My So-Called Privileged, Upper-Middle Class Life

“She lives in the apartments,” I remember my mother saying as if she had just swallowed a spoiled bit of food, nose wrinkled, voice disturbed, as I made friends with a Pakistani girl who lived with her large family in a sprawling apartment complex behind my elementary school. The neighborhood was predominantly blue collar white, if I recall correctly, however it had a larger share of black and latino families compared to the rest of our town. She questioned my safety when I would go over to visit. While the complex, compared to many other locations, was quite safe, due to her constant nagging I had a fear that if I visited my friend’s house I’d surely be shot at any time of day.

My neighborhood, by contrast, was one of the nicest in our suburban New Jersey town at the time, itself a sprawling community of 1960s-built tract homes with lawns, large, quiet streets, and a pool club with summer crafts classes and the popular swim team. Our own home, not a mansion by any means, featured the largest backyard in the entire community backing up against tall trees that would sway violently in both winter and summer storms.

Middle Class Grandeur, Middle Class Delusion

My mother, who worked as a designer in New York City until I was born and became a stay-at-home mom, would constantly discuss her jealousies over the families and homes of neighboring “rich” towns Marlboro and Holmdel.

As my parents relationship always seemed primarily about my father providing and my mom taking care of myself and my sister, as my father would disappear in the morning and return late at night from his long work days in New York, my mom would gaze longingly at some advertisement and mention that she wished she married a “rich” man, this, despite the fact that my father actually did quite well for himself as an actuary, having once accumulated nearly $1M for the sale of the private company where he worked.

Growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, there isn’t much to do. My diverse town of 40 square miles, according to census stats, had a population of 65,000 in 2010 – in 1950 its population was 7,000 and in the 80s when I was born, 51,000. In 2010, the median inflation-adjusted income for a household was $98,634, with 4.1% of the population below the poverty line. It was a nice place to grow up, one I now respect more for its diversity and opportunity, but still, it was a suburb where entertainment was created by its own residents. While I lived in a little bubble, largely due to my parents being friends with members of our temple from more wealthy towns nearby, most adolescents entertained themselves with drugs, alcohol, and sex. I just went shopping.

I lived in the same house from birth until age 17 when I moved out to go to college in another state and didn’t look back. My weekends were filled with shopping trips to any of the local malls — the nice one by the fancier towns, The Freehold Raceway Mall, opened in 1990 and started my lifelong addiction to Nordstrom. My mom and I would go to the mall together when other kids would be spending time with their friends (even though in middle school I started making a few friends, those friendships were mostly limited to school time and official school activities.) Shopping was a bit of a sport. It made us both happy, temporarily. We were both addicted.

Buying a pile of new clothes made me feel good for a while. But that feeling wore off quickly, and we were back at the mall for another item we had to buy, only coming home with hundreds of dollars more than we had intended to spend. This would often be followed by a shouting match between my parents. At some point my dad gave up in trying to real in the spending.

He had the money to spend, compared to most other people in our town – while we could have moved to a larger house in a fancier town, or my parents could have purchased BMWs, we never did. Even our shopping expeditions were limited to middle-class designers. My mom never bought high-end stuff, she just bought a lot. She taught me if you find a shirt or pair of pants that fit, buy a few of them in the color you want and then buy them in every other color they come in. I recall coming home one year after shopping for clothes for school at J.C. Penny with the same turtleneck in six or seven colors.

In sixth grade, I went shopping at the mall to get presents for my friends at school. Except, I didn’t really have friends, I had acquaintances and people who I wanted to be my friend. So I went to Claires and spent hundreds of dollars on earrings and bobbles for people who most likely talked behind my back. I tried, in a sense to buy their friendship. That, of course, didn’t work.

