During a speech last week, Bernie Sanders made his standard points about wealth inequality. He reminded the audience that since the Great Recession, 58 percent of wealth has gone to the top one percent and, worse, that a tenth of them own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. After listening to many of Sanders’ speeches, I know the statistics. It was a reminder that America’s economy is screwed, but not much more than that.
Hearing it last week was different. I’d spent the week in Palm Beach, Florida. On the way to the beach, we drove past homes that were listed for $54 million on Zillow as Maseratis and Lamborghinis whizzed by, unfazed by the threat of a speeding ticket. The brisk wind made lying on the beach uncomfortable, so we walked into town to see Worth Ave., a hoity-toity upscale shopping district. Disapproving eyes checked out my faded denim shorts and old sweatshirt, though some designer store windows showed similarly worn-looking clothes. We passed Cartier, Chanel, and Tiffany’s; many had surprisingly ugly items on display. Not a car on the street was under $100,000, and the only other young people were women hanging on the arms of men twice their age. The clothing stores carried sizes small and smaller. Fortunately, it was cool outside, because most of the faces we passed looked like they’d melt otherwise.
The triple-digit number (a rarity) in my checking account wasn’t the only thing that set me apart from the strange breed of people encountered there. Usually, I smile at people on the street instead of sizing them up or appraising the value of their bags. I left Worth Ave. with a slight stomach ache, thinking of the homelessness in Baltimore, and the places where trash doesn’t get picked up.
In a different part of town, we visited a small consignment store owned by a friendly woman from Pennsylvania. Still thinking about what I'd seen earlier that day, I asked her what she thought about the Palm Beach residents. Happy to discuss it, she began what sounded like a speech she'd given many times before. "Old money, nothing but old money," she said, "just a bunch of uneducated drunks and drug addicts living off of trust funds." As she went on, I sifted through the once-worn garments of the people she was talking about. I asked what she thought about wealth inequality. After a thoughtful pause she said, "It's a shame, but it's never going to change. It might get a little better for a little while, but it's just how things are."
With her disheartening words in mind I listened to Bernie Sanders passionately talk about taxing the wealthy and getting money out of politics. He gave his spiel to an enthusiastic, mostly young audience. After my tour of Worth Ave., I listened with a tinge of pessimism. Wealth inequality is a noble goal, but I feel less hopeful about it having seen a world that exists because of excess money.
—Follow Sarah Grace McCarthy on Twitter: @birdy_grace