There is one stretch of Park Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that is the wealthiest neighborhood in New York City. The people that are at the top of the ladder live there in all luxury and comfort. However, they haven’t only used their money to buy fancy cars and mansions, they have enjoyed unprecedented prosperity from a system that they have been controlling for the last thirty years.
A ten-minute drive north on Park Avenue ends at the Harlem River. Across the water in South Bronx, you find the other Park Avenue with 7,000 people of which close to 40% live in poverty and unemployment has reached 19%. It’s the home to the United States’ poorest congressional district. From this Park Avenue, the experience of the last thirty years has been very different. People here have lost their jobs in a recession caused by bankers across the river, they’ve lost the future of their children because of mediocre schools, and they’ve ended up even worse off than they were just one generation ago.
Is America still a land of opportunity? Is it still a place where anybody who works hard enough and focuses long enough can make it? What are the chances that someone who starts out on one Park Avenue across the Harlem River will end up living in the other Park Avenue in Manhattan?
Paul Piff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the psychology of wealth and the consequences of inequality in our society. He has found in his studies that there are certain behaviors that are inevitable when people are rich. Piff experimented with a rigged Monopoly game in which certain players were classified as poor and given only one dice to roll and half the amount of money. The sense of entitlement and deservingness was clear among the rich players as they moved faster across the board and accumulated money rapidly. They also showed no concern for the misfortune of the poor players. The idea of the American dream is that everybody’s got the same opportunities, but the reality is that here are large groups of people that don’t stand a chance because all the property has already been bought up and the money is already in the hands of a certain group of people.
How much inequality is too much? The truth is that both wealth and poverty are created.