The Unclear Path from Child to Career Woman

While my mother taught me how to shop, there was no discussion about one day becoming self-sufficient. My parents encouraged my pursuit of art, or, I should say, inspired it with their constant praise of my modicum of talent. I didn’t have a lot of adults around with different professions to aspire to — I was clearly not going to be an actuary like my father, who majored in physics and loved math. I didn’t want to be a teacher, as I didn’t even like other kids when I was one myself. So my mother’s prior life as a fashion designer seemed as good as any to attempt to make my own. I enjoyed fashion, well, shopping, and spent much time making collages of cutouts from fashion magazines.

But I still avoided the introspective question needing an answer of how to retain my lifestyle as an adult. Going from where I was then, a girl who could draw a picture that non-artists said was good, to a person who made a living and a good one at that, was beyond me. College was the logical next step after high school, but it never was about getting a job. I figured at some point that would all fall into place. Afraid to pursue fashion design after a stint in a $3000, paid-for-by-my-parents, pre-college summer program at a renowned fashion design school in New York, I opted for costume design at an equally renowned, expensive, theatre school at a large liberal arts private college, but really had no idea what the fuck I wanted to do with my life.

My parents, for better or worse, never pushed me to major in something due to its career prospects. My mother, on the other hand, wanted so badly to go to college for art history at UC Santa Barbara. Raised in Los Angeles, California, her mother, who herself grew up in New Hampshire, brought up her three daughters in a small apartment. My mother’s father, a Rabbi, became a funeral salesman (or so I hear) at the encouragement of his wife who wasn’t happy living on a Rabbi’s salary. Their life in Los Angeles was not one of wealth, nonetheless, and my mother would tell stories of how they moved to an apartment just on the border of Beverly Hills to attend a better school, despite being much poorer than most of the student population. My grandmother told my mother not to pursue her dreams to become an art histori man, but instead to move to New York and become a fashion designer, a real career.

So she did. She moved to New York and earned her associates degree from a top fashion school. She met my father her first weekend in college at a party at a technical college in NY. He was really her first boyfriend, as she was 17 at the time, and she went out into the working world at 19, becoming a designer for a childrenswear company. But by the time I was born, she was ready to leave the career world and become a full-time mother. Apparently, my father assumed she’d return to work, but she never did. When my sister came seven years later and had a learning disability prevent her from doing well in school without outside help, it sealed the deal on my mother’s full-time profession as a housewife.

While active in the school district, my mother never offered a sentimentality of charity or giving. If she gave, it was to a Jewish or arts organization. Poverty was not her problem. She was the middle class, the upper middle class, longing for the life of the rich. Not once did she give thanks for what she had, or mention that we should help those less fortunate. Those less fortunate who lived in the apartments were not the type of people we should associate with. Of course, the neighborhoods with less wealth within our town also were generally more diverse, with our neighborhood having one known black family and communities like the apartments having many. Despite having friends who are black, I still catch myself from time to time thinking something that I know is racist or classist, and scolding myself for it. How am I any better? How can I make myself better?

So when I read an article like — Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life, I feel helpless on so many fronts. Caught between my own desire to somehow create an upper middle-class life for myself and my potential future children, and a deep, clawing sadness of the inequalities of the world, I am lost. Homelessness is real poverty. And it exists, not just in third-world countries, but in America, my country, where I undeservedly make over $100,000 a year because my parents paid for my college degree and somehow, despite being too anxious and distracted to do well in school, I learned how to write.

Class in Session: Hopelessness, Guilt and Inescabable Privilege

This holiday season I’ll go home to New Jersey and have another useless argument with my Republican father over the inequalities of the world, and walk away feeling like a hypocrite in my own right. Capitalism inspires productivity but it also relies on systemic inequality both domestically and globally.

“Inequality is indeed increasing almost everywhere in the postindustrial capitalist world. But despite what many on the left think, this is not the result of politics, nor is politics likely to reverse it, for the problem is more deeply rooted and intractable than generally recognized. Inequality is an inevitable product of capitalist activity, and expanding equality of opportunity only increases it — because some individuals and communities are simply better able than others to exploit the opportunities for development and advancement that capitalism affords.”  — Jerry Z Muller

In nearly every discussion on inequality and government, I’ll find myself stuck on the fact that despite living in a country without slavery or caste systems, the whole notion of passing down wealth from generation to generation within our own blood lines makes for an unequal society, especially when many families were just freed from slavery less than 100 years ago.

