Wealth gap complicates sibling relationships
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.”
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. With siblings, “you had pretty much the same advantages and disadvantages growing up,” he says, so big difference in wealth can feel like a judgment on intelligence or drive.
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.
“They know, or think, it’s due to effort and choice” in their family, Kenworthy says “And they think that’s probably how it works in the nation as a whole.”
More modest lifestyle
The last time Jayson Seaver tried to persuade Jackie to attend college was 10 years ago. She had just quit a waitressing job so she could move with her boyfriend out of state.
“You’re destined for a life of mediocrity,” he said.
“Let me do what I want!” she shot back.
Jayson went on to make big money at a commodity trading company in Manhattan. He vacations in Florida, Costa Rica and Hawaii.
Jackie went back to waitressing, married the boyfriend and took a job at a drug company, where her boss has turned her down for a promotion because he said she needed a college degree. Now, rather than jet around on vacation, Jackie and her husband tend to go camping. Yet she says she’s happy with a more modest lifestyle.
Asked about the nation’s wealth gap, Jayson says, “You get paid what you put in. We’re in control.”
Jackie isn’t so sure it’s as simple as that, but essentially agrees. “It’s self-motivation that’s at the root of success.”
Poll results suggest that many Americans feel the same way. Asked in October by Pew Research to name the most important reason for the wealth gap, 24 percent chose “some work harder than others,” more than tax policies, foreign trade or the educational system.
Brother’s wealth not envied
Psychotherapist Smith says relationships among brothers and sisters are so complex that siblings often seize upon gaps in wealth as a shorthand for other differences between them.
Jackie Seaver says she doesn’t envy her brother’s wealth. What really separates them, she says, are differences in age and expectations, priorities and desires.
Still, she says her brother was correct about college all those years ago. After being rejected a third time for a promotion, she started attending school at night to earn a bachelor’s degree.
For his part, Jayson seems to have inched closer to his sister’s view. In 2015, he will take a new job at a commodity brokerage that lets him work from West Palm Beach, Florida, where he hopes to “slow down and get back to the way I grew up,” more the way his sister lives.
“I do envy her sometimes her simple quality of life,” he says. “It’s hard to determine who is the smarter, who is in a better position.”