the Insiders


September 14, 2011 11:59 AM

Economics Aside, People Are Growing Closer

The poverty rate is, well, atrocious....

The poverty rate is, well, atrocious. Last year there were 46.2 million people living in poverty in the U.S. That's not just a bit of belt-tightening. That's a family of four living on earnings of less than $22,314 annually. The poverty rate is at a 17-year high of 15.1 percent and has risen for three consecutive years -- and to any thinking person the official rate understates the problem given the incredibly low threshold. 

Those unhappy statistics on poverty from the Census Bureau stand in stark contrast to recent signs of strength among high-end shoppers. Both Saks and Nordstrom reported comparable sales gains of more than 6 percent for August, and luxury shoppers have been propping up retail all year. 

So, the divide between the haves and the have-nots remains. 

But in some important ways, having money means less today than it used to -- though I'm sure that's little comfort for those in the lowest income brackets. 

For people a bit higher up the earnings ladder, fashion can be had on the cheap at Forever 21 or H&M. Demand for the Missoni for Target collection crashed the discounter's Web servers Tuesday. 

And other lines of affluence are blurring. 

The modern good life, in digital terms, is widely available. 

When corporate titans and movie stars log on to check their e-mail or scan the headlines, they wait just like everybody else as the icon swirls, promising that some unbelievably complex exchange of digital information is happening, probably in a satellite somewhere. 

Their iPhones lurch along the information superhighway just like their barber's phone and their chauffeur's phone. (Not everybody has an iPhone, of course, but AT&T sells older refurbished models for $9 with a two-year plan, putting the phone safely into the mainstream. And there are plenty of other phones that offer similar functionality.) 

What does it mean when class boundaries disappear at the mobile phone? Or when people can dress in whatever style they choose even if money is tight? I don't know. What I do know is that people, in some important respects, are becoming more similar -- economic realities notwithstanding. Everyone, it seems, can weigh in on Snooki or the stock market, the Arab Spring or Twitter, whether it's pro, con or indifferent. 

Will the rich try harder to set themselves apart? Will they decide they don't want to be set apart? Will those in the middle decide they have enough of the material signifiers of affluence and begin to treasure other things -- free time perhaps? 

So much has been said about the Internet and the digital age and global supply chains and their transformative powers that it's easy to think that maybe the changes have already happened and that we all just have to muddle through now. 

I'm guessing things have just gotten started. The technology has changed and is continuing to change. Now, we have to catch up as people.
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