There is a truism that the difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals want everyone to have an equal outcome, while conservatives want everyone to have an equal beginning.
It sounds nice and comforting to us conservatives, in part because we realize that an equal outcome is not possible nor fair (and fair, of course, is a word that liberals love). If everyone starts out at the same place, then where they end up is largely up to their own efforts.
There is, of course, quite a deal of truth to this idea. As I've said before, the main difference between me and the people I know who have more than I do is that they've either worked harder or have more education or ambition, or some combination of the three.
However, it is not the only difference, and for some folks it might not even be the important difference. Because the truth is this: the idea that everyone in America starts out equal is an absolute myth.
I realize that this goes against the very core of what a lot of my readers believe. And yet, it is true. It is also almost impossible for a lot of folks to even perceive, let alone comprehend.
We all of us--and I by no means except myself from this--are prone to believing that the way we experience life is the default norm, and that other people are exaggerating or outright lying when they talk about how it is for them. To put it another way, we think our perception of reality is actually objective reality, and if other people don't perceive objective reality the exact same way we do, then their perception must be off.
See, there is this conservative habit of thinking that everyone is middle class if they want to be. It assumes that middle class is the default and that everyone, poor or middle class or rich, has the exact same opportunities and experiences and mindset. And it's not true, and the belief is kind of fucking ridiculous and actually pretty insulting.
Now, I am not going to pretend to be an expert on the middle class, having only the slightest experience with it. But, from watching my peers who were middle class grow up, I have been able to cobble together some commonalities. These are things the middle class takes for granted:
- Health Insurance. I put this first just because it has been in the news so much lately. There is a difference between not having health insurance as an adult and in growing up without it. And I'm going to lump dental insurance in here too, because it's a similar thing. Middle class folks by and large grow up with health insurance, and that means that getting sick isn't a scary thing. You get seriously ill, you go to the doctor, you get a prescription and you get it filled and take the medicine. And you never think twice about this. Growing up without health insurance means fear of something very bad happening, and guilt for getting sick enough to have to see a doctor you know your parent(s) cannot afford. It means waiting out things like infections because there's no way your parents can afford the antibiotics. It's the difference between regular dental treatment, and your normal state not being some level of pain because you've learned to ignore all but the worst of it. My husband broke his two front teeth getting back on the family's boat(!) just before going into middle school and had them fixed almost immediately; I still have a fear of something happening to my teeth because people absolutely judge you if they're broken.
- Food Security. Maybe you were sent to bed without dinner a few times when you misbehaved. Not the same. Middle class kids know there will be a good dinner every single day. Know the real reason poor people tend to be fat? Because when they have access to food, they tend to overeat because they know it won't last. But there's more to it than that. Remember signing up to bring stuff to school for class parties? No big deal for middle class kids. Poor kids, on the other hand, either have to beg off or bring something cheap, either of which marks them as weird and undeserving to the other kids in class. Then you get to high school and there are all these occasions to eat out with other kids--for me in particular it was at German contest and the Model UN and things like that--and either you pretend you're not hungry or you feel guilty because you know your parents are suffering to give you the money for these things. Or, at the very least, you look at the other kids eating whatever the hell they want and you kind of want it too, but you have to sit there and pretend to be happy with your cheaper option.
- Extracurricular activities. True story: all my cousins played trombone in the school band and so I wanted to play trombone in the school band. That lasted right up until I discovered you had to pay to rent the instrument. Then, in high school, I wanted to be in pep squad (damned if I remember why anymore), right up until I learned it was $100 for uniform and supplies and then I'd have to go to competitions and stuff. I could tell a similar story about Girl Scouts. I remember going to the thrift store for my uniforms. Don't even start on things like Driver's Ed (which I somehow did have, but it was through the school district rather than a private driving school like most of my classmates) and school dances.
- Popular culture. You remember Trapper Keepers? They were the shit back in the '80s and '90s. What about Popples? Nintendo? Nickelodeon? Walkmans? Microwave ovens? Yeah, poor people got none of that stuff, to say nothing of the clothing fads that most of the rest of us are embarrassed to have taken part in. I don't remember when MTV had music, and neither do other people my age who grew up poor, because cable TV is something other people had.
