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.
Jodi Kantor at the Times has a poignant story about a woman whose unpredictable work hours affect her family, her relationships, her health, even her housing situation. The employee in question, single mother Janette Navarro, is striving and sacrificing, making the kind of choices we want to see in, and even demand of, our Good Poor; but her irregular schedule at Starbucks, set by machine, leaves her scrambling. She has to rely on the good will and flexibility on family members and a new boyfriend — and their patience has limits.
Newly off public assistance, she was just a few credits shy of an associate degree in business and talked of getting a master’s degree as some of her co-workers were. Her take-home pay rarely topped $400 to $500 every two weeks; since starting in November, she had set aside $900 toward a car — her next step toward stability and independence for herself and her 4-year-old son, Gavin.
But Ms. Navarro’s fluctuating hours, combined with her limited resources, had also turned their lives into a chronic crisis over the clock. She rarely learned her schedule more than three days before the start of a workweek, plunging her into urgent logistical puzzles over who would watch the boy. Months after starting the job she moved out of her aunt’s home, in part because of mounting friction over the erratic schedule, which the aunt felt was also holding her family captive. Ms. Navarro’s degree was on indefinite pause because her shifting hours left her unable to commit to classes. She needed to work all she could, sometimes counting on dimes from the tip jar to make the bus fare home. If she dared ask for more stable hours, she feared, she would get fewer work hours over all.
This profile is a heartbreaking reminder that systems to increase efficiency and profits often come at the expense of real people who, by definition, have messy, complicated lives. One tech guru gushes that Starbucks’s computerized scheduling works “like magic” to help the company cut costs. It’s not magic, dude. There are casualties right in front of us.
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.
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:
It was close to 1 a.m. when I left the wedding on Saturday night, and since I was still wide awake and had all of my senses, I decided I’d save the money I had set aside for cab fare and walked to the subway, which was two blocks from the venue. I’d normally feel self-conscious about wearing a tuxedo on the subway because strangers can’t help but stare, but it was late and I found a seat in the back of the car.
When I got to my stop and walked out of the subway and in the direction of my apartment, a man wearing a college sweatshirt who looked to be in his late thirties approached me and tapped me on the shoulder while I waited at a crosswalk.
“Excuse me—I need some help and you look like someone who can help me.”
“Okay…” I said. I was highly aware that it was late, there were very few people around, and that I was wearing a tuxedo.
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: