As wealth gap divides the rich from others, tangled feelings intrude in sibling relationships

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December 30, 2014 by Bill Johnson


NEW YORK – When Jayson Seaver thinks about why he makes so much money while some Americans can’t catch a break, he thinks of the sacrifices he’s made, the jobs he worked to pay for college, the 12-hour days he spends at the office now.

And he thinks of his youngest sister, Jackie, whom he practically begged to go to college and how she refused and is “paying for it” now, watching with envy while he flies around on vacation and enjoys his wealth.

At least that’s how he sees it. She has a different view. But they don’t talk much.

“I’m disappointed in her,” says Jayson, 37. “I think it’s distanced us.”

It’s a story as old as humankind: People raised in the same home, at the same time, by the same parents, who as adults land in vastly different financial circumstances.

Experts see a growing trend. The same forces that have increasingly separated the richest Americans from everyone else is dividing brothers and sisters, too. It’s given rise to a mix of often conflicting emotions — jealousy and resentment, disappointment and distance, but also frequently understanding and respect.

From 2009 through 2012, income for the wealthiest 1 percent of households surged 31 percent, after adjusting for inflation, according to research by economist Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley. For everyone else, income inched up just 0.4 percent.

As the wealth gap has widened, some mental health professionals say they’ve seen more patients for whom such a divide has become a personal issue.

In 35 years practicing psychotherapy, Janna Malamud Smith says she’s never had so many clients troubled by sibling wealth. The complaints have grown so familiar to her she can riff on them without pause:

“‘My sibling can afford to join this country club, and I can’t.’ ‘My brother has houses in four countries, and why can’t he help me out?'”

There’s more than one reason Stuart Schneider and his brother and sister don’t speak anymore. But he thinks the problem began when he struck it rich in the late ’90s selling high-end textiles and began driving a Land Rover and sporting a Rolex watch.

“I thought they would be proud of me,” says Schneider, 53. “But it really wasn’t that way.”

Likewise, VP Young Chang, co-owner of a Los Angeles clothes company, thought his cousins would be pleased he could afford a Ferrari and BMW 7 Series — until he showed up to a family party a few years ago in one of the cars.

“It didn’t play well. It wasn’t, ‘Congrats, Buddy,'” says Chang, 38. “There was jealousy — ‘Why do you drive a BMW? We grew up the same.'”
Now, when the family gets together, Chang borrows his mother’s van.

A decade ago, sociologist Dalton Conley produced research suggesting that income inequality in America occurs as much within families as among them. Yet the similarities tend to end there. In comparing yourself with rich strangers, Conley notes, you can always convince yourself that they inherited wealth or attended elite schools or had parents with connections to lucrative jobs.

That doesn’t work if your brother or sister becomes wealthy. A disparity in siblings’ fortunes can feel, Conley says, like a judgment on intelligence or drive.

“You had pretty much the same advantages and disadvantages growing up,” says Conley, author of “The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why.”

Such tangled feelings of success and failure can have a public impact, too. How Americans feel about the wealth gap within their families shapes how they feel about it nationally — whether or not they see it as an inequity that must be addressed, says Lane Kenworthy, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego.

Read more: As wealth gap divides the rich from others, tangled feelings intrude in sibling relationships

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