Rich Americans aren't only getting richer. They're becoming more isolated from the rest of America, too.
A recent analysis of survey data from more than 100,000 Americans finds that the rich spend significantly less time socializing than low-income Americans. On average, they spend 6.4 fewer evenings per year in social situations.
Rich Americans spend less time socializing with their family and neighbors — although they do spend more time socializing with friends.
The study is part of a growing body of research that suggests a yawning gap between what it means to be rich and poor in the United States.
For years, American society has become both more affluent and more stratified. Now this empirical evidence shows that for the rich it is becoming more exclusive, reflecting the phenomenon of the "velvet rope economy" and increasing economic segregation.
Richer Americans aren't that into talking with you
The paper's co-authors — Emory University's Emily Bianchi and the University of Minnesota's Kathleen Vohs — analyzed results from the General Social Survey and American Time Use Survey. The studies controlled for a variety of variables in order to generate estimations of the specific impact household income has on people's social connections. For example, the study controlled for differences in gender, race, marital status, geographic location, living arrangements, city size, and more.
In addition to looking at evenings spent socializing, the authors also examined how a typical day plays out for Americans at different income levels. They found that people with higher incomes spent an estimated 10 minutes more alone in a day, 22 minutes more with friends, and 26 minutes fewer with family than people with lower incomes.
To estimate the minutes per day, the authors counted low income as earning $12,340 and high income as $105,086. For their work on nights socializing in a year, they used $5,427 for low and $131,203 for high.
The paper reflects psychological findings about the social behavior of people with access to different levels of money, and demonstrates how they play out in the real world. For example, previous studies have shown wealthier people to be less interested in social interactions and less compassionate than people with lower incomes. These characteristics, the authors of the paper theorize, manifest themselves in people's social tendencies.
Rich Americans pay people to do the things neighbors and families used to
A social network can be more crucial to the less affluent — whereas in the gig economy, richer Americans can pay for the work that friends and families used to provide.
Relatives and neighbors are more likely than friends to provide financial help, child care needs, or home repairs, which "are likely to be crucial for managing existing and impending challenges."
As an example, Bianchi mentioned home alarm systems. Before the technology became cheap enough for millions of Americans to afford them, it was more common to have neighbors look after your house when you left town.
Not anymore. As Bianchi points out, "That's something you can pay for and never interact with your neighbor about that. But, again, only on certain economic levels."
An Uber ride can replace a friend or family's car for getting to the airport — and instead of borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbor, TaskRabbit can now procure that same service at the tap of a screen.
"Now we can kind of, through money, pay for things that we used to rely on other people for," Bianchi said. "As we become more affluent as a nation — as we have, and certainly not equally by any stretch — we do tend to pay for some of these things that we used to give and receive support on."
Unlike friends, family and neighbors are driven less by choice and more by biology and geography. Friendships are based more on shared interests and values.
People in wealthier households relying less on family and neighbors for help in times of need may point to why more of their free time is spent with their chosen social circles. These relationships with friends, Bianchi said, could be more "satisfying."
Why an isolated upper class matters for America
Rising affluence, Bianchi suggested, has pushed forward "individualization" — an idea that political scientist Robert Putnam wrote about in his seminal work Bowling Alone, which began as a 1995 essay and turned into a book in 2000.
Putnam argues there that the individualization of leisure time is in part responsible for a decline in civic participation.
"I've always been struck by the idea that we've become wealthier as a country and by many metrics less happy, less involved in our communities, and certainly interacting less," she said. "That's been a puzzle to many scholars and something that's always captured my attention and interest. I see this as a small piece of understanding that."
This increasing isolation is shown a number of ways. For instance, Americans are talking less and with fewer people about "important matters." From 1985 to 2004, the percentage of Americans who said they had no one with whom to talk about "important matters" rose from 10 percent to 24.6 percent.
Further, voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections (35.9 percent) was the lowest of any midterm since 1940.
But that's not to say all of this is "bad." And it's not "good," either. Rather, it's different. This phenomenon, which doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon, will force Americans to interact in new, nontraditional ways.
Sure, you may not lean over your white picket fence anymore to ask your neighbor what he or she thinks of Donald Trump. Today, your "friend" is more likely to rant about him online.