Affluenza Is a Big Surprise? In this Country? Are You Kidding Me?

Tonya Couch nears her eagerly awaited homecoming here in North Texas, and we continue to learn way more than we ever wanted to know about her relationship with her son Ethan, including the $2,000 Mexican strip-club tab she had to pay for him, and the bedroom they shared at home. But I find I do have a question.

Are we really supposed to be shocked and amazed that rich kids are messed up? Is that news? Really?

The link between modern American affluence and screwed-up kids has been out there in the scientific literature for years. One of the most important studies, “The Culture of Affluence: Psychological Costs of Material Wealth” was published in 2003 in the journal Child Development, by Suniya S. Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

Luthar said social scientists had always operated on an unexamined assumption that social and psychological disorder among kids must be worse the poorer the kids are, because … poverty. But when she challenged that assumption, she came up with staggering findings to the contrary. The numbers she found indicated kids were often more messed up the richer they were, because … rich.

When she examined a group of 264 affluent suburban kids, one of her findings was “significantly higher substance use than inner-city students, consistently indicating more frequent use of cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana and other illicit drugs.”

Affluent 10th-grade girls, she found, were clinically depressed — that means really, really depressed — at rates five times higher than normal for all girls their age. It was almost as if life when they were little kids had been really good but the closer they got to adulthood the worse their lives became. The rich kids Luthar looked at typically reported little to no substance abuse or depression in the sixth grade but skyrocketing rates of both the moment they entered middle school and adolescence.

In that article and earlier and subsequent studies, Luthar and other investigators have tried out a variety of theories to explain what’s the matter with rich kids in this country: maybe perfectionist expectations in their social milieu have created a fear of failure; maybe rich people have weaker family structures than the poor because rich people are always off doing something.

Some observers have looked back at earlier animal studies, such as a 1991 paper on vervet monkeys (East African olive-green monkeys adept at stealing human food). That study found that dominant high-status male vervet monkeys had twice the amount of serotonin in their systems as middle- and low-ranked males. But if those top-ranked monkeys lost their prestigious positions, “their serotonin levels fell and their behaviors resembled those of depressed humans: They huddled, rocked and refused food.”

The cure? “These behaviors were then reduced,” the study found “with the administrations of drugs that raise serotonin levels, such as Prozac.”

Problem for monkeys: They don’t have money. They can’t afford Prozac. But rich kids have money!

Among all American children, repeated studies have shown that substance abuse doesn’t have much to do with money before adolescence. Rich kids and poor kids exhibit about the same rates of abuse and non-abuse. But after adolescence, watch out! Substance abuse among the richies really takes off:

“By the 12th grade … high socioeconomic status youth reported the highest rate of several drugs, including marijuana, inhalants and tranquilizers … high-socio-economic-status youth (but not their inner-city counterparts) often used substances in efforts to alleviate emotional distress.”

Another study noted that, “among adolescent boys in general, more so than girls, alcohol use is often tied to social conformity motives such as drinking to fit in with a crowd, and showed that popular pre-adolescent boys were among those most prone to partying and heavy drinking later as high school students.”

Surprise, surprise.

In an interview you can listen to here, Luthar says booze and drug problems are far from the end of it: “Now, here’s one that really startled me — high levels of rule-breaking. Now we’re talking about random acts of delinquency.

“We’ve found levels are comparable actually to levels in inner-city settings. The only difference is the inner-city kids are doing things like carrying a gun or getting into a fight and so on, which could potentially be in self-protection, in gangs.

“Our upper middle class kids are doing things like stealing from a friend or stealing from a parent or defacing property — as I said, random acts of delinquency. And these rates are much higher — two to two-and-a-half times as high as average rates in America.”

Luthar joined Swarthmore College professor of psychology Barry Schwartz  (The Paradox of Choice) in an opinion piece for Reuters a couple days ago in which they talked about Ethan Couch and broad social factors they think could be in play:

“The children of affluent parents expect to excel at school and in multiple extracurriculars and also in their social lives,” the pair wrote for Reuters. “They feel a relentless sense of pressure that plays out in excessive substance use, and also in the other problems we’ve documented: high anxiety and depression about anticipated or perceived achievement ‘failures,’ and random acts of delinquency.”

I’m sure all of that can make life trying for kids growing up with those kinds of high expectations. But when I read that piece, I thought of a recent experience that seemed to contradict some of the high expectations argument or at least did not comport with it exactly.

We spoke here, you may remember, just after the holidays about some affluent Dallas immigrant kids who spent their New Year’s Eve packing food boxes for the poor at The North Texas Food Bank. These were kids of very high-achieving immigrants who all have very high expectations of their children. But when I talked to these kids about poverty and affluence, one of the things that really leaped out at me was a consistent theme of modesty, even humility, in what they had to say about themselves and poor kids.

I didn’t get any of the quasi-athletic, super-hero, kid-worshiping ego inflation that I’m so accustomed to hearing from middle and upper income American-born parents and their kids. These kids saw themselves as lucky and poor kids as unlucky, rather than seeing themselves as superior.

I asked Professor Luthar in an email whether simple humility could be a factor in offsetting some of the more destructive influences of American rich culture. She wrote back immediately:

“Yes,” she said. “Humility and compassion definitely offset the effects of single-minded investment in one's personal status. And our research has shown that in upwardly mobile, upper middle class communities, children who see their parents as valuing attributes such as decency and integrity — as opposed to personal ‘getting ahead’ — are far less vulnerable than others to problems such as drugs and alcohol use, as well as high depression and anxiety.”

I’m not sure to what degree the Couch family saga falls into the high expectations narrative. Somehow I don’t see especially high expectations in paying off the kid’s $2,000 strip-club tab when he’s on parole for taking four lives, then buying him a high-dollar Mexican lawyer and leaving him behind to fight extradition. That seems more like the expectations of slobs.

But Luthar’s work points to that, too, if you ask me. There are a lot of rich slobs in this country. Please note that I have not mentioned or brought up in any fashion the ongoing Republican presidential primary, because I’m too much of a fair-minded objective journalist to just throw that in.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze