Class Distinctions in America, Part II

This post is a continuation of the previous post on class distinctions in America.

-Access to culture. It is a sad truth of the fine arts in America that generally speaking, only the well to do can afford high culture. True, museums offer free nights on occasion that are funded by large corporate sponsors, orchestras offer open rehearsals at a reduced rate and free concerts for children, and there are a number of outdoor festivals in various communities supported by taxpayer dollars. These are indeed positive. However, the cost of attending classical music and fine arts performances is often very high. Unfortunately, the cost of tickets alone does not cover all the expenses an organization needs to keep itself alive, maintain the performance space, pay the artists, et cetera. Wealthy individuals are able to contribute to cultural organizations, attend performances, and therefore they have a say in the programming and choices made. We do not have adequate government funding for the arts in the same way there is in many countries in Europe. Nor do we have a tradition in our culture that values the fine arts to the degree that other cultures do. Pop-culture and mass media are dominant in American society, and they are easily consumed due to lower costs.

-Air travel. This particular distinction has changed quite significantly over the decades, becoming more accessible to everyone. Lower-cost airlines have boomed, such as Southwest, and if we look at the cost of airline travel over the decades, we might find that proportionally it is cheaper and more affordable than it was before. But for an entire family to fly cross country (or even somewhere that would ordinarily require a day or two drive), it is very expensive. Therefore, only the well to do or the people who save carefully can travel by plane, or unfortunately, the people who go into debt. Our family culture and social structure is affected by geography in America, and traveling great distances is not always possible due to high costs. During peak travel times, such as summers and holidays, even those who can afford to travel have to deal with increased prices. Sometimes the cost of an airplane ticket can be almost double in peak seasons. Train travel over long distances is not always possible due to the time it takes, and sometimes trains do not reach particular areas of the country. Therefore, air travel is still somewhat of a “luxury.”

-Technology. While smartphones seem to abound lately, and many people make sacrifices to own them, they are still expensive devices. Consider the cost of the sleek new iPhone X: it could pay for a month’s or more rent, or a mortgage payment. One could argue that nobody even really needs a smart phone. Lest we digress into issues of consumerism and spending habits, we have to remember that basic Internet connectivity has become a vital part of American life. Therefore, one needs to have a computer or tablet device in order to access it at home, and then also the Internet. These two things are not cheap, and for many people, not even affordable. Public libraries have been good at trying to fill the void by providing access to the people; therefore many lower income individuals have been able to get connected. But as so much information is disseminated via the Internet, such as test results from a doctor’s office, we need to revisit the question of providing better Internet access for everybody. Consider this study from the Pew Research Center, and we can see how across the world, there is still a gap based on economic prowess.
http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/internet-access-growing-worldwide-but-remains-higher-in-advanced-economies/
America is indeed quite connected compared to most other countries in the world, but this does not mean everybody in our country is connected or is able to do so without financial hardship. Schoolchildren benefit from computers and are often required to use them for homework, but again, the cost and the access to these devices varies greatly across SES.

-Savings and investments. This relates to the point above about consumer spending. But in America, in order to have a secure financial cushion as well as a strong retirement fund, it is necessary to save and invest. Simply put, those who do not make enough money to cover their expenses cannot afford to save. The working poor have long known this. Conversely, those who are able to save reap the benefits. By the basic principle of compounding interest, people who invest see their money grow exponentially over time. For doing nothing other than shelling out the capital, you can see your mutual fund or investments grow over years or decades. So the system is inherently unequal and creates stratification. I am in no way advocating not investing or saving; it would be absolutely foolish not to. We live in a capitalist society, and so we must abide by its unwritten rules in order to have a financially sound life. However, it is worth pointing this out, as it is indeed a factor in why the rich get richer and why the SES gap is widening in our society.

-Home ownership/property ownership. This is something that is very much a part of the American mentality and American Dream. The general goal is to own one’s own home. However, as our society becomes more stratified, and real estate becomes prohibitively expensive in various parts of the country due to speculation, greed, market value increases, and foreign investors, many people cannot afford to own a home. Or, they cannot afford to own a home near their place of work and experience long commutes. Property/real estate developers these days seem to be getting greedier, gentrifying neighborhoods, flipping properties, building more and more “luxury homes,” and colluding with local politicians to get special privileges to build. Meanwhile, many longtime or local residents get pushed out of their homes, or find their rents going up prohibitively. People who have the means purchase their own homes and houses, and often base this decision on the quality of the schools. Those who can afford it even purchase second or vacation homes in order to have a place to go to on a regular basis. Many people believe that the market is unstable, so investing in homes is something concrete and tangible that one can use or rent out. There is much wisdom in this, as a house can be passed on to future generations. However, our government and society need to ensure that the poorest members of our society are adequately, affordably, and safely housed. Homeless people have somehow become an apathetic part of our collective consciousness: we become inured to the “shaggy” people begging on the corners or sleeping on the sidewalks. We have to remind ourselves that the word really means someone without a home, and that we have failed as a society if we have let human beings come to this sad condition. Everyone deserves a home in America, the wealthiest country in the world.

