Rich Little 'Poor' Kids

Trust funders find out there's more to life than everything

Tyler, meanwhile, has enjoyed every possible advantage. He is an heir of a different mold: not the businessman but the bohemian. He attended prep school at Phillips Academy (Andover), went to Yale, and took this past year off to live in Europe. There he interned at galleries and film festivals and made a short film. He's staying on in London for the summer, working without pay for artists and at an art gallery and doing his own artwork. His parents have underwritten the whole enterprise, which Tyler calls "incredibly selfless" but also a source of anxiety. "The knowledge that there are financial buffers in my life makes me at times feel powerless," he says.


Barbara Blouin knows that feeling well. A trust fund recipient herself, she co-founded the Inheritance Project in 1992 to spread the word, through self-published books and pamphlets, about the baggage that comes with inheriting wealth at a young age. "Not having to work is a problem," she says, "because people don't get their feet on the ground and they don't have a sense of confidence. They feel dependent. Another problem is being different from their peers. They often refer to it as being 'in the closet.' It can be as embarrassing as that. There are other things that go with that. They may be more likely to have an addiction. They probably have a fair amount of shame or embarrassment and often guilt."

Smug Life: "Those who bear the dreaded 'trustafarian' tag say they have problems with guilt, embarrassment, and most importantly, figuring out what to do with their lives."
Smug Life: "Those who bear the dreaded 'trustafarian' tag say they have problems with guilt, embarrassment, and most importantly, figuring out what to do with their lives."

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You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Guilt

A few idealistic young people take a novel approach to the guilt caused by having more than they really need. They give it away, for social change and other good causes.

"My parents started a business that they sold for several million dollars in 1999. They gave my brother and I each a million," says Jamie Schweser, who was then 26. "At the time I got this unexpected windfall, I was doing a lot of independent media and community organizing work. I was really trying to figure out how I could use those resources towards the social justice issues I was passionate about."

Schweser found his way to the Making Money Make Change conference, sponsored by a group of organizations including Resource Generation. The group works with wealthy people under 35, educating them about class issues and providing the tools they need to figure out how to manage their money, including progressive philanthropy. Resource Generation is part of a growing movement among philanthropic organizations to take advantage of the "wealth transfer phenomenon" to increase giving by certain individuals—from boomers to women to young people—challenging them to put their money where their values are. One of the oldest such groups is the Haymarket People's Fund, which since 1974 has funded progressive causes in New England and held conferences about giving for people with inherited and earned wealth.

Schweser, who is now the donor education coordinator for Resource Generation, emphasizes that the organization is not aimed at creating a generation of Robin Hoods. It has reached fewer than 1,000 people so far. To his knowledge, only a few of the people it works with have given away enough of their money to actually change their class status—perhaps because the family, or the family's grizzled financial adviser, intervenes. "My parents refuse to have any conversation with me about giving away more than what seem like token amounts," wrote one workshop attendant in an evaluation. In the face of more conservative attitudes, Schweser says, program participants "break through isolation," learning to be open about their wealth even as they learn about the disparities that drive this country. "I see it as a stepping into a more strategic and powerful use of our resources."—Anya Kamenetz

Blouin, however, says guilt is a danger only for those with a conscience and a sense of proportion—probably not the Paris Hiltons of the world. "Somebody who's quite happy having lots of money and stuff, who doesn't care that others may not, they might not feel guilty. But if they do care about those things they're almost certainly going to feel guilty."

For the scions who spoke to the Voice, free-flowing funds can cause social problems, but few of the materially blessed would confess to outright feelings of guilt. "I used to be very embarrassed of my privileges," says Andrew. "In Europe people would ask how I could be living there; I'd always say that my papa was with the diplomatic corps." Today, he is more honest but still doesn't "advertise" his riches. "Some people do treat me differently when they learn I have money. Doesn't really matter, I guess. It's not like I'll be buying drinks for everyone!" He shares a $1,400-a-month apartment in the Columbia Waterfront district in Brooklyn with a girlfriend who has a pile of student loans and no gilded background. "She refuses my help—I doubt my parents would let me pay off her college debts anyway."

Tyler says he, too, doesn't flash his cash around. He says that some unrestrained spending back in boarding school "took a toll on his friendships," when he was "unempathetic" and "unthinking" about the material differences between him and friends on scholarship.

Thomas allows that people have made derogatory comments about his family money over the years. Today, he says, a relatively modest lifestyle helps deflect criticism. "I can't really remember the last time I got angry or nervous or embarrassed. It's not as if I'm going to Suede and getting a banquette with three bottles of Crissy. I hang out on Smith Street and drink Red Stripes."

Generosity helps smooth the way with friends of more modest means. "I definitely know among my friends I'm not thought of as cheap," he says. "I know it'll all even out if I pick up dinner. And I've always been known among my friends for having people over. There's beer in the fridge, we'll have a barbecue and use my parents' apartment."

The peers at Thomas's tony Northeast college posed a somewhat different social problem: the clash between the haves and the have-even-mores. "In college some people really did have full staffs. I was a kid from Brooklyn who didn't wear Lacoste or drive a sports car. It was just assumed that I came from a blue-collar background and I might be on financial aid. I didn't jump to correct anybody." One night at dinner, someone reached to pay his check. "Assumptions were made. And I let them do it because they did share their bank account with their parents who were obnoxiously wealthy."

When these kids talk about class, they generally refer not to social divisions like family names but to material status markers like restaurant meals, clothes, cars, exotic vacations. Young people at various levels of relative affluence—those lucky enough to pay for private universities by check, for example, or live in the city without worrying about the rent—learn to navigate this world of luxe so smoothly that class distinctions seem to disappear. Yet bring up the topic of money directly, and the hidden boundaries are soon revealed.

In the end, though, the silver-spoon set is not so different from the rest of us. While they may not have to worry about basic needs, they eventually learn that the real challenge in life is making something of yourself no matter what you start out with. Thomas calls this attitude "a sense of luck of the draw, and hard work somewhere down the line." Andrew agrees. "I have many friends in the U.S. and abroad who are living off inheritances and aren't working, and some are very miserable," he says. "I tell them all that the remedy is to get a job and fend for yourself; it helps you find direction in life."


akamenetz@villagevoice.com

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