Friday, April 04, 2008

Socioeconomic Status

Tucson, Arizona. My daughter visited Tucson from Stanford last week, and we got into a conversation about socioeconomic status. Her fellow undergraduates, while not all wealthy, have high mean family incomes, and her boyfriend comes from one with a net worth easily exceeding $50 M. Through her relationship with him, she experienced a sensation I know well, "I feel like I’ve lived my life under a rock."

Keep in mind, the statement came from a teenager who performed before audiences in Rome, Venice, and Paris. In junior high and high school she played all sorts of roles on stage, earned straight A’s at University High, spoke fluent Spanish for a month on a coffee plantation in El Salvador, enjoyed numerous romantic relationships (enjoyed!), has a dozen years of piano lessons and recitals, scored five 5’s and two 4’s on high school advanced placement exams, traveled every summer, and is now a sophomore at Stanford University. She asserted, "I feel like I’ve lived my life under a rock."

I know exactly what she is talking about. Her boyfriend enjoys a vast set of choices and options and a perspective of freedom and opportunity because literally the world is available. Able to do and have just about anything, one can undertake many adventures. Let’s hike the Tibetan plateau. Let’s take trips to China, walk the wall, spend a month in Belize and another in Manhattan, take tennis lessons at a resort, have some horses on a ranch, guests from Sweden, and a nice boat.

Clothing and food? Daughter’s dad buys shirts on sale at Men’s Wearhouse. Boyfriend’s dad calls his personal tailor to have shirts made to order. A true appreciation of what it is like at a different SES level is difficult, looking up or down. The disintegration of someone accustomed to wealth facing poverty is easy to understand. Less expected but common are the stories of lottery winners destroyed by the winnings. In Something Else I wrote of the dinner at Sally’s house. Almost certainly the lowest SES person at the dinner, I thought about SAIAT students who arrived not knowing if they would have dinner that night. I spoke with Sally’s daughter, and the confidence and sense of possibility really struck me.

In 2004 when SAIAT was plummeting at better than $30,000 a month and I was experiencing sheer terror, I wrote an email to a high SES individual now holding elected office. She wrote back, "Don’t worry. Things will turn out. They usually do."

I wanted to crawl through the screen and strangle the woman, "Yeah! For you!!!"

It’s hard not to feel jealousy and resentment for those who have access to lots of money they had nothing to do with earning. I’ll spare the reader the sociology lesson, but it’s more than the money. It’s the whole cultural capital and habitus that leads to more wealth. The system reinforces itself. Drop below a certain point, and one gives up. What lit me up and what I loved about SAIAT is that we truly did help people lift themselves, and I am talking about the entire person, not just a paycheck.

Born above a certain point, and failure is impossible. Look at Eggplant.

Someone bought my daughter a $25 gift card to Walmart, so I took her to the one at Speedway and Kolb. The first signal was the old car next to where I parked, windows down, seats tattered, the paint on the hood pealing, junk in the back seat no one would steal. When we entered the place, we looked at each other, thinking we’d gone through a portal of some kind into another universe. I don’t wish to occur as snobby or sound arrogant, but holy #@$!

Has the reader ever gone to Walmart? Everyone was, well, uh, let’s say "unkempt." And the employees?! I think there were over a hundred of them. Employees were everywhere, looking the same as the customers, but with Walmart badges at the end of lanyards, pushing carts of merchandise and restocking and I don’t know what. They were obviously doing something. I turned to my daughter, "I think we’ve crawled under the rock."


Blogger Dustin said...

I have been to walmart many times. I never really noticed the other people, I usually just want to get in and get out, it's always so crowded, and I hate crowds.

I am surprised that you were shocked, you have seen people get meals from a catered event, likely the best meal they will have. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps takes a phenomenal amount of effort, I'm trying now, I know how hard it is.

I recently got hired on to a better paying sierra vista. I'll be making near twice what I am now, in my career field of choice, I consider myself lucky.

I do not envy those who were born well off, at least not anymore. I have my own problems.

4/04/2008 4:28 PM  
Blogger TexPatriate said...

It's not all about SES, per se, x4mr.