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Class Distinctions in America, Part I

America has the image of being generally middle-class, or favoring a middle-class ethos. The “common man” (or woman) is the general target for marketing, policies, aspirations, etc. We also have much more class mobility than in other cultures: the wealthy daughter of a doctor may work in a grocery store in summers in high school or the son of a CEO may deliver pizzas in college. But there is an elephant in the room that we seldom talk about in America, and that is class. Things are not so evident on the surface about class, the way they might be elsewhere. In England for example, speech immediately distinguishes a person’s education level and class background, although it is increasingly becoming “cool” to adopt various speech patterns and mannerisms that are not RP (received pronunciation, or, “The Queen’s English”). The aforementioned example of wealthy children working menial jobs would be unheard of in Asia or Latin America.

With class not so evident as it is in other countries, what distinguishes between social classes in America? What are the signifiers? Here are some thoughts, and this post will be continued in a second part.

Food. This is one of the saddest things about wealthiest country in the world. There is still hunger in America, and for those who are poor, the cheapest options are often the least healthy. Contrast this with the wealthier, food conscious individuals in America who shop at Whole Foods, farmers’ markets, and artisan shops for food. We have “food deserts” where people have little access to food, let alone healthy food, and children who rely on schools to provide them meals. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or “food stamps” is just little over four dollars a day per person, which is really not enough. When fast food options offer meals that are just a couple of dollars, those who have very little income would understandably opt for those. The advice to grow one’s own food is not always possible to those who live in cold or inhospitable climates. This is one of America’s greatest shames.

Healthcare. This is too complex a topic to go into in this article, but we can say that the Affordable Care Act has not yet achieved its goal of helping all Americans have affordable coverage. We need a universal healthcare plan, single payer if possible, and yet our politicians do not by and large support this plan. The poor often get relegated to community clinics with limited healthcare, and their access to specialists is even more limited. Some may opt not to even consult physicians when ill, due to fears of excessive bills. People who can afford it not only have good healthcare plans (covered by their employer), but they can have the luxury of choosing the best doctors, and even paying out-of-pocket for procedures and tests. Needless to say, wealthy and urban areas have large concentrations of highly trained and specialized doctors and medical professionals.

Spending habits. This is a highly taboo subject, and one that can potentially sound extremely classist. But there is some truth to the reason that the rich get richer, and why many people who do not have much money are in that situation due to their consumerism. I am in no way advocating trickle-down, Reaganist economics, and I personally think that class stratification is a very serious problem in America we need to address through various means such as taxation, social welfare and benefits, etc. I would like to add the caveat, though, that the working poor and people in lower-paying jobs who are indeed financially savvy and wise with their personal finances are simply not able to save and do not have disposable income. America has failed these people, and it is also another one of America’s shames.

But in terms of purely individual spending habits, I have seen that many prosperous people are extremely careful with their disposable income, saving for particular goals such as housing, their children’s education, retirement, and investing in quality rather than quantity. There is the temptation in American society to spend like mad on the latest trendy car/gadget/clothing/item, with the understanding that it keeps the economy moving. While there may be truth to this, it is often to the detriment of people’s personal finances. I grew up in a community where people were of largely (lower-) middle and lower-class SES, and when I attended Stanford University, I was quite surprised and fascinated to see that despite many of my peers being quite wealthy, they were not very materialistic in comparison to the people I grew up with. And my Stanford peers were from all around the United States and the world, thus illustrating a geographic cross-section of largely upper- and upper-middle class individuals. Certainly not everyone at Stanford was well to do, and I felt I was one of the rare, true middle-class students there. But I have noticed in living in places of different socioeconomic status that the spending habits of the well to do are certainly cautious.

This post will be continued.

Poet Laureate of Jamaica on This Blog!

Dear readers,

If you remember, a couple years ago, UM professor and poet Lorna Goodison was so generous as to contribute a poem to this blog. She is now the Poet Laureate of Jamaica, and the first female to hold that position.

http://jis.gov.jm/lorna-goodison-jamaicas-first-female-poet-laureate/

I am so proud that she honored thewomenofletters.com with one of her poems, and in case you missed it the first time, here it is:

https://thewomenofletters.com/2015/06/11/poem-we-to-the-world-by-lorna-goodison/

Thank you, Professor Goodison, and here’s to the future women poets of the Caribbean — and the world!