CAMBRIDGE, MA—Explaining that such events provide crucial insight into the country’s distribution of wealth, a report issued Friday by the National Bureau of Economic Research reveals that income inequality in the United States is most apparent when attending a fifth-grade classmate’s birthday party.
According to the study, a fellow grade schooler’s party contains a range of telling economic indicators, such as the variety of snacks offered, the number of guests the host has been allowed to invite, and the design and luster of wrapping paper used on the gifts from the host’s parents, which are said to provide the most comprehensive and accurate understanding of the widening gap between the nation’s rich and poor.
“We found that the extent of economic inequality is most acutely perceived when a fifth-grader arrives to a classmate’s home and takes notice of whether the birthday balloons tied to the mailbox are Mylar and filled with helium or whether they’re just plain latex ones that dangle in a loose bunch,” said lead researcher Julie Kuo, adding that the presence or absence of a vinyl banner suspended above the front door reading “Brandon’s Birthday Zone” further highlights the ongoing concentration of the nation’s wealth in fewer hands. “Even weeks prior to the party, an elementary schooler will receive either an unadorned invitation on flimsy card stock that reads simply ‘You’re Invited,’ or a glitter-covered invitation that has been custom-printed with a photo of the birthday boy or girl, providing guests with a clear understanding that inequality in the U.S. is at its highest levels since the 1920s.”
“Indeed, the disparities inherent in the American economy reveal themselves in stark clarity by the time fifth-graders have gathered in the living room to discover that the party has either an elaborate Frozen theme complete with the birthday celebrator in costume, or nothing more extensive than crepe paper streamers and a couple noisemakers laid out on a card table,” she continued.
Kuo noted that the evident differences in net worth between the top 10 percent of the nation’s earners and the bottom 90 percent are most clearly illuminated when guests notice such aspects of a classmate’s 11th birthday party as whether attendees are encouraged by the host’s mother to play Twister and charades in the living room or to head out to the backyard to spend the afternoon in a rented bounce house obstacle course.
Researchers also carefully noted the quality of food provided at such events as a key signifier of U.S. families’ level of affluence, with parties that feature a wide selection of personalized, intricately decorated cupcakes and a variety of cans of Coca-Cola–brand soft drinks illustrating the immense prosperity enjoyed by the wealthiest quintile of American taxpayers. The report also revealed that the declining standard of living for the middle class manifests in concrete terms when grade schoolers are served a slightly lopsided homemade Pillsbury Funfetti cake featuring a basketball hand-drawn in orange icing on its surface alongside a two-liter bottle of off-brand lemon-lime soda.
Furthermore, the report found that parties offering a plain, rectangular, unadorned sheet cake purchased from a local grocery store demonstrate that stagnant minimum wage laws and the mass outsourcing of manufacturing jobs continue to pose significant challenges for the nation’s working poor.
“The fact that the rich’s share of national income keeps rising as the inflation-adjusted median income in the U.S. has fallen nearly 10 percent in the past 15 years becomes readily apparent over the course of any four-hour birthday gathering, particularly a pool party that takes place around a classmate’s in-ground pool instead of at a crowded municipal location that guests must share with tens of other patrons,” said Kuo, pointing to such other locations as Lucky Strike Lanes, Six Flags, and the picnic tables at a public park that indicate that the wealthiest Americans routinely take advantage of generous tax savings that allow them to shield the value of their assets while many other households have yet to fully recover from the 2008 recession. “Even if the birthday stays completely within the home, the uneven distribution of national income becomes abundantly evident when classmates take turns swinging at either a piñata shaped like a licensed Pixar character that’s filled with pounds of Snickers Fun Size, Starburst, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, or a monochromatic horse piñata that only contains three different flavors of generic lollipops.”
“Of course, if the party takes place at a Chuck E. Cheese’s or other activity center, the number of video game tokens each child receives, if any, is perhaps the most accurate barometer of the steady divergence between the haves and have-nots in America,” she added.
After a careful analysis of their data, the researchers also concluded that the combined adjusted gross income of the host’s parents or guardians can be predicted within $1,000 by precisely weighing the goodie bags distributed at the party’s conclusion.