The 99%: Thoughts from the 1%
We’ve arrived at my last entry. I hope that you’ve enjoyed the posts and the discussions—I certainly appreciate everyone’s comments and shares over the past two months.
I’ve been thinking about and studying social class for many years now. It was something I first became aware of when I was transplanted from my big, suburban high school to my very small, private, liberal arts college. Things that I’d previously only been peripherally aware of come to the forefront at colleges like mine, where some students in my class shared their last names with those of now failed investment banks. I don’t think I even knew what an “i-banker” was as a new freshman; by the end of my senior year, I assumed that half of my graduating class had chosen that as their new career. I, on the other hand, had chosen graduate school, where I would make social class, inequality, and poverty cornerstones of my personal intellectual development and academic research.
Then, in my fourth (of five) years in graduate school, I began dating someone, and we’re going to be married later this year. Why is this important?
Well, that 99% that I’ve used at the catchy, attention-getting title of this series?
I’m not part of it anymore.
As a feminist who studies poverty and inequality, this is a hugely uncomfortable thing for me, and it’s an even more awkward revelation. Many of my acquaintances and a few friends will probably be surprised, because I am very reluctant to talk about this in my interpersonal life. But if I can criticize Mitt Romney for not acknowledging his privilege, I should be able to do the same.
One of my close friends pointed out when I began to write this series that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to explore a freelance writing career if I weren’t able to take risks with my own earnings. And she’s completely right. Bitch is wonderful, but as an independent, nonprofit publication, blogging for them doesn’t exactly pull in large amounts. If I had a family dependent upon my wages, I would have found a more traditional academic or salaried nonprofit job that allowed me to have a reliable income, but I probably wouldn’t have had time to write this series for this audience. At least in part, my current class privilege is what allows me to write about class privilege.
I don’t worry about how to pay bills, or what happens if my partner and I have a health emergency, and—right now, before they’re even born—I know my children will be able to attend whatever college they can get into, and we will be able to pay for it. When I began graduate school with my $15,000 a year stipend (which won’t get you very far in Boston!), this was a life that I did not expect to lead. The challenge before me, then, is to figure how best to use the opportunities I have now to further my values and to create a more economically just world. (The irony that I’m more likely to be heard and more capable of enacting change now is not lost on me.)
To start, we should pay more taxes.
To go one step further, we should acknowledge that, on a societal level, having wealth is not entirely the result of working hard and being talented. There’s an inherent value to both hard work and talent, but many hard-working, talented people aren’t met with monetary success. To a large extent, prior privilege opens up great opportunities which, in turn, contribute to better future prospects. We don’t live in the wholly meritocratic world that we like to believe we do.
And finally, we should recognize that this level of inequality is bad for the whole of society; it represents a fundamental abandonment of what I believe to be the core values of our country. It’s so simple: we should help take care of people when they need help. We should recognize that those who are successful have a moral and fiscal debt to the society in which they were able to become so successful. And we should understand that, until it is real, the American Dream is only a tool to blame people for their own oppression.
With those thoughts, and the hope that change can and will be made, I’m signing off. Thanks for reading these past many weeks.
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