- Wanting stuff. This one sounds a bit crazy. But it's true. Most people I know can tell at least one story of wanting some toy or bit of technology really really badly, and how elated they were when they finally got it. Poor kids, on the other hand, learn to not want stuff because they know they won't get it. Oh, I'm not saying I didn't have toys. I did, and rather a lot 'cause my dad used to buy them for me and my mom was always shit at managing money. But they were the cheaper versions 9 times out of 10, and there were many, many more things I decided I actually kind of hated because it was easier to disdain things.
- Milestones. When we met, my husband still had the stereo he'd bought with the money he was given at high school graduation. I found this both charming and bizarre--people really do give high school graduation gifts! I'd heard of it, but, y'know. And the thing now is senior pictures. Not the Lifetouch portraits we all had, but like hiring a professional photographer to do portraits the senior year of high school. And all that other stuff...school dances, proms, senior trip, yearbook, varsity jacket, class ring. I managed most of it (I only had the varsity jacket because the school paid for a certain number of them), but there are plenty of kids out there who don't. There was certainly no car--used or otherwise, or dinner out before senior prom, or any of that stuff.
- College. This is perhaps the most significant difference. Middle class kids took the PSAT, they may have taken the SAT/ACT multiple times. They wrote up lists of colleges they wanted to attend, they visited some of them, they applied and were accepted and arranged funding with little fuss. The poor kids who even had a concept of college had no one to guide them. The entire application process is a fucking mystery if you don't have someone there to guide you through. Obtaining a waiver for application fees is every bit as difficult to understand as the idea of paying $50 to several different institutions. The entire experience may as well be a myth. Speaking of myself again, I can tell you that after 7 years of being forcefully dragged down to the level of the dumbest person in class, the idea of paying for another four years of that shit seemed crazy. This is one of the intangibles. One person to sit me down and say "Look, the dumbasses? In college, they're shit out of luck. The professor is only going to be willing to put up with so much" would have completely changed the trajectory of my life. And the other kids? The ones for whom college would be a waste of time? The way things are set up, there's even less ambient knowledge about how to obtain school for a decent trade.
For poor kids, it all might as well be a fairy tale. Even if they understand that these things are out there, as I did, the way to obtain them is a mystery unless they get lucky.
You may have seen a news story circulating about how poverty makes you stupid. It's not that stupid people are more likely to be poor, either. It's that when you are impoverished, so much of your brainpower is devoted to just keeping your head above water that you don't have any left to figure out how to improve your life. I know from personal experience as an adult that it can feel as though you are reeling from one emergency to the next. How the hell do you get ahead? How do you build up savings when you have to decide which bill to put off until next month? How do you get a new, better job when the hours of the one you're working right now are so screwy you can't schedule an interview? There's almost no breathing room.
I still listen to Dave Ramsey and I am occasionally just as bemused by him as I ever was. It's not so much the twenty dollar designer envelope system now. It's the way the people who call into his show to talk about how they are debt free never seem to make below about $50 grand a year, and a lot of them make $75K or $100K a year instead. And they will talk about how they're middle class and struggling. Witness the middle class conundrum about cutting cable television. Or foregoing a family vacation. You think poor people have that stuff to cut back on? (And right now, someone reading this is mentally composing a rant about how poor people have big screen TVs and iPhones and new cars. Go look up rent to own, then learn about buy-here-pay-here lots and kindly go fuck yourself.)
There is a disconnect, and it is one of the reasons I am alienated from conservatives just as much as liberals.
Poverty is not a moral failure. Ending up poor when you started out poor is the default, just like ending up middle class when you start out middle class is the default. The error comes in the common belief that middle class is the standard and that poor people can easily end up middle class unless there's something wrong with them. It's the objective reality vs. perception thing I was talking about earlier.
In this country, we celebrate the Average Joe who hits it big. We realize the little guy becoming rich and famous is rare and should be celebrated. What too many of us miss, however, is the poor guy making it to average is just as rare and worthy of celebration. Maybe even more so. Because the other thing the middle class takes for granted is hope.
Let me explain it like this. You've got Jon and Joe and they're both in San Antonio and they both want to get to Houston. Joe has an atlas and a car and a knowledge of where Houston is. Jon, on the other hand, is on foot and someone shit on his map and he only knows that Houston's "over there toward the East". Now, who's more likely to get there? Joe. Who really has to work his ass off and figure out a lot of extra stuff to get there? Jon. If they're both in Houston a month later, which man really deserves to be congratulated for it? And if Jon can't find his way to Houston, does that make him a bad person? Or just an unprepared one?
It's like that.