Affluenza and the Law

by Professor Byron L. Warnken on December 14, 2013

The vast majority of people, including attorneys and judges, have never heard of the term “affluenza.”  Beginning now, we may be hearing more about it because it has worked its way into legal language.  What is it and how might it be used in the law?

The word affluenza is a combination of “affluence” and “influenza.”  It reflects the use of money and wealth to solve or avoid all problems.  Affluenza is not recognized in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or by the American Psychiatric Association.  It is referred to as a “syndrome” that afflicts children who grow in a lifestyle of privilege, entitlement, and lack of parental control.  It often results in mental illness, including depression, impulse control, narcissism, and substance abuse.  Affluenza results in place a high value on money and possessions.  Affluent parents often avoid disciplining their children.  They use money to “buy off” their children’s bad behavior.  As these children get older, they engage in increasingly reckless behavior without regard for the consequences.

After WWII, the returning veterans had children.  Their children, known as the “Baby Boomers,” were born in the 1940’s through the 1960’s.  These Baby Boomers wanted to make life easier for their children.  Many Baby Boomers made sufficient money that they could purchase whatever their children wanted, and they had enough money to “buy” their children out of whatever crisis they faced.  Many children of the Baby Boomers grew up thinking that there is no problem that their family money can’t fix.

In 1996, Jessie O’Neill published “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.”  She is the granddaughter of a former GM CEO and Secretary of State.  She believes that the myth that money can buy happiness has contributed to the false sense of entitlement and the inability to delay gratification.

Oliver James, a child clinical psychologist, has addressed how the relationship between money and its pursuit has negatively influenced our ability to attain emotional balance.  In 2007, he published “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.”  He defined affluenza as the condition as a “painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste, resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”  Affluenza results in reckless behavior and the belief that one’s parents will “fix” any mess their children create.

This purported “syndrome” has now made its way into the legal system.  Affluenza was used in a Texas courtroom in the case of 16-year-old Ethan Couch.  He was driving drunk and killed four people.  He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in juvenile court.  is His defense attorney argued affluenza, as a mitigating factor, claiming that Couch needs rehabilitation and not incarceration.  The Court agreed, and Couch will go to a facility in Newport Beach, California, where he will be treated at a cost of about $450,000 per year.  Many critics, especially the families of the four people killed, believe that wealth enabled a guilty person to walk free.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: