends to diminish as you work your way up the organizational chart, so an increase in a high-earner's conversations with his own boss won't likely fray his nerves very badly.

For the low-earner, the workweek is an altogether different proposition. It's much likelier to entail physical labor, which is more taxing and almost always more dangerous than mental labor. It's also likelier to involve more petty supervision of the quantity of the low-earner's output, the courtesy that the low-earner extends to the public, and the frequency with which the low-earner makes personal use of his phone and/or computer. If any of these are found wanting, the low-earner faces serious danger of being fired, because employees near the bottom of the organization chart are always easier to replace than employees near the top.

In stating that wealthier Americans are more stressed out than poorer ones, Conley cites two pieces of evidence. The first is a  study (PDF) by economists Daniel Hamermesh and Jungmin Lee that found women with higher earnings reported experiencing higher levels of stress than women with lower earnings. The other is a poll of New Yorkers that found people earning more than $200,000 a year were likelier than those in any other income group to feel poor when "seeing other people with money." But the only thing these two data points really prove is that high-earners are likelier than low-earners to bellyache about whatever stress they experience, possibly because they feel more entitled. As Hamermesh and Lee point out in their conclusion, "Whether one should be concerned about these complaints or simply view them as yuppie kvetching is a matter of values." Scratch values and substitute common sense.

Twenty years ago, journalist John Tierney (whose politics skew libertarian rather than redistributionist) found a much more effective way to compare the stress experienced by America's haves and have-nots. In a classic piece for the New York Times Magazine ("Wired for Stress"), Tierney reported that scientists at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center's cardiovascular center had hooked up two people in high-stress jobs to a device that measured their blood pressure every 15 minutes. One was a 48-year-old Caucasian named Gianni Fidanza who worked on Park Avenue as a stockbroker. The other was a 34-year-old African-American single mother named Cathy Collins who worked at New York Hospital as a clerical aide.


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