Friday, March 20, 2009

Class matters more than society cares to admit

Reading the New York Times publication Class Matters was disturbing, and all too familiar. In it, the correspondents who spent over a year researching class in America offered facts, figures and faces to support my long-held contention that what they term “income inequality” is the overriding class division in a country that denies the existence of such superficial demarcations. Their work reminds me just how trapped I am in my futile efforts to improve financially.

People who have money (enough to pay average living expenses, maybe take a real vacation now and then) have little concept what it is like to have none. Unemployment and a lack of financial savvy can take a lifetime to overcome, if ever – no cash, no credit, no assets, no real possibility of ever reaching even, much less get ahead. The well-off take for granted the ability to buy a new car ("But the interest rates are so low!") or a house ("You don't even need a down payment!"). Ever try buying a car with a lousy credit rating? A used car purchase two years ago came, with difficulty, at 17.73%; prior to that, in 2000 a loan for a 1997 Pontiac came with a usurious 23.95% interest rate. I suppose that is progress. Our income covers usually covers those little things like rent, food, utilities, insurance, and trying to help two good kids finish college so they don't end up financially hopeless like their parents. No cruises, Disney vacations, or designer clothes for this family. And we'll spend our lives working to pay Uncle Sam for the privilege of being Americans, where the only ones who get ahead are the ones who are born with money or who don't play by the rules.

Class Matters reiterates many of my frustrations and fears, and solidifies my belief that such fears are justified and insurmountable. Unlike many others, I don’t strive to be independently wealthy, although that would be nice; I only seek a level of security in knowing my living expenses can be met each month. We live simply, but never earn enough to overcome the limitations inflicted by our economic class. The various vignettes offered in this collection graphically depict how those financial disparities cast a shadow over every aspect of life: community and family structure, educational opportunities, access to health care, and longevity itself. Erik Eckholm refers to these inherent penalties as the “Ghetto Tax” in his 2006 article from the New York Times. It shows that my experiences with higher insurance premiums and exorbitant interest rates are not unique; rather, they are the price we pay for not being financially privileged.

Joan Didion raises some of these issues in “Sentimental Journeys,” noting the overemphasized alarms of crime which are raised to hide the true issues of poverty and injustice. However, she is quick lay the blame for society’s ills at the feet of racism; on this I disagree. In October 2006, I wrote a letter to the editor of Ode Magazine in response to an end piece, “One Last Thing” by sociologist Dalton Conley which called for slavery reparations. I noted my strong belief that “economic inequality and lack of opportunity are not predicated on skin color”:

My five-great-grandfather and his young family traveled by river barge, wagon and on foot from North Carolina (USA) to the newly-opened Northwest Territory in the early 1800s in search of a better life…My grandfather’s parents were sharecroppers in Ohio, the white trash slaves of the early 1900s. When Grandpa died, he left us the family Bible, a Civil War long rifle, and loving memories – not the “passing on of assets” and “lifetime wealth accumulation” Conley asserts as our expected “gifts.” None of my ancestors ever received 40 acres and mule, much less the economic benefits he takes as a given for American whites.

Did blacks suffer under slavery in the early days of this country, while many whites prospered? Of course they did, as did the Native Americans, the Chinese, Irish, Polish and Italians – any immigrant (forced or otherwise) or minority culture which did not fit the image of an emerging national identity. Easily exploited populations will always suffer at the hands of unscrupulous individuals, no matter what their skin color.

Economic disparity is not a matter of race; it is a matter of social class, as ignored a topic as that is in these United States. We do not all have an equal opportunity to succeed when we start from such uneven beginnings, but it is because of the power of the almighty dollar, not skin color.

Conley concludes by noting, “Money is the best predictor of becoming successful in life, getting a good education and a good job.” I will be paying off student loans for myself, and for my children, with whatever Social Security benefits are left in 20 years. That is my legacy. “It takes money to make money,” Conley says. He’s right, and that applies to us all, not just the ancestors of slaves.

The one, over-arching reason for discrimination has always been, and always will be, money. Money equals power. If you don’t have it, you will suffer – however intangibly – at the hands of those who do. Even the well-to-do segregate and discriminate in their own circles, noting “old” money versus new, or the manner in which new money is earned. Yet if one’s bank balance is high enough, no one cares what about religion, skin color or sex – or character.

For those members of society who struggle just to put food on the table and a safe, clean roof over their heads, no other concerns can take precedent. What reviewer Drake Bennett calls “The Sting of Poverty” will keep the have-nots focused on concerns the haves can only vaguely imagine. “Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems” (1).

Following Abraham Maslow’s (admittedly controversial) hierarchy, physiological and basic safety needs must be met before one can turn to social and self-actualization issues. Studying history or reading the classics is a luxury available to those who have a few minutes to call their own. The Schlegel sisters in E.M. Forster’s Howards End learned this painful lesson from their futile efforts to enlighten the Basts. No matter how deeply Leonard wanted to become acquainted with music and literature, “With an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women who had been reading steadily from childhood?” (37). This is a vicious circle which keeps less-favored classes “in their place,” as one who is focused on staying alive has little energy left for politics or rebellion against the establishment, which means opportunities to change their basic condition will remain out of reach.

Denying the existence of social classes based on money only sustains a false arrogance that enables Americans to belittle the aristocratic ways of Europe. We can all find a reason to claim victimhood, whether it be race, sex, religion or any other characteristic that makes us different, but in the end such superficial labeling is useless as well. Our capitalistic society is designed to reward those who have capital; it’s as simple as that. To believe any other issue truly divides us from opportunity is unjustified. Class Matters details how the “hyper-rich” have the “power to exclude,” not only from strictly financial prospects, but in politics, education and healthcare as well. The gift of “accumulated wealth” showers not only monetary inheritance on the next generation of moneyed families, but a frame of mind that looks at dollars and cents in a much different way than do those of us who live paycheck to paycheck and see those dollars only in terms of which bill to skip paying in order to put food on the table. Until the very real financial disparities in society are addressed rather than ignored, these class divisions will continue to matter.

December 10, 2008

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