Sociologists conceptualize lifestyles as structured hierarchically where people seek to emulate those higher up. Growing income inequality in the United States means those at the top bid up the price of valued goods like housing and those in lower groups have struggled to maintain their relative positions. We explore this process in the context of the U.S. housing market from 1999 to 2007 by analyzing over 4,000 residential moves from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Houses are the ultimate status symbol. Their size, quality, and location signal to others that one has (or has not) arrived. We show that in areas where income inequality was higher, all movers went deeper into debt and increased their monthly housing costs to live in more desirable neighborhoods. But because people at the top of the income distribution had so much more money, they were able to take on less debt to keep their position in the status queue. Everyone below them who made a move to buy a house took on more debt, particularly in areas with higher income inequality. This evidence suggests that growing inequality implies that those at the top buy the best homes while others struggle to keep pace amid rising housing costs.
New York Times online opinion section, “How Falling Behind the Joneses Fueled the Rise of Trump”
Washington Post Wonkblog, “Why Rich Neighbors are Bad for You”