Sunday, June 14, 2009

Friends Without Money

In his book The Big Sort, Bill Bishop shows how our country is ever more divided along economic lines. Migration patterns differ by income, reinforcing the separation of people into rich and poor counties—a phenomenon that has been on the rise since 1976 with a big jump since 2003, according to a recent paper by professor of government James Galbraith. One of the reasons schools are so often segregated, in terms of class as well as race, is that rich and poor people—or even middle-class and working-class people—don't live side by side in many places.
Even small, nuanced class differences can be hard to negotiate. Do you feel your throat constrict when you suggest a meal with a friend at a restaurant that you worry might be too pricey, or not pricey enough? Have you ever had a friend over a few times and not been invited to her place in return, only to figure out, when you've finished feeling insulted, that your friend is embarrassed by her apartment? We often sidestep relationships in which spending habits don't match up exactly, I think, to spare ourselves feelings of inadequacy or insensitivity, those awkward breaches that make intimacy feel like work. Remember that indie movie Friends With Money, in which Jennifer Aniston flummoxes her whole circle of screenwriter and fashion-designer friends by going to work as a maid?
But the recession is forcing more of that pricking of conscience upon us. Because of the downturn, friendships between two people whose Saturday-night spending and overall class status used to calibrate precisely have now turned into trickier relationships between one person who still has money and one person who doesn't. The sudden uneven footing isn't easy to negotiate, as I've learned from the responses I got to my question about the effect of the recession on friendships. The one-sided change in circumstance trips up even—or, perhaps, especially—old and close friends. People need BFFs to sustain them through this time of doldrums. Yet, judging from my inbox, sometimes these, too, are lost. The rifts between friends created by the recession are a kind of collateral damage. We're only beginning to sift through the rubble

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