The Invisible Child article – or should I say book – follows the life of one homeless child living in a rat-infested, over-crowded shelter in Brooklyn. Sixth grader Dasani takes care of her siblings (5 or 6 of them) and shares a 520 Square Foot room with them and her parents. There are 280 children in Auburn, this Brooklyn homeless shelter which, which NY Times Reporter Andrea Elliot poignantly describes as, “a decrepit city-run shelter for the homeless. It is a place where mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm, where feces and vomit plug communal toilets, where sexual predators have roamed and small children stand guard for their single mothers outside filthy showers.”

Dasani, the lengthy article goes on to explain, is a promising student, fighting through all of the challenges in her life that she has no control over as a child. Her parents, recovering drug addicts, cannot afford rent in New York, nor can they afford to move somewhere else. The article (which I’ve only read part one of so far) details New York City’s problem with homelessness, but uses this as a microcosm of cities across the country dealing with growing poverty.

One in five American children is now living in poverty, giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania. This bodes poorly for the future. Decades of research have shown the staggering societal costs of children in poverty. They grow up with less education and lower earning power. They are more likely to have drug addiction, psychological trauma and disease, or wind up in prison.” — NY Times

Cities like New York are focusing more on serving the wealthy than those who cannot afford to put a roof over their heads.

With the economy growing in 2004, the Bloomberg administration adopted sweeping new policies intended to push the homeless to become more self-reliant. They would no longer get priority access to public housing and other programs, but would receive short-term help with rent. Poor people would be empowered, the mayor argued, and homelessness would decline.

But the opposite happened. As rents steadily rose and low-income wages stagnated, chronically poor families like Dasani’s found themselves stuck in a shelter system with fewer exits. Families are now languishing there longer than ever — a development that Mr. Bloomberg explained by saying shelters offered “a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before. Just three days before the mayor made that comment at a news conference in August 2012, an inspector at Auburn stopped by Dasani’s crowded room, noting that a mouse was “running around and going into the walls,” which had ‘many holes.’”

In my personal quest to wealth and financial independence, I know I am contributing to the problem. I can, of course, take any additional income I make beyond my needs and donate it to charity. Earning more automatically takes more of my income and puts it back to work through taxes. Yet trying to become the 1% or at least the owner of over $2M in networth (however unrealistic that quest might be) is perhaps the wrong goal. Maybe it’s time to take all of my privilege offered via luck and use it, somehow, to help the problems caused by, not contribute to, this grow class divide.

Income inequality has been much in the news the past several weeks, after Pope Francis’ denunciation in November of “trickle down” economics, and President Obama’s Dec. 4 speech at the Center for American Progress in which he called income inequality “the defining challenge of our time.”

For anyone who wants to live in a bubble of their own money and pass this wealth down from generation to generation, there will come a time when the class divide is so great and our country will be divided by civil war. I can’t imagine we can go on like this forever. What’s different from our country’s historical class divide and depressions is that now, somehow, some, maybe many people on the wealthy side of the coin seem ok with limited opportunity for the poor. We’re no longer a country where everyone can get ahead, but who cares? “The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed,” said President Obama.

Walmart, McDonalds and Minimum Wage

The economic topic de jour in America is the minimum wage. With the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, the reality is that a 40-hour-per-week (aka Full Time job) at this rate keeps one below the poverty level. According to one study, American fast food workers receive more than $7 billion dollars in public assistance. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart employees are the largest group of Medicaid recipients. They are also the single biggest group of food stamp recipients.

