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.

Concerning Public Assistance, Shame, and Healthy Eating

From a website I was surprised to find myself perusing, since it's called "Christ and Pop Culture" (neither of which interests me greatly), here is an interesting first-person account of trying to use WIC vouchers at Whole Foods (spoiler: you can't).

“They Don’t Look Homeless”

The Atlantic has a punch-to-the-gut story today about a Minneapolis woman who has collected hundreds of oral histories from homeless people. Margaret Miles takes and shares pictures of the homeless as well, and the reactions she gets to them can be startling:

Miles says that the typical response she hears when viewers look at a portrait is, “They don’t look homeless.”

“We need to ask ourselves what that means,” she says. “Somebody said, ‘Gosh, that actually looks like the guy who drives my kids’ school bus.’ Well in fact it could be, and he could not be making enough money, or could have had a health crisis, or a divorce, or some other reason, and he’s driving your kids and loving your kids and caring for your kids during his day job, and then having to sleep at night in a shelter.”

One thing she learned as the project progressed was how having photographs of ourselves and our families is a privilege that many don’t have. “If I think of myself, I have hundreds of pictures of my child, starting with his birth,” she told me. But she found that in some cases, families with small children told her, “We don’t have any pictures of our babies yet.”

Homeless people: they’re just like us, except they often don’t have smartphones or cameras with which to take ten thousand daily FB pictures of their babies. Take a moment to look at the pictures and listen to a few of the oral histories yourself at the Atlantic.

RELATED: Logan’s interview series with homeless people in New York City.

Canadian Middle Class Feels Bad for American Middle Class

As a followup to Meaghan’s post about the American man who traveled to Canada and was struck by the existence of a “vast and comfortable middle class,” the Upshot talked to some middle-class Canadians who said they had plenty to worry about but thought they were better off than Americans:

“When you have a family to raise and you are middle class, you are on a treadmill,” said Deborrah Mustachi, a 52-year-old educational assistant for the Catholic school board in Markham, a Toronto suburb. “It’s very difficult to save when you have to live for today.”

Yet, Ms. Mustachi added, “I think people in the U.S. seem to struggle more.”

Canadians have little doubt that they face less financial stress about medical costs than Americans. Many also credit their labor unions for the size of their paychecks; union membership rates are higher in Canada. Canadians also know that the American housing bubble and bust were more severe than their version.

“We got to keep our houses,” said Gregory Thomas, 39, an actor and house painter who lives with his wife and two young children in Toronto. “As an outsider, it seems like the aspirational section of the middle class — those who are constantly trying to get a little bit higher — they really got decimated in the States.”

And I can’t get over this kicker:

Or as Mr. Thomas said, Americans “may get more on their plate when they go to Denny’s, but they don’t have more when they go home.”

Burn.

Photo: Alex Indigo

Wealthy People Agitated by Real Estate Trend

What interesting lessons about personal finance and the economy can we take away from the fact that web sites like AirBnB and VRBO are upending the market for $1,000-a-night rentals in the Hamptons? Probably none. But it is marvelous to know that there is a therapist in East Hampton willing to report with a straight face that “one of her patients’ top anxieties these days [is] the explosion of short-term rentals.”

The rich really are different than you and me, aren’t they?

 

Photo by the author.

When Life Bites You In The Class: Around the World, in Oakland, and on Campus

Is “middle class” a useful appellation when it means such drastically different things in different places? We’re not even talking Pittsburgh vs. Brooklyn here, but, like, Los Angeles vs. Laos:

Middle class is as much a matter of perception as statistics—the number of Americans describing themselves as middle class has remained essentially unchanged in recent years even as their incomes and spending power have eroded. When the same term is used to describe an American household bringing in up to $100,000 per year (according to a recent poll; $250,000 if you’re Mitt Romney) and Laotians living on $2 per day (according to the Asian Development Bank), it may not be a very useful term.

It’s relative, in other words, dependent on context. It means you’re less well-off than the well-off and not as poor as the poor.

Sometimes it means that you’re a white girl in 1990s Oakland whose radical parents could live elsewhere but don’t. In that situation, you identify in key ways with your non-white classmates, neighbors, and fellow members of the local swim team — especially when it comes to trying to finally depose the fancy-pants country club team that shows up with their matching swim suits and their hubcap-size muffins and wins everything. In that case, you want what your team wants: to wrench victory from the soft hands of the enemy, even if only this once. But you also occasionally, guiltily yearn for the pop culture version of white adolescence, where everything is safe and clean, cute and funny:

Is First-Hand Experience Necessary to Understand Poverty?

