Do You Want to Be Wealthy?

Sam Rainer

May 4, 2008

A new study from the Pew Research Center uncovers some contrarian results regarding wealth desires in the United States. The study elucidates:

Only 13% of adults say it’s “very important” for them to be wealthy, ranking this personal priority far behind six others measured in a new survey by the Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends project.

These measures point to what Americans value most. The list shakes out in the following rankings:

What We Value Most (% saying item is “very important” to them)
67% – Have enough free time to do the things you want to do
61% – Being successful in a career
61% – Having children
53% – Being married
52% – Doing volunteer work or donating to charity
52% – Living a religious life
13% – Being wealthy

I’m surprised by the findings – “being wealthy” pulls up in last place. But the survey report adds:

Don’t get Americans wrong — a majority certainly wouldn’t mind being rich. According to the survey, another 43% of adults say being wealthy is “somewhat important” to them, while about the same proportion say it’s “not too important” (33%) or “not important at all” (10%). These survey findings cannot answer whether most Americans genuinely place a medium-to-low value on wealth, or whether they accept the fact that they’ll never be rich, or whether they’re reluctant to admit that money matters a lot to them. But whatever the explanation, it’s striking how few Americans rank being wealthy as a top priority in their lives.

My puzzlement about these findings unwound some after reading the next section:

Who most wants to be rich? Those who aren’t, this survey suggests. Fully 22% of those with family incomes of less than $20,000 a year say it’s “very important” for them to be wealthy. That’s more than double the proportion of adults who earn $100,000 or more a year.

Paradoxically, while the least affluent are the most likely to value wealth the most, they’re also among the most likely to value wealth the least. Fully 13% of those in the less-than $20,000 income category say becoming wealthy is “not important at all” to them, nearly double the proportion of those in the $100,000 or more category who hold this view. As it turns out, there’s an age-related explanation for these seemingly inconsistent results. Those in the lowest income tier contain disproportionately large numbers of adults under the age of 30, a group that most values wealth, but also a heavy share of retirement-age adults, a group that values wealth the least.

Perhaps this study helps shed some light on the success of the prosperity gospel in our nation. What’s your take? Can we connect the dots with this report and what seems to be an abundance of health and wealth messages?

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