Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaires

I grew up poor. Being poor affected the choices I made as a kid, which in turn, affected the choices I made as a teenager and then those choices impacted my adult life and still affect me. And, obviously, being poor as a kid was due, in part, to choices made by my parents and their families far before I was born.

I worried about being behind on the rent before most middle-class kids knew things like rent and mortgages existed. I didn’t go to some school activities because I knew we didn’t have the money for me to participate. When we had a car it was a rusted out beater. I could feel water spray the floor mat when we ran over a puddle and, if the outside temperature was low, the cold water splashing on the hot undercarriage would create steam inside the car. We were on welfare 3 separate times in the space of about 6 years. I learned to round up and carry a running total at the grocery store because if we went over the amount we had in food stamps we’d have to put something back which, in my mind, was a terrible fate.

But my grandparents were middle-class; they bought us groceries and paid the phone bill and provided years of transportation, babysitting, and laundry facilities. I can not imagine my life without them and consider myself very lucky. They have also kinda been my cover. My socio-economic status (SES) beard if you will. They provided the toys, clothes, experiences, and vacations that are more typical of a middle-class childhood. All of which means that people often don’t realize how, for me, being middle-class is such a huge step up. My grandparents, and all they were able to do with 1 factory paycheck, are also why I still don’t consider myself middle-class but working class. They seemed to do so much more than my wife and I are able to do despite the extra paycheck and a college degree.

The reason I’m putting all this out here is a quote I read a few weeks back and have paraphrased here, “Poor Americans behave as if they are temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” There are different versions of the quote and it is attributed to both Ronald Wright and John Steinbeck but I agree with the sentiment expressed. It’s all just an accident or a spot of bad luck that will work out and return the person to their former position. Poor and working class Americans seem more likely to attribute their economic situation to bad luck than any form of systematic oppression from those further up the economic ladder. Even though people who are higher in SES, and who incidentally have the most to gain from maintaining the status quo, frequently impugn the character of the poor and working class by calling them lazy, unmotivated, shiftless, etc. Even though members of the higher social classes engage in exclusionary practices in regard to housing, education, and employment. Even though their families have been poor or working class for generations.

I don’t get why we, the poor and working class people of America (as a large monolithic demographic group), feed into the false ideology of economic mobility. Generally speaking, you will earn in wages what your parents earned in wages. And yes, there are exceptions, for example Lebron James earns more than his mother did. But another exception would be a 35 year old divorced school teacher with two children who doesn’t even come close to achieving the earning power of her married parents who worked as a sales manager and a bookkeeper. And after all there are way more divorced school teachers in the United States than NBA champions. The chances of you being the next Lebron James, or rather your kid being the next Lebron James, are pretty freaking slim.

Anyway, if you are interested to see where you and yours fall in regards to the poor, working-class, middle-class, rich, stinking rich, and Bill Gates-worthy income scales check out the Pew Research Center’s income calculator.