Those on the conservative right often argue that minimum wage jobs are not designed for full-time, adult employees. To be fair, these arguments are supported by data as well (see The Heritage “Who Earns Minimum Wage? Suburban Teenagers, Not Single Mothers.“)

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau show that most minimum-wage earners are young, part-time workers and that relatively few of them live below the poverty line. Their average family income is over $53,000 a year. “Employers respond to higher labor costs by hiring fewer workers. Higher minimum wages eliminate entry-level positions that provide unskilled employees the opportunity to gain experience. Less experience makes it harder for workers to become more productive and earn higher wages,” writes conservative James Sherk. MarketWatch’s Diana Furchtgott-Roth backs up this point, noting, “when the minimum wage is raised, employers hire higher-skilled people, or switch to different forms of technology, such as placing orders through touchscreens.”

Raising minimum wage both gives businesses an excuse to hire fewer low-level workers and provides them an opportunity to charge more (since those who are making money have larger incomes to spend.) I’m not sure this ultimately helps reduce poverty in the long run, but no full-time working person should earn less than the poverty level when they are working for a business that is making a profit.

A November Gallup poll showed that 76% of Americans support raising the minimum wage. But practically everyone with a heart is in favor of raising wages, as long as those higher wages are paid by someone else. “People might respond to pollsters saying that they are in favor of raising the minimum wage, but they are rarely willing to pay $13.90, or $20.00 for a service for which they pay only $10.00 today. They would not buy as much of the service if the price increased,” explains Furchtgott-Roth.

Liberals argue raising the minimum wage would inspire more spending. “If the minimum wage rose to $10.10 per hour, as Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama propose, 27.8 million workers would see their wages go up as a direct or indirect result of the boost, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. These workers would take home about $35 billion in additional wages and they would probably spend it, as low-income people living with little financial cushion tend to do.” — The Huffington Post

“Today’s minimum wage isn’t enough for a family of two to live above the poverty line, according to the EPI study. In fact, it takes an hourly wage of $10.20 per hour for a single person to afford basic needs in America’s cheapest county, according to a July analysis from Wider Opportunities for Women. That wasn’t always the case, as Cooper noted: ‘The increase that is proposed would get us back to almost exactly what we would had as a real value of the minimum wage in the 1960’s.'” — Jillian Berman

How to Get Ahead and Help at The Same Time

Just like the class divide, there is a great divide between dedicating one’s life to a career that helps those in need versus chasing after greater salaries. There are a few roles in between, fundraisers for large non-profits, for instance, which enable a reasonable income for a middle class life while also daily work to help others.

Good journalism inspires one to action, and as I work through the lengthy five-part piece on homeless children, I want to do something. But what? I am sure I can start by donating a percentage of my salary to a charity I believe in. I could volunteer on the weekends. There are plenty of things I’m not doing right now that can help. Still, while a little helps, it just feels like unless I dedicate my life to actually getting in the weeds and helping impoverished districts, whatever I do is no where near enough. The best I can do is try to make a lot of money, save it, invest it, avoid having children, live a simple life, and donate my remaining networth to a quality charity.

It’s just the part of me that is my mother’s daughter, and my father’s daughter, wants to be wealthy, or at least reasonably well off. I live in Silicon Valley, a part of the country where wealth bleeds from the soil. Silicon Valley had the second-highest concentration of wealthy households during the period of 2007-2011, according to a report the U.S. Census Bureau released Monday, Feb. 11. The report stated that 15.9 percent of Silicon Valley households are in the top 5 percent of the nation’s income earners — those who make more than $191,469 per year. The statistical area is defined as “San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara” and includes Palo Alto, according the Bureau.

What’s more, affording life in Silicon Valley requires some sort of luck. “An average Bay Area-based young couple has to own equity in a business if they hope to send their kids to a good school and to be able to retire well,” according to Wealthfront. “Our analysis found you need to work for at least one company where your equity stake can generate at least a few hundred thousand dollars after tax to make your economics work in the Bay Area.”

So theoretically, I’ve played my cards right there so far. I’ve risked $20,000 for the chance to maybe turn my shares into “a few hundred thousand dollars,” post tax. (Yet I’m probably going to lose that $20,000 because 9 out of 10 startups fail. So much for that.)

