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What is Affluenza and Are You Infected?

Affluenza book cover

In recent weeks, the question of “what in the world is affluenza?” has regained prominence in the national media due to the infamous Ethan Couch case. In 2013, the sixteen-year-old Couch killed four people and injured numerous others driving drunk and recklessly on a road in a Northern Texas suburb. Growing up affluent and with parents who never showed him any boundaries, his lawyers argued that the teen did not understand the consequences of his actions and should enter a rehabilitation program instead of going to prison. The judge in the case decided to give the so-called “Affluenza teen” 10 years of probation and no prison time—a ruling that, not surprisingly, was followed by substantial public outcry. Thus, this case has put the term affluenza back into the spotlight. But what exactly does it refer to?

ABC 20/20 documentary about the Ethan Couch case:

John de Graaf popularized the term with his 1997 PBS documentary entitled “Affluenza” and the accompanying best-selling book with the same title. While the term has most recently been used to refer to an inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions because of financial privilege, de Graaf and other critics of consumerism define the term much more broadly. In the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, de Graaf and his colleagues define affluenza in much broader terms as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more” (pg. 2)—clearly playing on the similarity of the term to the widely known medical condition influenza. And even though influenza is a much more broadly accepted illness, affluenza does have medical consequences as well. Overconsumption leads to severe personal and societal symptoms. At the individual level, overconsumption comes in tow foremost with stress; at the societal level, affluenza leads to environmental destruction. Thus, it is “a powerful virus [that] has infected American society, threatening our wallets, our friendships, our families, our communities, and our environment” (pg. 1).

Affluenza documentary: http://www.pbs.org/video/2103229388/

Does this assessment seem like an exaggeration to you? It probably does to most everybody, but the statistics that the authors cite to underscore their case are breathtaking. Here are just a few examples from the book’s second edition, which was published in 2005:

  • There are more malls (46,438) than high schools (22,180) in the U.S. (pg. 13)
  • “Americans now spend six hours a week shopping and only forty minutes playing our kids” (pg. 14)
  • “The average American possesses 6.5 credit cards” (pg. 19)
  • “Current bankruptcy rates exceed those experienced during the Great Depression. […] Every fifteen seconds, an American goes bankrupt” (pg. 20)
  • “From 1980 to 2004 the amount spent on children’s advertising in America rose from $100 million to $15 billion a year, a staggering 15,000 percent!” (pg. 55)

These statistics should make us think critically about how consumerism is affecting our lives. The first time I really thought consciously about the issue of overconsumption was in 2006 when I did graduate studies at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. For her final paper in a graduate history seminar, one of my colleagues researched the history of how clutter has been discussed in American women’s magazines throughout the past 50 years. What became clear is that clutter has become more and more prominent in most every American household and with it grew an industry that sought to help us organize and store all of the extra things we really don’t need. So think about what items you really need before your next shopping trip!

But is there really a connection between the sociological concept of affluenza described by de Graaf and his colleagues and the case of the “affluenza teen”? In a 2013 TIME magazine article de Graaf addressed this question noting that “Couch’s actions do reflect our national ‘affluenza’” as does the court’s decision, which really equates to “special treatment for the rich.” To drive this point home, he closed out the article with a powerful historical anecdote:

In 1877, the Sioux chief Sitting Bull spoke of the light-skinned people who were overrunning his lands: “They make many laws which the rich may break but the poor may not, and the love of possession is a disease with them.”

Photo Credit: Joakim Jardenberg, 2006.

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