thoughts on classism in american society
time and time again, i have been astounded when i hear people who vehemently oppose any form of racism, sexism, or other prejudice at every turn make shockingly classist remarks. “poor people should just get a better job if they want to earn more money.” “well, you went to college. why can’t they?”
as someone who grew up in a family that made around $11,000 a year (in the lowest 8% of american earners), i find the blasse attitude toward classism to be offensive and largely under the radar of the average american citizen.
it’s the mentality that insists that poverty is a product of sloth or lack of trying. and it is a total crock of shit. classist mentality is something that is, either consciously or subconsciously, endorsed by american society at large. in comments that bash people on welfare or try to rip apart social programs, a subtler thought process is revealed. it suggests, however subtlely, that people who live in impoverished circumstances, just haven’t worked hard enough to get themselves out of it.
this is not to say that opportunity is dead in america, nor is it to say that hard work isn’t necessary to pull oneself out of a dire financial state, but the fact is that opportunity is more readily available and accessible for people who start out in a social class in which their needs are generally met. for instance, only about 11% of the poorest americans (lowest fifth of earners) ever graduate from college, compared with 53% of the highest fifth. it stands to reason that the lower the income, the less likely a child is to obtain a higher degree. this on its own does not necessarily say everything, but when you add to it the fact that the majority of people in the highest fifth of earners will STAY in the highest fifth REGARDLESS of whether or not they complete college, whereas those in lower income brackets will fall to much lower income levels than their parents if they do not complete a post-secondary degree. with the rising costs of higher education, it is no wonder that impoverished students are finding higher education out of their reach. for a poor student, their unmet financial need for one year of university will be approximately $4000. for many, it may as well be four million.
i’ve noticed in the past that people often fail to notice prejudice until they are faced with it. it’s easy for a white male in america to look around and feel like minorities have every opportunity that he does–but in reality, african american students are about 10% less likely to graduate from high school, latinos even less than that. women are still paid on average of 17% less than men. it’s easy for someone who grew up in a middle class family to assume that opportunity abounds for everyone–after all, he or she has most likely had access to opportunities that he or she takes for granted–opportunities that poorer students have to actively perform much more effort to even have a chance at.
when you start out with nothing and have to go into debt to move forward at all, you start at a distinct disadvantage. my net worth is currently about negative $43,000. in order for me to simply pay my bills (and this is a conservative estimate, because i pay a minimal amount for rent), i have to have a job that pays at the very least $1400 take home per month. for someone who graduate from college without the debt i have, $1400 per month is ample. without my debt, that would leave me an extra $400 per month to save or spend as i saw fit. as it is, i would barely scrape by.
where other students would be able to put aside money for a home or other large investments, i will need to first pay down my debt before i can think about that–something that will take me years.
the point is, yes, i have improved my lot in life quite a lot, but i have to work twice as hard to get half as far. and that’s why we need to close the gaps.