Over at The Atlantic, Stephen Lurie wonders whether Congress can sensibly legislate on poverty when its members are increasingly economically distant from the rest of us:

For the first time, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires. Nearly 200 are multimillionaires. One hundred are worth more than $5 million; the top-10 deal in nine digits. The annual congressional salary alone—$174,000 a year—qualifies every member as the top 6 percent of earners. None of them are close to experiencing the poverty-reduction programs—affordable housing, food assistance, Medicaid—that they help control. Though some came from poverty, a recent analysis by Nicholas Carnes, in his book White Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policymaking, found that only 13 out of 783 members of Congress from 1999 to 2008 came from a “blue-collar” upbringing. None of them have experienced that poverty in decades; those who did did so under vastly different public-policy circumstances.

Is first-hand experience absolutely necessary for thorough understanding? On the one hand, I’m personally inclined to say no: I do a lot of thinking and writing about race and racism, and I’d like to think that I have some good ideas and insights, notwithstanding my whiteness. On the other hand, Lurie suggests that members of Congress who voluntarily undertake some experience of poverty, like living on a food stamp budget, tend to show greater understanding of issues surrounding poverty and hunger. That lines up with the idea that subconscious bias might be overcome by increased familiarity.

What do you think? Can a person fully understand the constant psychological strain of poverty without living it? Is living among the poor or undertaking aspects of poverty enough?

 

Photo: Jacob Riis

Okay But Who Is to Blame for All This Inequality?

According to Pew Research, most Americans (65%) agree that the gap between the poor and the rich has grown in the past decade, but they do not agree on why.

How Americans Think About Fairness and the Economy

There is massive new Pew Research Center poll (185 glorious pdf pages) that dissects the attitudes of Americans on all sorts of things. There is much to mull over, starting with the study’s division of the American populace into eight ideological groups: Solid Liberals (all left all the time; like me, more or less), Steadfast Conservatives (fiscally and socially conservative), Business Conservatives (corporatist, but not so down on gays and immigrants), Young Outsiders (socially liberal Republicans), Hard-Pressed Skeptics (left-leaning, working class, disillusioned), Next-Generation Liberals (like the Solid Liberals, but unconvinced of the need for social programs or anti-discrimination legislation), Faith and Family Left (like the Solid Liberals, but homophobic), and (boringly) Bystanders, who are what they sound like: disengaged and uninformed.

These groups break down mostly as you’d expect (although the right is more polarized than the left). The study is full of charts that show the spread of each group’s opinions across some typical left-right divide, and they all pretty much look like this one:

14 Years Old and Trying to Survive in Three of Cincinnati’s Roughest Neighborhoods

Reporter Krista Ramsey and photographer Cara Owsley have a really terrific feature in the Cincinnati Enquirer looking at 14 different 14-year-olds living in three of Cincinnati's roughest neighborhoods. Nearly all of them have witnessed or experienced violence. Some have stolen to feed their families. And some, at 14, are holding on to the hope that the future will be a better place.

Telling Stories About Appalachia: An Interview With Adam Booth About Poverty Culture and Storytelling

Adam Booth is a native Appalachian and professional storyteller who teaches Appalachian Studies at Shepherd University in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle. This spring, I saw him speak at a session on new Appalachian stereotypes at Marshall University, where he discussed moving away from the pop-cultural barefoot-and-pregnant image, and into a reclamation of traditional practices and crafts like canning, foraging, square dancing, and quilting. Booth characterized the young people in their 20s and 30s who are doing much of this reclaiming as "Super Appalachians" who make themselves vessels for their cultural heritage. Immediately I knew who he was describing—and they reminded me of people I know in Brooklyn. I started thinking about the rising popularity of old-time culture in both urban and rural areas across the United States, and got in touch. We spoke by phone about Appalachian identity, the fetish for poverty culture, the popularity of story slams, and the coal economy.

The Class Politics of Donating Your Eggs

Whew, Moira Donegan has a doozy of an essay over at the New Inquiry, whose issue this month is all about MONEY. In "Over Easy" Donegan talks about the work that goes into egg donation and the taboo of acknowledging the financial incentives for doing it. The matching process often brings together wealthy couples with women who, when ideal candidates, are often the financially struggling, aspirational versions of themselves.