Classism

“Money can’t buy friends but it can get you a better class of enemy”
-Spike Milligan

Classism is defined in the wikipedia as:

Classism is the systematic oppression of subordinated classes of people by the dominant class. It includes individual attitudes and behaviors; systems of policies and practices that are set up to benefit the upper classes at the expense of the lower classes. Classism is grounded in a hierarchy belief system that ranks people according to socioeconomic status (SES), family lineage, and other class related divisions.

Reading Señor Truman‘s post about “What Money Means.” lead me to Spungen’s post about being impressed with some hippies. I have not read Spungen much, but I get the sense that she is very discontent towards the things she feel she does not have. Will in the other hand on the same subject seems to be very happy with his situation. What makes them so different is not the money or social class, but their outlook on what opportunity means to them. I hope you have the time to read both post before continuing, but I will try to make sense of everything if you don’t.

When it comes to social class, I have been all over the spectrum. I have never really identified with one label, but I guess I end up being part of the middle class if you put things in an average equation. Out of my 4 grandparents, both of my grandfathers lost their fathers at a young age, and of them was actually left to fend for himself as an orphan. My grandmothers in the other hand both came from families that were pretty well off, one of them actually came from the upper class. One of my parents grew up around hard work and strict rules in more of a working class environment than the other. At times when I look back I see the behavior of one side of the family as a middle class family desperately wanting to be upper class. Funny thing is that nobody from that family had ever even come close to it in the past, and yet the one person that grew up around a lot of money was the one that wanted it or even social status the least.

My father climbed the corporate ladder and started to get to the middle upper class before we moved to the U.S. I attended elementary school around my neighborhood around kids that were from the lower and middle class. I went to high school at a private school down in with a mixture of people from different backgrounds, but everyone there was at least middle class. There were several people that were from the upper class in my classroom. I was lucky enough to see how all the different classes back in Colombia lived and I think it made me a better person. It taught me that in every class there are good and bad people and that class at times had nothing to do with how people behaved.

My wife’s microcosm was a lot smaller. She was in what she thought was a middle class neighborhood growing up, but I have to keep on reminding there that having a close community where only certain people can enter puts you a little above middle class. Even if the earning power was not what other people in the lower upper class had, she had access to play tennis whenever she wanted and could wonder the neighborhood without any fear. The funny thing about her experience is that even in that environment she encountered the good and bad people and again, it had little to do with the money and more with the person.

Spungen said:

That’s never what I hated about not having money, though. No, it’s the people you have to be around, and the lack of insulation from them.

Initially I disagreed with this statement completely, and not just because there are ways to get out of one social class into another but because in this country, you can truly change your life if you want to. Then the more I thought about it, there is a downward mobility when it comes to class, but not necessarily an upward mobility.

When my family and I arrived in the US our social status changed completely. After staying with family we took flight on our own and lived in a one bedroom apartment for almost 4 years. We went from being middle upper class to being lower class in a brand new environment. It took hard work but after several years as a family we are back to the middle class. I am not sure if that was a product of being in that class before, or if the level of education and opportunity helped, but I believe that if I achieved it everyone else can. I might be completely wrong in that statement in the sense that I had a can do attitude and was not programmed to stay in the lower class by society itself.

Being around upper class people in the past made me very comfortable with them. My Dad worked for a period of time with people that were in the upper upper class in our city back in Colombia, and even thought there was always respect towards them it was never reverence. Reverence has always been displayed in my family towards elders, educators and clergy but not towards people that were simply in a higher class. Respect for someone you worked for was also never to be confused with servitude.

My concepts of poor and rich have a lot more to do with relationships than with money. I have seen it over and over in my life that money does not buy happiness, and sometimes the people consider poor because of money have a way richer life when it comes to happiness and good relationships. Education and open mindedness I value more than a huge bank account when I am choosing who I am around.

As kids we are limited by the decisions our parents make. If they chose to be in a neighborhood where outside influences are a constant factor in kids life’s it will affect them. Many kids from lower class families living in very dangerous neighborhoods end up getting out and not being affected by them. I think when you are young it is your parents responsibility to keep drama away from you. I never felt I had to be around people I did not want to growing up, and right now I have friends from every single social class imaginable.

I have a friend here in KC that is working his way up from having a modest living to actually making enough money to have his own home. I also have another friend that makes over six figures and has for most of his career but its struggling to keep his standard of living because of some poor choices in the past. Their social class means next to nothing to me, and it could partly be because I am in a the middle class and I can easily move from one to the other. I do not feel uncomfortable or out of place in either situation. I am not so sure if that will be the same for my friend in the upper class hanging out in a below middle class neighborhood or vice versa.

So the question that I post to everyone out there is, how does social class affect your relationships right now? Do you feel an upward mobility?

13 Responses to Classism

  1. America is the land of opportunity. That being said, being content in your circumstances is also important:

    Phillipians 4:11b-12
    for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

  2. I don’t know that class makes a lot of impact in my relationships. I have friends/family in better financial positions than myself, and those that are not in as good a position. I am comfortable with them all.

    I do however have to admit to a little distaste for the spoiled rich we see in the media so often (think Paris). But then again I don’t have any personal relationships with those folks.

    As for upward mobility… nah I don’t feel any at the moment. My industry in general and my career where I am in particular have conspired to make me feel stalled out. A lot of that tho, is morale and not adapting as well as I could.

    When I hear people complain about their situation/class/condition I usually suspect that (like mine) they are not doing all they can to be mobile.

    N }:-

  3. In the end, we are all the same: humans.

    I guess I can say I’ve seen all the sides as well. Like you say, I grew up in a gated community with a lot of privileges, but that doesn’t mean I belonged to the upper class. We lived in one salary, my mom stayed home with us. What helped us maintain a kinda upper class status was the fact that my parents didn’t have to pay rent or services, since it was all provided by the company my dad worked at.

    However, I’m very aware of the financial struggle my parents had to go through sometimes. But I come from a very tight-close family where everyone helps the other. And we were always well-off.

    Another thing to consider here is that in Colombia it isn’t so much about income sometimes, but about name. My father came from a rich, coffee growing, family, but he never had access to that money because he rebelled against my grandfather and pursued an education far from the farms. But he married my mother, who comes from a very well-known family in my city, and that gives us some kind of royalty status that I consider ridiculous at times.

    I have to admit, though, that I’ve lived oblivious of these social class differences, and while I’ve seen extreme poverty in Colombia, I have never been well aware of how things go for the people with lower incomes. I have, however, had friends from all levels, and the only thing I can conclude is that money doesn’t make you.

    It’s all relative. A person who is considered middle class in the U.S. has WAY MORE acquisitive power than a person from the middle class in a country that is under development. But I don’t measure myself with what I possess. I measure myself with who I am, and what I’m able to provide to others when it comes to friendship, love and support.

  4. I’ve been “lower middle class” AKA low class my whole life. My family’s poor and I’m poor (although that’s mostly because of trying to replay debts incurred while a student). I make a good enough salary that I supposed I should consider myself just “middle class” but I don’t have enough of a disposable income to do so in my mind. Eventually, once I’m out of this debt, my income will be all my own and I assume I will then be comfortable considering myself middle class.

    I’ve seen this affect me the most when I was living in Seattle. The cost of living there is so high and there are so many freaking rich people around that it was almost always apparent to me that I was living on a different social scale.

    Otherwise, I fit in with middle to upper-middle class people well because I’m educated and smart but I often feel like an imposter in someone else’s world.

  5. One of the valuable things about Spungen is that she’s been on both sides of the fence, as it were. She grew up in a working class household but is now a lawyer married to either a lawyer or successful businessman (I forget which). Having been on both the outside and the inside of American economic class structure, she provides great insights to the things that people like me don’t always see and the ways that people like me have benefited from class that we were previously unaware of. As best as I can tell she’s not so much dissatisfied with what she has or does not have or where she is economically, but rather frustrated that people got to where she is and higher up with less talent and less work due to their upbringing.

    I was raised in an upper middle class family and surrounded by people in the upper upper middle class. My parents grew up poor, so I was more grounded than a lot my peers but even so my frame of reference is skewed by my experiences.

    I might be completely wrong in that statement in the sense that I had a can do attitude and was not programmed to stay in the lower class by society itself.

    A lot of people are so programmed, unfortunately. It’s one of the reasons that poor immigrants end up doing so much better than poor citizens over a generation or two. Even those that do get out, though, like Spungen, had to work a lot harder to do so than people that were born into it. Unfortunately, those of us born into it often don’t recognize that. We think that we deserve to be where we are and there is the implicit sense that we would be where we are even if we had started out in a more modest settings. It’s sort of like the criticism of George Bush*… started off on third base but he thinks he hit a triple. Those that really did hit triples sometimes resent that. Likewise to people that can’t seem to get to third base.

    * – My intention is not to attack the President (or the former President, who I think it was originally said about), just to point out that the criticism of him applies to a heck of a lot of people regardless of whether it applies to either or both of the Bushes.

