Inequality

America Runs on Dunkin’ (In Secret Pools)

The beach is largely democratic. Though, as commenters hastened to assure me when last we discussed it, some shorelines charge for entry or parking or both, where there is ocean there tends to be free access to ocean. Screaming children, old folks splayed out in chairs, teenagers strutting like seagulls: the beach embraces humanity in all its debatable glory.

The pool, by contrast, is elitist. It puts up walls. Yes, there are public pools, but much like public schools, they tend to be used by a specific subset of people with fewer choices. Those who can afford to usually go elsewhere, like the mom I heard agonizing in the playground about whether or not to give her daughter to the best free education in Brooklyn, or like the author of this piece for Mommy Poppins: “if the idea of putting your kids in a public pool makes you uncomfortable, there are other options.” Why would anyone be “uncomfortable”? The author doesn’t say, but we can guess. My dad grew up in small-town Virginia with pools whose signs read, “No Jews, blacks, or dogs.” The pool remains a potent symbol of racial and economic segregation even today. It says, “You there, you belong; come, bathe your weary limbs and refresh yourselves in my rarefied water. Immerse yourself in a Fountain of Youth. Emerge sparkling like a doe touched with morning dew. #NoFatties.”

This piece about secret pools in Manhattan does not, in short, come as a surprise.

The Dream Downtown, a hotel in the Meatpacking District, charges $175 a day to use the pool, Monday through Thursday. A cabana on the weekend will set you back at least $2,500.

It’s enough to make a person long for the Jersey Shore.

BTW: If you’re in the city and less squeamish than the Mommy Poppins crowd, this round-up of the best places to swim in Manhattan includes several absolutely free public pools as well as more affordable private options. Or, try a Dumpster!

Illo by Charrow

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Concerning the Moral Obligations of the Wealthy

I have come under some criticism of late for being uncharitable toward the rich. To be more precise, I offhandedly wrote, alluding to Ester’s piece on trust fund kids, that my policy concerning people born rich is to distrust them. Commenters took me to task for that, and rightly so: it is foolish and wrong to suppose that affluence, in and of itself, defines character. As one commenter noted, mine was “exactly the kind of ignorance several writers on the Billfold would preach against if it were any other kind of discrimination.”

I think that commenter was right, and I said so in comments and a note appended to the post in question. I also said, “We could have a separate discussion about whether there is any moral imperative on the inheritors of wealth to do something selfless and worthwhile with their money, or about the attitudes that may or may not prevail among them about whether they deserve their good fortune.” Several commenters later suggested that yes, that is a discussion worth having. This came to mind over the weekend, when I was engaged in that most proletarian of leisure activities, camping and reading the New Yorker. So let’s start our discussion about the moral obligations of the wealthy with a focus on how they help people with acute need.

I suppose I should not expect a worldview untouched by a certain elitism when I read the New Yorker, but more and more, I notice that there is an archetypal story about rare diseases and how progress is made in their cures. It goes like this:

1. An upper-middle-class couple notices something unusual about their infant child. 2. Doctors are either flummoxed and unhelpful or convinced that it is a terminal illness. 3. The parents refuse to accept the doctors’ assessment and devote large sums of money to (a) organizing and lobbying for more research on the illness; and (b) making all kinds of costly changes to their home, lives, and routines to accommodate their ill child and make the child’s life more enriching. 4. Progress in treatment results from the parents’ tireless efforts.

This sequence became clear to me while reading Seth Mnookin’s piece, “One of a Kind” in the July 21, 2014, issue. The article focuses on a couple, a college professor and an M.B.A., whose son has an extraordinarily rare genetic disease, and their ultimately successful quest to push the medical establishment toward more data-sharing and collaboration to develop treatments. (Spoiler: the disease isn’t quite as rare as previously believed.) The article is great and fascinating: in addition to following a family with the surname Might and involving a glycobiologist who is actually named Hudson Freeze, it illustrates how more base human motivations (researchers’ desire for sole credit on publications; institutions’ need to compete for scarce funding) can impede medical progress. It also has a happy-ish ending: the Mights’ son is showing surprising progress as he gets older; research is progressing.

But all that progress is predicated on the fact that this terrible disease befell not just Matt and Cristina Might’s child, but the child of Matt and Kristen Wilsey as well. The Wilseys, we learn, “are one of the most prominent families in San Francisco.”

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Concerning Eschewing Ivies and Raising Working-Class Heroes

On the heels of Ester’s exploration of trust fund kids (my position: don’t trust ‘em), I came upon this rather wide-ranging indictment of elite colleges and the admissions process in the New Republic: in short, the author avers, the Ivies squelch creativity, channel thinking and energy into a narrow set of endeavors, reinforce privilege, and perpetuate the illusion of a meritocracy: “This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.”

And the cause (aside from, you know, how rich people always set stuff up to benefit themselves)?

Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools.

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Blame the Patriarchy For Your Lack of Social Mobility

You’d be forgiven if you saw today’s The Atlantic article “What’s In a Name? Everything.” and thought it was another Freakonomics-style piece about how passing along certain surnames to your children can inhibit their social mobility because we as Americans are presumptive and racist jerks.

Well, passing along certain surnames can inhibit social mobility, and we as Americans are often presumptive and racist jerks, but that’s not why these two items are necessarily connected—not according to UC-Davis economic historian Gregory Clark’s new research, anyway.

Gregory Clark’s new book The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility examines how wealth, status, and opportunity are passed down from parents to children, and how likely it is that a family—not an individual, but an entire family—is able to rise socially and economically over time.

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Soon We Will All Enter Through The Poor Door

Separate but equal, right? What could possibly go wrong? According to the Daily Mail, NYC has given a thumbs up to the Poor Door:

Extell’s proposal allows them to force affordable housing tenants to walk through an entrance located in a back alley behind the building to enter, leaving the more prominent front entrance for tenants paying for nicer apartments. … some developers dismiss the outcry over the ‘poor door’ concept.

‘No one ever said that the goal was full integration of these populations,’ David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president at Toll Brothers, another developer specializing in luxury residencies, told The Real Deal in 2013. ‘So now you have politicians talking about that, saying how horrible those back doors are. I think it’s unfair to expect very high-income homeowners who paid a fortune to live in their building to have to be in the same boat as low-income renters, who are very fortunate to live in a new building in a great neighborhood.’

The great David Von Spreckelsen has spoken. Gross trash-people living in affordable housing should be grateful they get a door at all and don’t have to shimmy in through air vents or come in on their knees, flagellating themselves for not working harder in elementary school to prepare themselves for the marketplace. Count your blessings, human rats! If you can count, which we doubt.

Related: Have you watched Snowpiercer yet? Anne Helen Petersen says: “Snowpiercer is the first film I’ve seen since District 9 that takes the tropes of the blockbuster and transforms them into something so compelling that days after seeing it, you stop can’t thinking about it. It turns moviegoers into proselytizers: Once you’ve seen it, you can’t shut the fuck up.”

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America Arrests Working Mom. Good Job, America!

Welcome to the US of A, where you can get arrested for letting your nine-year-old play in the park while you go to work at McDonald’s. Spluttering with indignation? Let Conor Friederdorf of the Atlantic articulate your outrage for you. His skills are well-honed.

By arresting this mom (presumably causing her to lose her job) and putting the child in foster care, the state has caused the child far more trauma than she was ever likely to suffer in the park, whatever one thinks of the decision to leave her there. Even if the state felt it had the right to declare this parenting decision impermissible, couldn’t they have given this woman a simple warning before taking custody?

Also, even though it is against the law for your boss to tell you not to discuss your salary with your coworkers, odds are your boss will either not know that or not care. For that matter, you may well not know your rights, either. Let’s go over them, shall we? 

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Living in Poverty, When “Poverty” is a Place

In the last decade, concentrated poverty has gotten significantly worse. In some regions of the country, over a third of residents now live in what are called “poor neighborhoods.” A Slate writer took a look at the 2010 Census data:

In 2010, the overall U.S. poverty rate was about 15 percent. However, about a quarter of all Americans lived in a so-called “poverty area”—defined as a census tract where more than 20 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. … The problem was especially severe in Appalachia and across the South and Southwest, where in most states 30 percent or more of all residents lived in these communities. 

As recently as a decade ago, the situation was much less dire: in 2000, around 18% of the total US population lived in “poor neighborhoods.” Now over 25% of us do. 15% of all Americans — and an unconscionable 21.8% of all children – live in poverty (“In 2012, 73.7 million American children represented 23.7% of the total U.S. population, but made up a disquieting 34.6% of Americans in poverty and a full 35% of Americans living in deep poverty”). Increasingly it seems Poverty is an actual place where Americans live, packed together in isolation, forced to cope with fewer resources, fewer services, fewer jobs, more violence, and the kind of high walls that make Poverty difficult to escape. Metaphorically speaking.

An unrelated article by several economists in Slate suggests that, on a local level, at least, people are acting: towns, even or especially less affluent ones, are doing like Denmark

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Who Lives In All Those Fancy Condos? Human Props & Nobody

One of the fun things about living in New York City is peering into the faces of the people you pass and asking yourself, “Are you a millionaire? Are you, sir, with the mustache and tattoos and mustache tattoos? Are you, angry biking lady?” It’s sort of like the grown-up version of Are You My Mother? but whereas the little bird in that famous children’s book has only one mother, NYC overflows with rich people. They’re everywhere, hiding among us. They have to be. After all, who else could afford to buy those massive luxury condos growing up everywhere like weeds?

