Class issues - the cost of being working class

Oct 06 2015 Published by under Uncategorized


A few caveats on this post: American education still has a class system. This exacerbates a number of the racial issues, as the racial groups in America are not evenly distributed across socioeconomic classes. I do not ignore race, and I do not think any right thinking person can. But, I want to focus on class issues, so this post is not about the racial aspects of these issues. They are there, and there is a class-race interaction, in the statistical sense of interaction. Also, I have spent enough time working abroad, in Europe, in Southeast Asia and Australia, to realize that America's class issues are not as bad as some other places, where class is determined at birth, and there is bloody all one can do about it. But my objective here is not to address those societies and systems, which often revolve around racial groups that many Americans wouldn't even recognize.

Incident of last week. I have, working in my lab, for money, a young (~19) college student, Cordelia, who wants to be a clinician (a therapist, but not of the mind, of the body). I know her Mom, from where I work and hang out. Her Mom is in her mid-late 30s (yes do the math, no Mom did not go to college). They live in a multi-generational household, and there are financial struggles. They are not the desperate struggles of the inner city, no one is going hungry. But these are working class people who put in long, often hard, days to make sure their children have a better life than they had.

Because this is not the city, one cannot get to almost-MRU on public transportation. Or rather it is possible, but the buses run every 90-120 minutes, and timing is everything. (yes, that's a whole additional issue, but not for this post). Cordelia's Mom's car broke down. There isn't money for a new car. Cordelia's Mom took Cordelia's car, but Mom said she'd take Cordelia to work (with me).  Last week, Mom overslept, and forgot to pick up Cordelia.

The best-tech-in-the-universe, and I, actually mostly the Btintu, who watches out for Cordelia, noticed she didn't show up. Cordelia also hadn't answered a bunch of emails from HR (the most evil part of almost-MRU) to get her on the payroll. We were irritated, as one is when one is counting on someone who doesn’t show. . But Btintu, is someone who will give anyone who works hard a 2nd or 3rd chance, but kick the slackers out the door in a heartbeat. Cordelia was in danger of having moved from category one to category two in Btintu eye's.

However, Cordelia called in, explained that there had been "miscommunications about rides, and that she didn't have a car right now," and also said that she didn't realize she had an almost-MRU email account (she goes to a different college), and would take care of everything. Mom found me later in the week and explained (almost with tears) that it was HER fault, and that Cordelia had been furious with her. Which, btw, Cordelia had not mentioned. She blamed no one. So Cordelia is back in good graces at work, and I am doing what I can to help promote her career. She is bright and hard working.

In the end, this is not about one hardworking undergrad (although of course it is). This is about the working-class penalty in life. If Cordelia came from a wealthy or professional (depending on how you want to count wealthy) family, this issue would never have come up. Not only would Mom have a car that worked, but Cordelia would have her own car, and plenty of gas money (and rent and ability to live near excellent public transportation).

But when you're rubbing pennies together (as my Mom used to say, so hard that Lincoln is back sitting in his memorial), little things like transportation, reliable transportation, can be the difference between keeping a job and being on the street.

As is true of everything, personal experience makes a difference in perceptions. Senator Rob Portman, a relatively conservative Ohio senator, was stridently homophobic and anti-same-sex-marriage… until his son came out. Although he's not marching in the parades with a rainbow flag, he does, perhaps too quietly for some, support LBGT issues. Abstraction versus reality. Or rather, your own child versus someone else’s

It's easy to think that one doesn't interact much with members of the working class. Except for the grocery store or my Mom's AD facility. The folks that clean at almost-MRU, or serve food in the cafeteria line. It’s easy to assume everyone is “just like me”. It is so easy to forget what it’s like to struggle to make it to work because you can't afford another car. I am grateful to Cordelia for showing me.

8 responses so far

  • Drugmonkey says:

    If only Cordelia was bootstrappier and less of a whiny taker!

  • L Kiswa says:

    Thank you for sharing this story.

  • RW says:

    Thanks greatly for sharing. I've benefited greatly from many privileges, but class privilege certainly isn't one (at least not during my education) and it's bizarre from my biased viewpoint how universities seem to ignore the perks of financial stability in evaluating and educating students, as if need-based financial aid will suddenly put everyone on a level playing field to compete. We assume that lower class kids will be able to perfectly integrate into upper-class culture and lifestyle if we discount their tuition (because we only talk to the ones that can), and I think that's completely inaccurate. I'd really like to see more of an effort in outreach by the education system in the US to target, retain, and prepare lower-class kids, similar to other URMs on campus, especially in rural communities where transportation is a greater barrier.

    • Krzysztof Sakrjeda says:

      Yeah, need based financial education makes it so people can barely (not) afford college. An important part of college are the social bonds people form and the price of admission to some social circles can be something like paying for regular weekend trips to NYC or similar. It's not pretty if you don't have extra cash floating around.

  • Anonymous says:

    "It is so easy to forget what it’s like to struggle to make it to work because you can't afford another car."

    Umm ... I don't think so. If this was truly a part of your experience growing up, then no, you never forget. One need only look at rich people doing apparently weird things with their money to understand that having barely enough is a feeling that sticks with you, no matter how objectively rich you become.

    Of course, if by "it is so easy to forget" you mean that it's easy to forget that there are people out there who struggle with this, then I'm completely with you.

    • potnia theron says:

      Actually, its both. Indeed, some do forget some of the deficits/ lacks/ privations of one's youth. Maybe not always, and not everything, but there are people had horrible childhoods and who move beyond.

      But the easy to forget is also as you say, for those who grew up comfortable or beyond comfortable. Remembering that everyone is not you is one measure of a human being.

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