These are strange times in America. We’re living a cultural moment in which our president tells us he doesn’t want a “poor” person running the economy, Louise Linton — wife of Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin — condescendingly scolds someone on Instagram for critiquing her extravagant displays of wealth, and the Democratic party is criticized for mimicking collection letters to get donations. How did we get to a place where we’re so divided by class that the haves repeatedly critique, shame, or co-opt the lives of the have-nots in such public and patronizing ways?
These situations are examples of “wealthsplaining,” the socieoeconomic equivalent of mansplaining, when the rich are condescending to those without wealth, typically explaining why it’s their fault they are less financially fortunate. It’s a concept that has, unfortunately, existed through time, becoming more and more pronounced as literal billionaires find themselves in American politics. Based on our internet digging, we think the term may have originated in a 2011 blog post from John Scalzi, when he ruminated on privilege and how people “wealthsplaining poverty” helped him learn to listen. The term has since made its way around Twitter as a critique, pointing out moments of condescension that reveal the national decline of the middle class. (In America, 2015 was the first year that the middle class was outnumbered by the combined total of the rich and poor.) Unsurprisingly, income inequality is at a 30-year high.
This is why a millionaire telling millennials that their love of avocado toast is preventing their homeownership is grating. This is why an NYC Democrat telling people “it’s harder being rich than being poor” makes us cringe. This is why the richest woman advising that success comes from “spend[ing] less time drinking or smoking” makes many apoplectic. This is why Republicans like Housing Secretary Ben Carson suggesting low-income housing shouldn’t be “a comfortable setting” and Georgia House Representative Karen Handel’s “I do not support a livable wage” gaffe burn so much. Like the basic premises of Undercover Boss and Rich Dad, Poor Dad, the crux of wealthsplaining is someone with economic privilege subscribing a totally out-of-touch way out of poverty or assuming that all Americans start off with the same ability to accumulate wealth. As with men mansplaining to women, it operates from an assumption that the poor just don’t know any better. Like a woman having something she already knows explained to her by a man, the poor are shown a mirror of their reality from someone who has zero understanding of their lived reality . . . or a willingness to understand the greater socioeconomic complexities that have shaped it.
— Tom Buerkle (@tombuerkle) August 7, 2017
“Wealthsplainers are victims of a false narrative,” writer Anastasia Basil tells POPSUGAR. “They believe hard work leads to the American dream the same way kids believe Santa brings gifts down the chimney. It’s a good story, but it just isn’t true.”
Basil is the author of a viral story on class differences, “Ketchup Sandwiches and Other Things Stupid Poor People Eat,” about growing up poor and the misunderstandings people have about what it’s really like to experience poverty. She likens wealthsplaining to an old friend who abides by a “McDonald’s is always hiring!” mentality of how to stay not poor. “This from someone who hasn’t sought employment in 25 years and thinks welfare recipients use their EBT cards at liquor stores to buy alcohol and candy,” Basil says.
Shak’ar Mujukian also finds this to be true. Mujukian is a transgender student and the founding editor of queer Armenian digital magazine The Hye-Phen. He originated the concept of the “queer poor aesthetic,” in which rich queer friends co-opted and “passed” as lower class in an attempt to look “cool” — much to his chagrin, given his working-class background. “When you’re wealthy, chances are your parents are wealthy,” Mujukian tells POPSUGAR. “It has nothing to do with you at all. Most millennials don’t understand that. How to get wealth, how to get stability: these are the workings of our parents.”
Culturally, there are documented differences between classes when it comes to subjects like parenting. For example, the rich are less likely to spank their children compared to the poor. Financially, there are differences, like the rich being able to save for retirement — and become even wealthier via investments — while the poor have to focus on basic necessities. All of these differences point toward bigger, more systemic issues, like public education. “All of these things — like wealthsplaining, the queer poor aesthetic, whitesplaining, etc. — are the byproducts of bigger, horrible things,” Mujukian says. “It’s not just a person who is wealthsplaining; they’re a product of that sh*t as much as we’re a product of that sh*t. They just benefit from it.”