Well, turns out that the secret ingredient is salt foreign capital.

According to data compiled by the firm PropertyShark, since 2008, roughly 30 percent of condo sales in large-scale Manhattan developments have been to purchasers who either listed an overseas address or bought through an entity like a limited-liability corporation, a tactic rarely employed by local homebuyers but favored by foreign investors. Similarly, the firm Corcoran Sunshine, which markets luxury buildings, estimates that 35 percent of its sales since 2013 have been to international buyers, half from Asia, with the remainder roughly evenly split among Latin America, Europe, and the rest of the world. “The global elite,” says developer Michael Stern, “is basically looking for a safe-deposit box.” … But much of the foreign money is coming in at lower price points, closer to the median for a Manhattan condo ($1.3 million and rising). In fact, if you’ve recently been outdone by an outrageous all-cash bid for an apartment, there’s a decent chance that, behind a generic corporate name, there’s a foreign buyer and an offshore bank account.

Don’t sweat it, normal Americans! We still have options. We can be HUMAN PROPS

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“Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment.”

Solidly middle-class, white collar, and college educated, Darlena Cunha never expected to need to rely on the social safety net. But when confronted by unexpected, high-needs twins, a laid-off husband, and the reality that the house she had just bought had already lost the entirety of its value (and yet still needed to be paid off), she found herself driving a Mercedes to pick up food stamps. Please tamp down your knee-jerk reaction to yell “Sell the Mercedes!” at the screen, at least until you read the article.

In just two months, we’d gone from making a combined $120,000 a year to making just $25,000 and leeching out funds to a mortgage we couldn’t afford. Our savings dwindled, then disappeared. So I did what I had to do. I signed up for Medicaid and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Before she knows it, she becomes “you people,” someone trying to buy inessentials with food stamps and enduring the scorn of know-it-alls.

Once, a girl at the register actually stood up for me when an older mother of three saw the coupons and started chastising my purchase of root beer. They were “buy two, get one free” at a dollar a pop. “Surely, you don’t need those,” she said. “WIC pays for juice for you people.” The girl, who couldn’t have been more than 19, flashed her eyes up to my face and saw my grimace as I white-knuckled the counter in front of me, preparing my cold shoulder.

“Who are you, the soda police?” she asked loudly. “Anyone bother you about the pound of candy you’re buying?”

The woman huffed off to another register, and I’m sure she complained about that girl. I, meanwhile, thanked her profusely.

“I’ve got a son,” she said, softly. “I know what it’s like.”

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What Did Your First Job Pay Then and What Does It Pay Now?

What did your first job pay? What does it pay now? Here are some of the many fascinating answers we’ve received, with more to come.  

Fran: I graduated USC school of journalism in 1963 and got a job on a daily paper called the San Gabriel Valley Daily Tribune. It is still in existence in L.A. county. I was fully trained to write about everything from fires to sports. However it was the olden days and my job was on the Women’s Page. I earned $60 a week gross and lived at home to pay off my car. I spent an entire summer writing about brides and their veils of illusion. That was enough.

I took the civil service exam for L.A. county and became a social worker visiting seniors who received old age assistance. At least it was equal pay for equal work and I started at $369 per month, advancing to $389 per month by June 1964 when I got married. We were able to live on that salary as my husband was a medical student. I have no idea what these salaries might be today but I am sure journalists still don’t earn much. [Editor's note: The inflation calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says $389 in 1974 money is $1,877 today.] I eventually used my journalism at a social worker three salary to recruit foster homes for child welfare services until I quit when Joey was born in 1968.

Veda:

My first temporary non-babysitting job was while I was an undergraduate at McGill. In 1963, through the university employment office, I got a job putting an eyebrow pencil and a clear plastic eyebrow template into cellophane bags, placing a foldover label at the top, and stapling them shut. I was paid by the piece, and I don’t remember how much, but given the times, it could not have been more than a couple of cents per bag. I performed my duties in the empty basement of my employer’s brother’s shoe store. It was in the days before iPods or even Walkmen, so it was BORING. When the entire job was finished, I went into tutoring, which was a distinct improvement.

My first full-time job was in 1967 at the IBM Datacenter in Montreal, as a junior programmer.  Even though I had had a full summer of training (by IBM), I was singularly mediocre. Nonetheless, I persisted, as the pay (beginning at $3,900 and reaching $4,100 per annum by the time I left a year later), and the benefits were far better than for other jobs I could have gotten at the time. As I recall, a job at a major bank as a management trainee paid probably $500-600 less, and a job with the Canadian government–probably in the frozen wastelands of Northern Quebec–paid about the same as the banks. I don’t know what my IBM job would pay nowadays, but I would think it would be at least 10 times what I was getting in 1967-68. BTW, as a woman, I was paid less than my equally feckless male counterparts.

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