I’m sure that many of you have read the recent column published in The Michigan Daily titled, “Relative wealth.”
If you’ve read my previous columns, then you probably know how deeply I care about socioeconomic issues.
You might think I read the article and came away shocked and horrified by what was described as middle class. To an extent, I was. However, my eyes also glazed over the words.
The author clarifies that she’s “privileged” in a way that she can afford more than necessities; however, the way in which she describes her finances makes me feel like she believes she doesn’t benefit from the privilege of a high-SES status — much like many people do on this campus. When I read someone arguing they’re middle class because their $2 million house only has three bedrooms and two baths, I can’t help but feel frustrated. It’s the same type of complaint that I hear all the time on campus. Someone complains because they can’t afford another Ralph Lauren Polo, or they’re angry that their parents won’t pay for them to go on Spring Break this year.
Typically, I would overlook these comments, but they’re problematic because they overshadow real financial problems experienced by people on this campus. Real financial problems are not being able to pay your rent.
They’re canceling dinner plans because you don’t have the money in your bank account. They’re the twinge in your gut when your friends talk about past vacations because you know that your family could never afford one. Upper-class financial “problems,” perpetuated by not just the author but many others on this campus as well create a climate where people with genuine financial difficulties hide their struggle. Who wants to blow away their friend group with their tale of poverty? I know I don’t.
According to the Office of Registrar, in 2011, 63 percent of incoming freshmen reported coming from families earning over $100,000, yet the median family income in the United States is slightly over $50,000. Earning over $100,000 constitutes a person as upper-middle class, so this is indicative of the fact that a majority of students on campus come from upper-middle class families.
Though this climate makes low-SES stories difficult to tell, this only makes them more important. Within these narratives lie stories of strife, heart, overcoming and oppression that deserve a platform. They create a way for people to empathize with genuine financial issues, and this empathy is the start to social change that this campus so obviously needs.
So, no matter how much I hate it, it’s time for my story, and then it’s time for yours.
Until college, I lived with a single parent and another relative. Both worked low-income restaurant jobs, and one ended up with medical conditions that left her unable to work. This equated to serious financial issues. I never owned a real winter coat until college. I looked up in the shower every day to see plastic covering the roof of our bathroom. I remember the day our auto company foreclosed on our car.
My childhood was spent in a constant string of financial panic, as I hid behind the rail of our staircase to hear the next saga of financial ruin. My heart raced with anxiety that electrified my body in horrifying ways. I overthought, freaked out, cried. Poverty was the scorching-hot glue that held my childhood together. And it sucked.
There’s no silver lining in being of a lower socioeconomic status. It’s not some character-building wonder to those struck by it. It’s a terrifying roller-coaster ride.
That’s my condensed story, and like I said, it’s time for yours.
We can’t spend any more time bashing “Relative wealth.” That’s not an effective use of this notoriety. The reality is that many high-SES people are more ignorant than hateful or judgmental. We need to use this energy proactively to share the stories that need to be shared.
If you are lower SES, I implore you speak up the next time these conversations surface. If you’re in a group setting where this becomes a topic, don’t shy away from your story because it’s shameful at this University. Be bold. If people don’t speak up, upper-class perceptions of financial strife maintain their status as actual problems.
Additionally, if you believe your story needs to be shared in a setting bigger than a conversational context, I would highly encourage you to seek out a publication or speaking opportunity. From my experiences, writing a column has been crucial in helping me navigate my experiences with low-SES.
Oh, and one more thing. I hope — no, expect — that articles like this get just as many reads and shares as “Relative wealth.” If you complained about that article and give it more attention than ones like this, you are just as problematic as you believe the author’s viewpoint is. It shows that you’re willing to give more time, energy and attention to the problem than to the solution. It also shows that you’re willing to elevate stories of privilege over those of raw pain.
I don’t want this conversation to end with a hateful flicker into the wind. Let’s take this energy and turn it into an opportunity to educate and change our campus’ culture. Read Jenny Wang’s powerful, candid, poignant response to “Relative wealth.” Listen up for what your low-SES friends have to say. Challenge yourself. And most importantly, don’t allow yourself to be part of the problem that you hate.
Michael Schramm can be reached at email@example.com.
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