But by and large, I think that the three classes in America today are relatively rigid and solidified in nature. Most people, I contend, are happy living their lives the same way that they did while growing up, provided that they had all of the basic necessities of life
I came across this blog post from Gain Sense about class and class mobility (or immobility) today. Read it, then consider my thoughts below. Fair warning: talking about class/opportunity/my childhood usually ends with me jumping all over the place. There is just so much there – it defines every piece of who I am.
There is a wealth of debatable content in this post and certain pieces are downright bad. There is a lot of victim blaming going on here – sure, you can tell poor parents to be better parents, but bad parenting is not just a lower class phenomenon. Nor is it necessarily a matter of choice – burdens on low-income parents undoubtedly affect their ability to be good parents (long working hours, stress, dealing with insecurity of food, housing, etc.). So I want to make it clear – I am not agreeing with anything in this post. I simply want to examine my own thoughts and experience with on included theme – class mobility.
Class mobility is usually discussed as the ability of people to move upwards in class, but what about their desire to do so? Sure, most people would love to be well off but to what extent is that desire grounded in reality? Is it merely an image of which we dream or is it a tangible goal to which we press towards? I interpret the quote above as implying that, in addition to tangible class barriers, classes are strengthened simply because we come to expect that which we are familiar. Thus, so long as our basic needs are met we are comfortable living at, or just above, that which we knew our whole lives. Essentially, we are where we came from. This directly opposes the idea of the American Dream, but I see some truth to it.
I consider myself to come from the lower middle class, right at the margin between the middle and lower class. My mother has put in 40+ hours in a light industrial setting for as long as I have lived, the exception to this being two unsuccessful attempts at leaving behind the life of the laborer. Both her attempt at a degree in accounting and her foray into real estate were denied by life’s hurdles. For the last few years she has worked 40-60 hours a week in light industrial with another 5-10 from moonlighting as an office cleaner.
The majority of my childhood was a paycheck-to-paycheck-experience, although my hero of a mother never let me go without education, sports, games, or whatever it is I desired. That being said, I was not unaccustomed to homework by candlelight, buying water to flush the toilet when the water was off, and skimping on the less essential parts of life. Deflecting bill collectors was second nature and I am pretty sure I got reduced fare lunch for a while.
I briefly describe my childhood experience to explain my understanding of life at the lower end of the middle class: you work hard, you get by, and you generally live paycheck-to-paycheck. Sure, you might save here and there and get caught up on your bills. But something unexpected is bound to happen which will likely set you back several months, if not years. So, my goal has always been simple: I will not live paycheck-to-paycheck. I vow to always have at least a few months of bills covered in savings and to manage my money/lifestyle in such a way that I must be conscious of budget but not crippled by it.
A very middle-class idea, no? And a modest one too. My whole outlook on life is that of stability and a hint of carefree living. I don’t need a six-figure salary, but I do need enough that I can feel financially comfortable and very stable living a simple lifestyle of used goods, cheap entertainment, and frugal spending. While my imaginative side may dream of making it big and enjoying the power that comes with major success, my realist side is quite happy just doing a little better than how I was raised. So, just middle class. Not even upper-middle class. To me, that is a whole different world and, quite honestly, I often feel uncomfortable and distrusting when in a largely upper-middle class/wealthy world.
Going back to dreams, I think many people in the lower half of the income spectrum dream of the big break. you know what I am talking about – that moment when the planets align, luck shines upon us, and all our hard work and diligence is rewarded with fame and fortune. But it is always that – a dream. Often we imagine we can never actually achieve these dreams because the world is aligned against us.
We do not have the business/management/other experience we need to turn an idea into reality. We lack the financial means to get an idea off the ground. Our “professional networks” are filled with people just like us – low or unskilled laborers without a lot of resources. And when it comes to resources perhaps our most limiting factor is time. We work too long and too hard providing a life for ourselves and our families that we cannot spare the time or energy to develop ideas that could break us of the endless laboring.
Even if we did have time to work on side projects we want to be better friends, siblings, parents, children. These relationships take both time and resources we cannot dedicate to some entrepreneurial venture. And I have not even touched on risk – there is a hole new layer when we think that any time and resources we dedicate to our ideas could result in nothing.
Environmental Comfort and Familiarity.
Personal Expectations and Goals.
Resources, Risk and Time.
Class mobility is defined by more than the tangible pieces linking our society. It is more than wages, more than assets, more than education. It goes beyond opportunity. Class mobility is created and destroyed by the very systematic structures that bring life to oppression, racism, genderism, sexism, and all the other evils of our societies. As with all of these, class mobility is much more complicated than it looks.
You cannot strengthen the middle class, as so many of our politicians promise to do, by simply adding more opportunities and increasing the strength of social safety nets. You cannot reduce poverty by only taking from the rich and giving to the poor. No, to truly change the situation you must also address the intangibles. You must convince people they have equal opportunity and then make it so. You must convince people their fewer resources do not put them at a disadvantage, then make it so.
Something a friend once said seems fitting here. Referring to the “income/wealth ladder, she said (and I paraphrase):
Why are we helping them reach the bottom rung? Why do they need to climb the ladder? Why is there even a ladder at all? It is social service to help everybody get on the ladder, but it is social justice to tear the ladder down.
It sounds radical. It sounds even like it leans towards socialism. But I don’t think it needs to be that way. Capitalism, in theory, is a wonderful thing. At some level inequality is important too, because the chance to distinguish oneself (whether fiscally, materially, intellectually, influentially, etc.) is what drives humanity to progress. But there is a point at which inequality becomes detrimental. Poverty, hunger, disease, poor education, poor experience, limited opportunity, a trapped sensation – these types of inequality do not benefit humanity.
I will end my rant here. There was much, much more but eventually the point becomes moot and my thoughts turn into a mushy concoction of emotion, experience, speculation, and confusion.