There is significant evidence mounting to indicate that the economic divisions in our country—which are, by all accounts, becoming more and more pronounced—aren’t just unfair to the 90% of us who aren’t wealthy: they’re actually bad for us.
Well, okay, let’s discount the obvious: you probably spend at least a part of every day reading or thinking about issues such as access to adequate medical care, access to nourishing food, and access to education and opportunities. Yes: being disadvantaged is very bad for you in serious life-threatening ways. Let’s take those as given.
But there’s another aspect of this inequality that touches us particularly in Provincetown. Some people look at the gulf between year-rounders and summer residents as problematic, and there’s definitely some friction there. But what might be even more important is the gulf between those who move here with a lot of disposable wealth and those who spend summers working five jobs to support their jobless winters. In other words, the relatively rich and the relatively poor living cheek-by-jowl with each other.
According to a number of recent studies, turns out that it’s really bad for your mental and emotional well-being to be on the have-not side of that equation, especially in a place like this where the wealth is very much in your face. Who knew?
Earlier this month, the National Academy of Sciences published its study on air rage, which found that passengers in economy seating were 3.84 times more likely to have an incident of air rage if they were on a plane that had a first-class section. They were 2.18 times more likely to have an outburst if they had to walk through first class to board the plane (as opposed to boarding in the middle of the plane, directly into the economy section). The lead author of the study, Katherine DeCelles of the University of Toronto, noted, “Research tells us that when people feel a sense of deprivation and inequality, they are more likely to act out.”
And just last week the Guardian reported on a study out of the University of Warwick and Cardiff University that found living amid the wealthy (even for the upper-middle-class) is bad for people’s mental health. “With respect to income and happiness, what matters most is how much income a person has relative to his or her income comparison group.” In other words, hang out around people who have a lot more status than you (as indicated by wealth) and you’re bound to get depressed.
Is it little wonder that in Provincetown, where there’s such a breathtaking divide between the haves and the have-nots, there are substantial mental health problems? This is a town that supports four thriving liquor stores, two of which are open year-round: think about that for a moment. We are constantly aware of people in our community struggling with diseases such as addiction and depression, both of which can be triggered by our experiences. And even if our mental health issues aren’t seriously challenging or debilitating, everyone has at one time or another walked by a restaurant or shop or show that we can’t afford and felt like the outsider looking in. It doesn’t make for a whole lot of cheerfulness and joy.
This is especially true for anyone who has lived here for a long time and has seen the influx of wealth and the radical changes—not all of them good—that wealth has brought to the community. Why shouldn’t people be resentful? How can they not? We’re treated daily to the equivalent of walking through that lovely first-class section before getting to our own scruffy crowded noisy section of the plane. They get champagne; we get peanuts.
I was thinking a lot about this recently as I’ve been looking at condos in town, and realizing that the inventory available in my price range is extremely limited—and extremely discouraging.
But here’s the thing: while it is certainly depressing to live alongside those who have a whole lot more than we do, it’s still a choice that we’ve made. I looked at a random sampling of places to live elsewhere in the country and found that, in a lot of them, I could buy outright an entire move-in-ready house for the cost of a down payment on a tiny condo in Provincetown. Seriously: I could get the hell out of Dodge and live a life elsewhere that would be financially comfortable, even quite nice.
Except that I don’t want to live in those places. I want to live here. That’s a choice, and I need to take responsibility for that choice. I choose to live as a relatively impoverished person (and don’t miss the irony in that: I have enough to eat, I have a roof over my head, I am acutely aware that I am far from poor) in the midst of people who are astronomically wealthy. I choose to walk daily through the first-class seating on my way to the back of the plane.
I don’t have to. It’s a choice.
I think that we forget that, sometimes. We forget all the reasons we make the choices we do. Provincetown, as I’ve often said, isn’t a place you end up in accidentally. It’s not a stop-off on the way to some other destination. It’s land’s end. We come here for so many reasons: to heal, to create, to live, even to die. We’ve all found something here that we haven’t found anywhere else. And then once we’re here, we complain because we aren’t the richest and happiest pixies in the forest.
And yet we could be. Look at the wealth we all do have. The Cape is still relatively unpolluted. We have remarkable wildlife everywhere we look, on land, air, and sea. We can begin our days, if we so choose, with a walk on the beach or in the dunes. We live in a political bubble where we are shielded from the worst of the current administration’s excesses, at least for the moment. Most of us have developed strong, fulfilling, amazing friendships here.
We can recognize that and take responsibility for our choices, or we can complain because we’ve chosen to live in a very expensive place and—surprise, surprise—we’re finding that it’s difficult to make ends meet here.
Lots of other people don’t have choices. We do. Let’s celebrate that we can make them rather than bemoan that they’re not perfect.