The Wealthfront article about how to afford life as a couple in Silicon Valley makes me a little ill to read, as it bases its assumption on a “professional Silicon Valley couple” in their 30s. “We assumed they earn a generous $250,000 per year and spend $60,000 per year on items not related to supporting children.” Of course, they also get raises of 3% every year at least to offset inflation costs.

The couple has two children, one when both are 30 and the other when they’re 32. Each child costs about $22,000 a year to support. (This number includes housing costs for the United States. In Silicon Valley, we think $22,000 is the cost without housing).

The couple needs to save $1,100 per month for 18 years to afford to send each child to private college. Alternatively, they could save $6,500 per child per year for 18 years to afford to send their kids to a public university.  (Unfortunately, families that currently earn $250,000 per year do not qualify for financial aid at most universities.)

After putting aside what their kids need for college, our couple has nothing left for retirement savings by Year 3. By Year 4, the couple has negative cumulative savings (i.e. they owe money) even after giving up on their retirement savings plan. Cumulative savings remain negative through Year 21.

This is about a couple who are 30 who earn $250,000 and can afford a $200k downpayment on a house. And they still cannot afford retirement if they chose to live in The Bay Area. “A year after their second child goes to college, the couple has enough left after expenses to save for retirement again.” Of course, the article notes that since it’s so expensive to live in the Bay Area, lots of kids move home after college, and these parents would then have to pay for their kids until they figure out how to start making over inflation-adjusted $125k.

In other words, if you and your significant other do not make $250,000 with 3% raises year over year AND have the opportunity to obtain a few hundred thousand dollars via equity or an inheritance. “In Silicon Valley, your best chance of generating the cash you need to get you from here to there is to work for a company that offers an ownership stake that can become liquid in a reasonable time period.”

I hate writing posts about how with a $110k income I’m scared of not being able to afford the kind of life I want, and this is exactly why. I feel ill questioning if I should be making more than $110k because I feel like I don’t deserve that much, and yet in order to afford being a mother here I would probably need to make more. I shudder at the inequalities of this country and yet I’m on this almost robotic mission to somehow afford this life I think I want to have. Even with my relative success, I’m so far away from that. My boyfriend now makes about $60k (adjusted given that he does not get benefits at work) and I make $110k, so if we were to have kids today, we’d have a joint income of $170k, not $250k. In other words, we really need to leave The Bay Area if we want to have a family.

It could be worse. I could be raising six children in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. Or I could be a homeless child who has never own a new pair of clothes in her life.



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3 thoughts on “My So-Called Privileged, Upper-Middle Class Life”

  1. Your story is familiar yet not familiar to me, if that makes sense.

    For me, it’s obvious that if you want to buy a home instead of rent, you have to leave. Otherwise, you stay and suck it up. Harsh, but true.

    Great post. Definitely going to link to this.

    1. I know. I really don’t need to own a home. I’m less worried about that as I am the prospect of how much it costs to rent in a savory area (with a good school district if needed when/if I have kids) and just in general — right now I’m living with two roommates and not my boyfriend that I’ve been dating nearly 8 years because I pay $650 per month in rent and he pays nothing… if we lived together the minimum we ‘d pay on a 1br would be $1500 (total) and that would be a very not nice one. So it’s just frustrating. I feel like due to the increase in housing prices I have a right to fight for greater salary at work, but salary is so complex tied to not just housing prices, but your value, and what people are willing to pay for you.

  2. For me, part of the answer is to NOT save 1,100 each month for 18 years for college. I’d love to do that for my hypothetical kids, and if I can, I will. But I am not going to feel like it is a “requirement” for the life I love.

    Also, the couple in the story is REALLY similar to me and my husband. “We assumed they earn a generous $250,000 per year and spend $60,000 per year on items not related to supporting children.” The bit about a $1M home and $200k downpayment is not too far off what we are thinking… I’m going to read that in detail!

    While these are indeed first world problems, that doesn’t make them any less real. They are real problems, just not as dire as problems others may face.

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