Jenny Wang: A response to "Relative wealth"

By Jenny Wang, Columnist
Published February 17, 2015

Before I begin, I just want to say that one of the things I value as a columnist for The Michigan Daily is that I can explore a wide variety of topics and speak frankly and honestly through my own experiences. I’ve written columns about language barriers, racism, femininity, religious minorities, among others, and I appreciate that The Michigan Daily allows me to do so. For this reason, I, too, really cherish the idea of having other people write from their own unique perspectives.

I read a recent column titled “Relative Wealth,” and there were parts of it that I found illuminating and fascinating — the cultural differences between the Bay Area and Ann Arbor, for example. Likewise, I sympathized with Klein’s sense that her views on money differ from other Michigan students. However, I also want to bring in my own perspectives — the part that differs from Klein’s. I am among the minority whose family does not earn $100,000 or more a year. I am also an Ann Arbor native.

Before she got laid off, my mother was earning about $30,000 a year. She is currently making an inconsistent $900 a month, without benefits. I’m not saying this to incite pity, but to give a sense of where exactly I’m coming from. I consider myself extremely lucky, not only because I am attending this school, but also because I have been able to receive financial aid and scholarships to be here. Without this kind of money, I would not have the option of living close to campus (as opposed to commuting from home via bus). I would not have the option of taking the kind of classes I want to take. And I would not have the option of considering a computer science double major (not surprisingly, the tuition for an LSA computer science major is that of the Engineering school, about $1,500 more per semester than any other LSA major).

And that, I think, is my main point: how money gives people options. It sounds like such a cliché, but the thing to remember is that clichés originate from an experience that is true, regardless of how many times they are uttered.

Even if there are cultural differences between spending habits in California and Michigan, what remains true is that the wealthy in each state still have the option of buying whatever it is they want. Yes, it’s fascinating that people in California would much rather travel or collect experiences than buy clothes, but it seems to me that these Californians still have the option of buying expensive clothes if they wanted. And for townies, it might be true that we care more about fashion, but what remains valid is that the wealthy among us can still book a plane ticket to Europe whenever they want. Both options are still readily there.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that there’s a difference between having a family who needs to save some money here and there to afford an out-of-state school, and having a family who knows that the out-of-state institutions are not even up for consideration. I think it’s important to consider the differences between paying for a pricey drink and not having the money to even buy drinks in the first place because most of that spending money is going towards necessities. These, in my opinion, are the kinds of comparisons we should be looking at more closely, the kinds of comparisons that we should work to eliminate in our society.

Until I wrote this piece, I have very purposefully steered clear of discussing my low socioeconomic status. I have, since coming to Michigan, come to embrace my status as a woman, as a person of color, etc. But I have never felt that I could fit in with my peers because of my SES. It’s a part of me that makes me feel, in a strange way, ashamed. I will not forget the day my mother opened the mail and found an anonymous check of $200 to help us pay for the bills; she broke down in front of me in shame, and I felt completely worthless because there was nothing else we could do — we had no other option of paying for our utilities than to accept this generous donation.

So given that students like me don’t feel we have a proper place in this school, the most important thing we can do is help each other find a way we belong. We want to find each other; we want to reach out to each other; we want to know that our presence here is not a burden. While I still appreciate the new perspective “Relative Wealth” provided, I think some of what it did to students like me is remind us of just how little we relatively have, of just how few of us there might be.

Jenny Wang can be reached at wjenny@umich.edu.