Affluenza is a term coined by Jessie O’Neill to describe behavioral disorders caused or exacerbated by the presence of wealth. Affluenza was part of the defense in the case of the rich 16-year-old Texan Ethan Couch, whose privileged upbringing apparently shielded him from a punishment more commensurate with his crime. (Driving drunk, he killed four people, and yet was given 10 years probation instead of the potential 20-year incarceration.) This controversial sentencing prompted us to ask Ms. O’Neill if affluenza is a permanent condition of society.
Q: You disagree that “affluenza” is a reasonable defense, as Couch’s lawyers claim. Given the way our society is structured, is a double standard for the affluent ultimately inevitable?
A: Unfortunately, there has been a double standard for the rich and poor as long as the classes have existed. I see no change in the foreseeable future. However, the wider the gap, the more likely we are to have a national revolution which might, for a brief time, even the playing field somewhat. Given the power of money I believe that ultimately we would return to a world in which the affluent are given preferential treatment. And the cycle continues…
I would like to believe that altruism, a sense of fairness and justice, integrity and decency will prevail. Experience says otherwise. However, I have not given up hope!
— Written by Jessie O’Neill, M.A., founder and director of The Affluenza Project and a licensed therapist. She specializes in the psychology of money/wealth and how it affects both our personal and professional relationships. She is the author of The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence. (Note: O’Neill was born to wealth. She is the granddaughter of Charles Erwin Wilson, past president of General Motors and Secretary of Defense under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.)