I have worked with people in various companies who performed jobs (and took home paychecks) they did not earn and no amount of money could make up for their incompetence, insecurity, and general jackassery. In contrast, I have worked with other folks who barely had a pot, much less a window, and they took great pains to present themselves in the best light possible.

In my opinion, SES is only one small facet of the equation -- others include a general sense of gratitude for what has been already provided by whatever means and a willingness to make use of natural talents rather than wasting them.

Having said that, boy hidey, but I am certainly willing to have a 200M lottery thrust upon me to test your theory. =D

4/04/2008 5:18 PM  
Blogger x4mr said...

Oh, Texpat, trust me, I would most invite the spiritual and quality of character challenges posed by winning $200M.

Of course your remarks are valid.

4/04/2008 5:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You illustrate the concepts with very easy to get experiences.

I can see how you would be a good teacher.

4/04/2008 10:53 PM  
Anonymous Anon 2 said...

Good for you for trying to lift yourself and getting a better position. When you talk about how you know how hard it is, I am right with you. I struggle too. That you could double your pay is really great.

I do not understand you here:

I do not envy those who were born well off, at least not anymore. I have my own problems.

What do you mean by that?

4/05/2008 12:06 AM  
Anonymous AnonAnon said...

Too bad little daughter is caught up in all the socioeconomic-status-greed stuff.
Would seem you brought her up right, but when she got to school with all the poor little rich kids, so much for familial upbringing.
Don't beat yourself up over it.

4/05/2008 1:01 PM  
Blogger x4mr said...

Appreciate the remark, but at the risk of offending you, I speculate that you do not see the depth of the post or the nature of the conversation she and I had.

I spared readers the sociology lesson, but the daughter and I were discussing the distinction SES and included the work of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and others. We discussed the social reproduction of inequality and other items and were integrating those into our own experiences.

To distinguish oneself in ontological terms requires considerable maturity in a very fundamental way, and few ever do it. I can assure you she has not surrendered her soul to the almighty dollar. She is, however, learning to respect its influence. I am most pleased with the kid and not the least disappointed.

4/05/2008 2:52 PM  
Blogger Travis said...

On the other end of the scale, I've always been fascinated at the class filter that brings people to an airport--which is a relatively expensive way to travel. Just as you see fewer high-end SES at a Wal Mart (but not a complete lack of them... they have some amazingly low prices), you see fewer low-end SES in the departure lounge. Observe the next time you're there.

At the same time, there is the highly-privileged crowd who doesn't obey (notice?) the class stratifications. My family did very well in a truly blue-collar profession. The males, especially, pride themselves on being hands-on in the field, and working a 50+ hour week. Might be welding, running a backhoe, or diving into the financials. Most groom/dress appropriately to be selling newspapers on the corner, which contrasts nicely with the porsche or ferrari we'll gladly park at Wal Mart when running in to get a new hunting knife.

4/06/2008 7:27 AM  
Blogger Dustin said...

anon 2

what I mean is, I feel jealousy and bitterness from time to time, I don't know anyone who doesn't. I felt that way about people I felt were privileged in some way, but that was when I had a lot more time on my hands.

4/07/2008 7:42 AM  
Blogger Policon said...

The pecking order looks similar at every level except at the very top and very bottom: people ahead of you, people behind.

I was shocked recently when I told several middle-aged relatives who work at Circle K about jobs they qualify for that pay $11.50 instead of $7.50. They said, "no thanks," we like our jobs.

Like the bourgeois bohemians in David Brooks' "Bobos in Paradise," I take it for granted that we Americans are all working our way up to that pleasant golf country club in the suburbs. So its always sobering to encounter people who are in their SEG by choice. They're commonly the same ones who wouldn't pick up a book to save their lives.

4/07/2008 3:04 PM  
Anonymous anonanon said...

No offense taken. I just have a UA bachelor's degree, 30-plus years of professional experience in the literary world, lived/visited/worked on 4 continents, drawn a 6-figure salary and now living in obscurity in the Sonoran desert. Guess it's time to head off to the old folks' home.

4/12/2008 6:50 AM  

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