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.
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.