— ruben (@gagasgrande) November 1, 2015
It’s vital that these sources of problems be pointed out, too. Susan DeJarnatt, professor of law at Temple University, Beasley School of Law, specializes her work in bankruptcy and housing issues as well as education reform. DeJarnatt recently backed an op-ed in PhillyVoice signed by nearly 20 of her law colleagues in the hopes of calling out a racist and classist op-ed from two law professors published by The Philadelphia Enquirer. The piece asserted many problems we have could be avoided if we adhere to 1950s “cultural precepts.”
“It’s very paternalistic,” DeJarnatt tells POPSUGAR of these points of view. “It blames people for their own poverty as if all of this was a matter of choice instead of this being a part of any system that would make it very difficult for the poor individuals to get ahead.”
“When they talk about breakups of families and people succumbing to drugs or whatever, that didn’t happen in a vacuum,” DeJarnatt says. “The loss of good jobs that people could raise a family on had a huge amount to do with that. It’s not like people woke up and said, ‘We had the sexual revolution, and I can do whatever I want! I think I’ll become a meth addict.'”
What comes with wealthsplaining is a lack of understanding that the American dream of “working your way up” a success ladder is broken and that wealth creates gaps in education, housing, technology, and even mortality, making “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for many Americans.
William Liu, professor of counseling psychology at the University of Iowa, sees this unevenness as wealthsplaining’s foundation. “We have an ideology and mythology that anyone can move between the classes very easily,” Liu tells POPSUGAR. “The reality doesn’t always match up with the mythology of the American class system.”
— TyreeBP (@TyreeBP) June 30, 2017
Liu notes that many of these issues are structural problems that sweep from residential segregation to intergenerational class to credit scores. This is why the belief that our class can change is a long-winded fallacy. “It’s sort of like the Joel Osteen’s ‘prosperity gospel’ that, if you believe it, it will happen,” Liu says. “It’s hard to imagine that there are millions of people who are in poverty and are poor who don’t go to two or three jobs who don’t think that.”
Where wealthsplaining comes in is through cultural differences between the rich and the poor. Liu says that the rich “tend to have less empathy” for the poor because they feel entitled. “They believe that they put in a lot of effort into their success, even though they may have been born rich,” he says. Much of the time, the confusion over “work” is because, unlike their poor counterparts, the rich had time and space and environments to focus on advancement instead of trying to seek advancement while balancing daily, legitimate concerns like being able to afford to eat or live somewhere, among others.
This is also why Kim Kardashian dons poverty chic, Alexander Wang pushes ironic fast food, and “looking poor” is considered fashionable in some circles. It’s a form of cultural appropriation where the rich show off how they can escape poverty like changing clothes.
Peter Temin, professor emeritus of economics at MIT and author of The Vanishing Middle Class, is an economic history scholar who has investigated how class problems have been pervasive for decades, coming to a head in 2017 as figures like Betsy DeVos are denying “people a way up, out of this mess” through public systems.
“The 2016 election kind of predicted this was going to happen, although not quite as fast as it is happening,” Temin tells POPSUGAR. He suggests that those currently in power are actively dismantling programs that help the poor, whether intentionally or not. Temin points to the loss of efforts like the Children’s Health Insurance Program and potential increases in imprisonment against already distressing mass incarceration in America as examples. These matters are worsened by for-profit colleges and banks backing student loans exploiting younger and minority populations as the current administration turns a blind eye to the problem. Again, it’s a classic example of the wealthy and powerful thinking they “know best” when it comes to how poor people should live.
— maura quint (@behindyourback) September 23, 2017
Unfortunately, the class disparities that birthed wealthsplaining are spreading to other countries, like England and Germany. “It’s really kind of a sad story,” Temin says. “More of the world is going to get like us instead of the rest of the world learning like us to be more like them.”
Fortunately, there are practical solutions for fixing the root cause of wealthsplaining, both of which have become common refrains in 2017: we need to put different people in charge and empower the young. “On the political level, you need to work hard in the 2018 election. We can slow this down by getting better representatives.”
2017 — one of the strangest years in America’s political timeline — is proof that the trickle down of political “poor shaming” and classism furthers the divide between the rich and poor. To fix this problem, changes have to be made. If we can eliminate mansplaining by smashing the patriarchy, we can try to make wealthsplaining a thing of the past by demanding more of our government . . . and ourselves.