  6. Whether you’re earning a six-figure salary or punching the clock at a factory for a union wage, you’re still middle-class. A lot of folks think that being upper-class is about the size of your paycheck, but that isn’t the case, and never really has been. It’s more about the source of your income than anything else. An English gentleman was somebody that didn’t lower himself to working or selling things for a living; he made his money off of tenants’ rent, his inheritance, possibly a government commission, and his dowry. If your primary job is waiting for a dividend check or rent check to show up in your bank account, particularly from investments you did not work to get, you’re somewhere in the upper class. If you work for a living, you’re essentially just another working-class schlep, whether you’re a janitor or a doctor. “Middle class” seems to means “middle-three quintiles for income,” which doesn’t really mean anything socially.

  7. Burrow, you seem to be looking at it from the perspective of saying that upper-middle class folks shouldn’t consider themselves “better” than lower-middle. That may be true, but what riles some people (including Spungen) is the assumption that the son of a doctor and the son of a janitor essentially have the same level of opportunity to make it rich or land a prestige job. I think I disagree with her about the level of opportunities available to working class kids, but I do think that she makes an excellent point about how the levels of difficulty and the need for luck breaks varies a great deal within the ubiquitous “middle class”.

  8. As best as I can tell she’s not so much dissatisfied with what she has or does not have or where she is economically, but rather frustrated that people got to where she is and higher up with less talent and less work due to their upbringing.

    Wrong, both of youse. ;)

    I don’t care about stuff. I don’t care what other people have. Just don’t like dumb people. Want to be around smart people. That’s why I hang out on the Internet, even with all the crazies.

    It’s a myth that just because you have a particular quality, you automatically get to be around other people with that quality. You get to be around whatever’s around you, period. There are a lot fewer intelligent people in the lower classes, whatever their other good qualities might be. And there are a lot fewer opportunities down there to do the things smart people usually like to do, at least for a living.

    Have I ever complained about not having a particular *thing?* I don’t think so. I think I complain about jobs and people. Such as, my big sad discovery in my mid-20s that the only people who ever had big-paper careers anymore went to big brand-name schools like Northwestern and NYU.

    When you’re in a higher class, it’s a lot easier to cherry-pick the lower classes for the best people. It’s also easier to force good treatment out of lower-class people who don’t treat their peers nearly as well.

  9. “Middle class” seems to means “middle-three quintiles for income,” which doesn’t really mean anything socially.

    That’s the popular misconception, yes. I define middle class as being roughly in the top-20 percent of income. The lifestyle and opportunities we think of as middle-class are really only available to that top fifth. That was the point of my prole test, to show the difference between those people and people who merely *think* they’re middle-class because they’re not poor.

    The quickest way I can sum it up is the difference between being a schoolteacher and being a tenured professor. Big difference between who’s eligible for the first versus the second.

  10. I define middle class as being roughly in the top-20 percent of income.

    I take it by “income” you mean strictly the inflow of money from work (the way that the tax code defines it, as opposed to how most people would include dividends and rent from tenants).

  11. I don’t think the class itself affects my relationships with people, but in all honesty if other peoples’ attitudes and behavior are affected by their own class so that they’re snobs, then I’m not usually friends with that sort. I’ve been on both sides of the track as well, and I think that has kept me a little more grounded or appreciative of what I’ve been able to have and not take it for granted. But, I get frustrated by the fact that I think it takes a lot “more” nowadays to get to the middle class than it used in previous generations.

  12. I take it by “income” you mean strictly the inflow of money from work (the way that the tax code defines it, as opposed to how most people would include dividends and rent from tenants).

    OK, call it the top-20-percent of wealth, then. Probably better.

  13. Great dialog going on here, and very interesting! I like to believe that in the U.S. we have historically defined class differently than many other countries.

    I think the U.S. allows much greater movement between classes (regardless of name, family origin, religion) than many other countries, primarily because we initially base our concept of “Class” on earnings and to some extent education level. I think we are more likely to say someone is middle class or upper class because of income (controllable) rather than family name and history (potentially uncontrollable).

    And, perhaps, I have this view because I am an example of how one can move from one class to another (in the U.S. at least). [Also of note, that in defining Class this way, you can also move DOWN in class here much faster than in other countries, right? :)]

    One question I have is regarding “top-20 percent of income.” What’s that figure in dollars? Just curious.

    Lastly, I think it’s really important to note that John made mention of all the exposure he had to educated people growing up, and one can only assume that his own parents instilled him the importance of education. Simply having a “can do” attitude is not necessarily enough, in my opinion. For a child to move beyond his or her born-into environment, there needs to be mentors and exposure to what is possible. I can almost guarantee that if you ask anyone who has overcome great adversity (whether due to race, income, social class, disability, etc), they will tell you about a mentor they had.

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