In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.- Confucius
I’m at the airport. I just used my husband’s “premiere points” with an airline to check-in luggage for free. I mention the fees, because I loathe them and I’ve long thought that airports are one of the most visible vestiges of classism.
Have you ever seen the cocoons that first and business class passengers fly in on international flights? What about the literal red carpet that is laid out for “business elite” or “platinum” members. They have their exclusive lounges that my pinkie toe cannot meander into.
U.S. citizens hate to think of the USA as a place where only “certain people” succeed. As much as we’re enthralled by TV series like Games of Thrones which refashions and glorifies the intriguing secrets of lords and ladies, we hate to think that being of noble birth equates being “destined for greatness.”This would also inherently mean that those of ‘low birth’ will spend their lives toiling at their service.
Still it’s real. There are countless ways where: class matters.
For example, the New York Times recently ran an article about how talking to your children gives them a higher IQ. It also noted that parents from higher income brackets are more likely to talk to their children than middle class parents, middle class parents more than working class parents and so on.
I doubt this is about literacy or desire. I am sure that some of this is more about time…We’ve talked about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on this blog before. Suffice it to say, when you’re trying to address your survival needs you have less time and energy to focus on anything else.
Just think about it…
Here are a few salient moments for me in the last few weeks that have reminded me of my own class privilege. I needed the perspective.
1) I was on my hammock when I realized I was literally getting “paid to lay in the shade.” That’s right. I am salaried and have paid vacation leave (and sick leave). Even if most of the time, it’s exasperating and disheartening to calculate what my hourly salary would be when I work more sixty hours, rather than forty hours a week without any overtime in sight.
Still, I can take time off when I need or want it (within reason) and not have it affect my family’s bottom line. This is important. Hourly work is normal in the service and construction and such sectors do more physically demanding work, but are not able to take time off to rest or care for themselves or their families.
2) At CVS – when I went to have a routine prescription filled and I pulled out my health insurance card, while the woman who proceeded me spent ten plus minutes trying to see if Medicaid would cover hers. It was a stark reminder that as of 2010, 49.9 million was the number of uninsured Americans. That’s 16.3% of the total population.
3) Driving through Gary, Indiana: the husband and I were on our way to see MJ’s childhood home. Gary is considered a rust-belt town. The kind of town that used to have a thriving employed population at the local steel plant and the adjoining industries that supported it. When the plant boarded up, cut hours, and went automated most people were laid off en masse. You know that it’s cyclical. Unemployment begets poverty which begets decreased standards of living.
It takes means, motive and opportunity to get ahead, not just hard work. All of these are often shaped by your networks, which come from your community. If everyone you know is unemployed or underemployed, you’re resources are quite minimal compared to someone whose mother’s best friend chairs the hospital board and sister who works at a prominent engineering firm.
4) Continuing our conversation about access, it is important to note that access is NOT about proximity. Yup, this is really clear to me when I attended my sister’s graduation from Johns Hopkins University, which like many universities (Atlanta University Center, Columbia, University of Chicago, University of Southern California are all other good examples) that are smack dab in the midst of impoverished neighborhoods, full of children who due to systemic barriers may never attend these schools, much less consider it.
The reality is stark: “Three-quarters of students at top colleges come from the top socioeconomic quartile, with only one-tenth from the poorer half and 3 percent from the bottom quartile.”
But just to be clear, the epicenters of American poverty are not stagnant. Contrary to popular belief, American cities have not always been a place of decay. Right now American cities are experiencing the inverse of white flight as countless upwardly mobile people move back into the cities – it’s all about proclivities (and gentrification).
5) Then I did some research about 529 college saving plans for a family member. Yes. Their son or daughter is going to school and they have the disposable income to put some money aside for their pursuit. Our banking system is not the most egalitarian. People who can afford to keep large balances in their checking accounts get them for free and those who can make large investments get the best interest rates. The working poor get DISMAL interest rates and banks make money off overdrafts (which is easy to do when you’re trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents). This is not something that affects richer people. The same can increasingly be said for student loans.
6) Then – there is a wider world context. Even as I read heartening stories of individual triumph, like this one, I know it’s in part because of the infrastructure in the USA. Even as a homeless person she would have access to a free public school, clean drinking water, sources of light, libraries and health care. Just ask the Economist. “Nobody in the developed world comes remotely close to the poverty level that $1.25 a day represents. America’s poverty line is $63 a day for a family of four.”
None of these observations make me any less privileged, but maybe, just maybe they make me more human.