As a term, affluenza is a combination of the words affluence and influenza, suggesting a sort of illness or epidemic of consumerism. In the United States, as well as in other nations, individuals struggle to make ends meet financially, though many still want to possess luxury consumer goods. Often, in order to have these social symbols of value, many will put themselves farther and farther in debt, causing themselves feelings of being overwhelmed, anxiety, and stress. These negative reactions often do not prevent one from continuing the cycle of debt, as many would prefer to suffer in comfort than not.
Affluenza can also refer to the inability of a person to fully understand the significance or ramifications of their actions as a result of their financial status. Individuals who have a high social ranking, usually as a result of their perceived wealth, are seemingly held to a different standard than the masses. Celebrities and wealthy socialites found guilty of crimes, for example, are often given a much more lenient sentence than an average person found guilty of the same crime. One of the most famous cases of this was seen in Ethan Couch, a Texas teenager from a wealthy family who was initially only sentenced to ten years’ probation after killing four pedestrians while driving under the influence. His defense was rooted in the fact that he didn’t understand the cost of his actions and that he deserved rehabilitation as opposed to incarceration. Ultimately, he was sentenced to approximately two years in prison for his actions, a sharp increase from the initial sentence but a punishment that many still do not see as severe enough for his crimes.