Success, Privilege, Poverty, and the Monkey Sphere

Well, if Facebook is any indication, people had a wonderful holiday season this year—good for all of us, right?

Right.  I realize that many of my posts are cynical, negative, mean, cranky, etc., but I really do want people to have a good time, to enjoy their lives, and I’m glad for my friends and family.  Hell, one of my old friends went to Thailand for Christmas—that’s fucking phenomenal!  I’m super jealous.

But that being said, one of the things that struck me this holiday season was just how incredibly privileged, and frankly, rich, almost everyone is in my social circle.  Facts: if your household pulls in between 70 and 100K a year (which many of you do, based on what you post), you’re in the top 25% of income earners.  More than 150K a year?  Top 5%.  250K?  Top 1%.

Thinking about it, it’s not so surprising: I went to a middle-upper class high school, made friends with people in my AP/IB classes that had middle-upper class parents like mine, who were college educated and pushed them to do well in school.  I then went to UCSD for two years, which is one of the better schools on the West Coast.  OK, that sounds like an incredible brag, but that’s not my intention—if it was, I’d be Facebook/Instagram/Twitter posting flattering pictures of myself or updating everyone about how long of a run I went on today.

My point is that I grew up privileged, and based on the circumstances, most of the people I met were privileged as well.  Indeed, if I wasn’t a high school teacher and I didn’t live in SE Portland, I would hardly know that poor or homeless people even existed.  And that troubles me.

For while I expect that the people in my social circle, who are traveling all over the place, living wonderful lives, and/or raising smart, good looking kids, realize that poor people exist, I wonder if they realize the extent to which poverty rules this country.

More facts: about 47 million Americans live in poverty, which the U.S. government defines as a family of four that makes less than $23,000 per year—or an individual making less than $11,500 per year.  That’s damned close to 1 in 6 people in the U.S.—but that’s the thing: people that have led a successful/privileged life probably don’t know anyone that’s actually living in poverty.

Indeed, there’s a concept known as the “monkey sphere,” which is the idea that the human capacity to know and care about people maxes out at about 150 (it’s also called Dunbar’s number—I couldn’t find a great, reliable source, so the hyperlink is to a Cracked article that actually does a pretty good job explaining the concept).  In other words, there are only so many people we can really care about, which makes sense, right?  I mean, that’s why, frankly, we don’t care when a typhoon hits the Philippines.  Sure, we’re sad that people died—we might even send money to the Red Cross—but unless someone we actually know dies, it’s just not that big of a deal.

The problem is that because many of us, especially the more successful and/or privileged we are, don’t know anybody in poverty, we don’t understand the challenges they face.  Or care.

And that isn’t to say that successful, privileged people are bad people that don’t care about others—it’s just that the problems of those outside our monkey spheres aren’t on our radar.  Worse, we live in a society where this is exacerbated considerably by the media.  We don’t see poor people on TV, unless they’ve committed a crime or are the only person around for the jackass local reporter to interview.  We certainly don’t see poor people on the late shows, in sitcoms, or on reality TV.  No, for the most part we see rich people on television, and if that isn’t bad enough, think about the commercials.  A Mercedes for 50K?  Who the fuck can afford that?  Not more than about 5% of all Americans.  Or how about all those investment and brokerage firm ads?  Sure, about 52% of Americans own some stock, but the top 10% own 81% of all stocks assets, meaning that those companies aren’t advertising to Joe Schmoe—they’re targeting the richies.

And we don’t see poor people on the internet, because most don’t have computers, and those that have smart phones aren’t likely to post pictures of the abject poverty they live in.  Indeed, in my experience, poor people hide their poverty as much as possible, for pride as much as anything else.

But just because poverty is hidden, doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences.  For one, consider the cost to taxpayers: “without social security more than half of all Americans 65 and over would be in poverty.”  Now look, I’m all for Social Security, because too many people in our society are too irresponsible to plan appropriately for their retirement, but that means we have to have a payroll tax that effectively takes from people who are younger and working to give to those who are old and retired.  We have also seen a huge rise in the use of food stamps and Medicaid, which further burdens our tax system.

The Republican concern that we have too many takers and not enough makers isn’t totally unfounded; the hypocrisy lies in the fact that the GOP doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage, that they don’t have any kind of plan that will raise wages overall, and that many still believe in trickle down (aka supply side) economics.  The other problem is that part of the reason we have so much poverty, and that our social safety net is so burdened, is that the rich are taking too much money out of the economy, and just sitting on it, or shipping it overseas so they don’t have to pay taxes.

And those are the people that control our government.  Think about it: who can most afford to contribute to campaigns?  Who has time to form and fund Super PACs to back candidates?  And who do you think Senators and Congresspeople call for campaign donations (which, btw, is how they spend about half of their working time)?  The rich.  And what’s really scary is that the super rich really believe that they are better than other people—eugenics style.

So where am I going with all of this?  Get involved.  Be aware of what’s going on.  For goodness sake, read, and tell your friends to read!  Because if people value the fucking phenomenal and privileged lives they are leading, we have to start caring about what goes on beyond our monkey sphere.

Want to keep going on fantastic vacations?  Want to keep posting photos of yourself living the good life?  Want your kids to have a good future—want them to live happy and fulfilling lives?  Because the time will come when the world, corrupted and fucked as it is (climate change, wealth inequality, gun violence, education, infrastructure, social injustice), is going to invade the little bubble of happiness we’ve created for ourselves if we don’t do something to fix it.

So for your New Year’s Resolution, make a pledge to get involved in something that will make the world a better place, or bring about awareness of a cause or a problem.  And please, stop being afraid to offend people by talking about politics, or speaking the truth, as unpleasant as it may be.  Because as unpleasant as it seems, it’s not nearly as bad as the kind of hell ignorance will unleash if we continue to ignore the problems of our time.

Oh, and Happy New Year.

About The Author: Jay Scott


  • Reply Kenton

    Powerful. I wonder, how do you incentivize people to care in whats going on outside their monkey sphere? Like you mentioned I think thats something rooted in the innate cognitive biases (and limitations) that we all have. I think any strategy that would encourage people to care more would have to very cleverly consider how to circumnavigate those biases.

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