Never in my life have I had a bigger reality check than when I moved from my low-income hometown in the Upper Peninsula to the ritzy community of Ann Arbor. Although I traveled extensively around the United States as a kid, Iron Mountain was the only place I had ever called home up until my senior year of high school. Even though I saw many places while rustically camping with my family, I never stayed in those places long enough to realize that so many people live much differently than I did: their beautiful homes, luxurious trips, nice food and designer products were only a few of the things that separated their lifestyles from mine. Obviously, I knew there were rich people, but I did not realize how common it is to be wealthier than me and my family.
I have many distinct memories from my childhood that — despite my perception that they were common experiences across the U.S. — often make my college friends gasp. These memories consist of an alarming amount of meth busts, unexpected teen pregnancies, violent fights and frequent theft. One of my good friends from high school once told me it was not uncommon for his bike to be stolen from his house in the early hours of the weekend due to his proximity to a bar in the most run-down neighborhood in my town. The regularity of these crimes made me realize the extent to which the people in my hometown experience income inequality. There seems to be no clear correlation between poverty and crime but rather between income inequality and crime.
While income inequality in Michigan is lower than the national average, it seems to really shine through in this tiny town I call home; I have driven through the neighborhoods littered with mansions on Pine Mountain and also through the areas where houses are very literally falling apart. Similarly, this large income gap is reflected between my peers who flexed their Balenciaga slip-ons and those in my classes who were working multiple jobs to feed themselves. I saw this gap in my high school every day, but it seems to be a common theme wherever I find myself — even at the University of Michigan.
And when I came to college, I got around to telling all of my juicy hometown stories in my first semester. My new friends in Ann Arbor — most of whom grew up in wealthy suburbs — told me I have “the experiences of a college senior.” Comments like these often threw me for a loop, as I was surprised they did not grow up with experiences similar to mine. I saw Ann Arbor — this wealthy college town — as an alternate universe and figured everyone else did, too. Witnessing suffering families, drug busts and general violence every day was commonplace for me, yet it seemed so obscure to my new peers. Despite our differing experiences, I wonder if they simply overlook Ann Arbor’s city life, as the city is actually not as safe as people make it out to be. Seventy-six percent of cities in the United States are safer than the home of the University of Michigan. Large income inequalities tend to be common in cities (as they are in my hometown, but not in suburbs), which may contribute to the higher crime rates typically seen in these places.
Even though having a different socioeconomic background than my peers makes me feel somewhat alienated, barely having any brand-new clothes or material goods feels extremely unimportant to me. I don’t care for flashy cars or jewelry or houses — there is a sort of underlying emptiness to the grandeur of all of these belongings. Even in the future, I want to make enough money to pay the bills, live comfortably and be happy, but that’s about it. Transitioning to a place where people have, and glorify, these expensive lifestyles is simply a first-hand perspective into a life I do not wish to live.
And to put my transition into perspective, Ann Arbor’s average income is almost $20,000 more than that of Iron Mountain’s. Even $20 is a lot of money to me, so I can’t even fathom what $20,000 can buy. Sometimes I wonder what my peers here at the University of Michigan even purchase with the “extra” money they have. Naturally, I tend to pocket the little extra money I do have to spend it on necessary goods like food or hygiene products. It really isn’t that difficult to save a couple bucks by cutting out unnecessary expenses in everyday life; for example, I have never bought/rented a textbook at this University before. Spending money without thinking about it may be nice, but I have a feeling that this is a superpower I will never possess, nor one I would want to have in the first place.
Truthfully, I am really thankful for the life I grew up with. My low-income childhood has shaped me into the person I am today. It has taught me to be thankful for what I am given and to not take anything for granted. My past has provided me with a topic I can use to bond with other students who are also here at this university because they earned a scholarship, a topic I can use to educate others about people who did not grow up with the same level of financial comfort as they had. Most importantly, growing up poor has taught me to love life for its experiences and relationships, not for the material objects that often accompany wealth.
Leah Larsen is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.