A hot potato in the Presidential election cycle is the issue of Income Inequality and the Wealth Gap. Though it’s been simmering for some time, it comes into focus when confronted with the data points. The richest 1% of Americans make 20% of the income. The wealthiest 160,000 families have as much as the poorest 145 million families combined. And, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, since the recession began in 2007, spending power for middle income families has diminished while Affluent spending power has increased. It’s likely these numbers – and the emotion behind them – will be repeated frequently as candidates fan out across the United States for primary and national elections.
Do the 5 million households with an annual income of over $250k care about the Wealth Gap? Though only 5% of the population, their attitudes and behaviors play a disproportionate role in the consumer landscape. And with the Wealth Gap becoming a feature of society, as opposed to a short-term abnormality, its ramifications impact up and down the socioeconomic landscape. Does it impact Affluents’ values and their relationship with their money?
More and more data suggests it does. According to CEB Iconoculture, more earners at the $250-500k level will self-identify with “upper middle class” rather than “affluent” or “privileged” or even “wealthy.” Almost half of them say that they’re actually part of the (upper) middle class. Striking for people who are at the very top of the food chain. And in a head-scratching piece of data from the same study, 47% of $180-250k earners self-identify as “comfortable,” while only 39% of those over $250k do.
As society becomes more stratified, the Affluents are a moving target. Their needs are changing, and the way they see themselves and spend their money is in transition. Here are some guideposts in communicating with them:
Nobody wants to be considered part of the 1%. In the same way that many people will cite a salad as their favorite McDonald’s menu item, while actually indulging in Big Macs, most Affluents don’t want to be associated with the cultural boogeyman of the 1 percenters. And because social shaming is on the rise, being seen as part of the upper crush can feel like a liability, with real social hazards.
The fire to become Affluent continues to burn. Affluents had to fight to get to where they are. They aren’t just dropping the toughness it took to get there. As a result, they often feel less financially secure and less prone to take the pedal off the metal. They still identify with a lower income group that’s on their way up, rather than one that’s made it.
They still want more. Affluent are constantly trying hard to increase their already high incomes. According to CEB Iconoculture, they over-index in values of ambition, purpose, tenacity, and growth. Entering the Affluent club tends to incite more desire to move up within its ranks, rather than stand still.
They seek comfort. Comfort takes many forms and it’s intensely personal. It can mean the freedom from worry. It can mean being in control. It can mean seeking value over time. But one thing it means less and less, in the light of the disparity between rich and poor, is the desire to use wealth as a cue for identification.
While the Wealth Gap may not be an everyday reality for Affluents, its influence is a cultural force to be reckoned with. And as the election season heats up, paying close attention to the debate may just hold the key to effective communication.