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The past several days I’ve been musing on the chosen strategies employed by the privileged and the well-educated to solve societal problems. In particular, I’ve been contemplating the idea of poverty. As is typical for me, I’ve been seeking to find intersections and similarities between seemingly divergent topics, all in the hopes of eliminating confusion among everyone. Sometimes we disagree because we inadvertently work at cross-purposes to each other. The anecdote to follow illustrates how social class muddies the waters quite considerably, and how in the process we often find ourselves talking past one another. I’ve found this exercise personally helpful in many instances, and I tell it now in the hopes that readers might feel the same.
Here, a story from my own life. It illustrates how the same seemingly straightforward matter can be perceived in completely different ways.
My father grew up very poor. Both of his parents were undereducated, possessing perhaps an eighth grade education between the two of them. Like most residents of the small Southern town of his birth, they worked their entire lives in a textile mill. The house where my father grew up was small, especially for modern standards. In my mind’s eye, I can see it now from visits there during my childhood. Two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, and a small screened in porch. That was about it. The residence sat in the center of a few acres of land, well out in the country. By the time I was born, others had bought up acreage around my grandfather’s plot and constructed homes, but when my father was growing up, most of what surrounded him was woods. I’m sure that must have made him feel even more isolated.
Dad saw no virtue in having not much money or in living simply. So far as he was concerned, living simply was a symbol of poverty. Instead, he wanted to be like the wealthy kids who lived in town. He was ashamed of his own parents, particularly in their general ignorance about the greater world and in their country ways. He was so ashamed, in fact, that he never invited friends or girlfriends to the house. Though I’ve never asked him specifically how he managed it, I suppose he fabricated a story that implied he was solidly middle class. And, moreover, he wanted to the look the part. In his childhood, he had to make do with hand-me-down clothing or garmets purchased at thrift stores. As a result, while in high school, he took a job at a grocery store, where he worked hard and saved every penny he earned. With his savings he purchased expensive clothes. Aspiring, as he did, to have money someday, this must have been a serious step towards attempting to fit in and being taken seriously.
My story is quite a bit different. When I was in high school, I could have been perfectly content to shop at a thrift store for all of my clothes. Though I never would never have put it in those terms at the time, this was my way of appealing to social justice. And, though I would have certainly never put it in those terms at the time, it was also my observance of simplicity. Dad never understood. To him, shopping at a thrift store was something one did out of necessity when money was scarse. So, despite my protests, I was marched down to a department store, whereupon a full year’s worth of moderately priced, but still brand new clothes were purchased for me.
I’m not sure he ever quite got that to me, wearing the clothes found in such places implied (to me, at least) that I was the sort of person likely to join a fraternity at a state school a few year’s hence. But I do recognize now that he meant well. He just didn’t want me to seem as though I was poor and uneducated. His upbringing produced a decided chip on the shoulder, one that motivated him to succeed, which was itself an attempt to be perceived as more than just some country bumpkin from the middle of nowhere. He wanted me to be seen as authoritative and integral to the discussion, not some small town rube spouting down home colloquialisms.
I think it’s a symptom of our own privilege that we have the ability to point back to past ways and consider them better than modern times. To me, my father’s perspective serves as a needed contrast. He enjoys air conditioning and makes no bones about it, since he grew up without it. He dislikes black and white movies, regardless of how artfully rendered they may be, because it reminds him of how he had to make do with a tiny black and white television, when others had the money to afford color sets. He feels no compulsion to farm or to put much effort into a garden, since that was precisely how his family augmented their own diet, being that they had no other choice.
He shops at Walmart without guilt because he remembers what it’s like to have to buy on a tight budget and, if confronted about unfair labor practices in Third World country, he just shrugs his shoulders, replying that at least they have higher paying jobs now. His own parents, my Grandparents, were originally poor yeoman farmers, but some wealthy plutocrat, probably from the North, came down and started a mill. The jobs provided were, at least to the poor whites who took them, much superior than having to worry about crop failures or spending hours a day doing backbreaking labor. Subsistence farming is not easy, particularly in the rocky soil of the hill country, which is hardly the most fertile. It didn’t take much coaxing to put down a plow or to have a stable, albeit meager paycheck that didn’t depend on intangibles upon which they had no control.
Returning to my father’s story, like many who grew up without, money provides status. It is a confirmation of social mobility, one accomplished with a tremendous amount of hard work. In many ways, I’m proud of him for reaching his goal. He is the walking personification of the American Dream. Yet, he and I will never see eye to eye about my desire to seek fairness and equality by refusing to participate in consumer culture. He views nothing intrinsically wrong with buying things, per se, provided he can afford them. As far as he’s concerned, he’s worked hard for what he has, and every purchase gives him a sense of satisfaction that he’s made it. He’s moved on up to the East Side and finally got a piece of the pie.
And so the question remains, how do we reconcile our belief that we ought to make do with as little as we can with the reality that others would gladly change places with us in a heartbeat? I find it bordering on colonialism, perhaps even the White Man’s Burden itself to imply that I’ve got the answer. If economic equality is what we seek, we’re going to have to take into account class and class distinctions, also. It’s important that we consider other metrics and other broad avenues of discrimination, but one simply cannot overlook class, which might very well be the broadest delineation of all.