Class Background and Life Choices

poor toddler next to an image of himself as an owning class one with a smartphone and tieFor years, I defined class in the traditional way:

Class is the relative social rank in terms of education, income, wealth, status/position and/or power.

But more recently I have added the final phrase “life expectations/choices.” In the last two years I made a conscious decision to be, I hope temporarily, “downwardly mobile.” I have seen how my class background expectations/choices have made the transition to a lower tax bracket and reduced career status easier for me than for a close friend with a less class-advantaged background.

Internalized Expectations

Growing up lower-middle-class and then middle-class (as my parents’ education, income and wealth improved) provided me with the expectation that I was going to be successful at pretty much whatever I chose to do. I had many choices in front of me. Whether in my career, community service or avocational pursuits, I was taught at a young age that I would excel by my parents, other doting family members, teachers and ministers. As I got older, I projected a self-confidence, born of this early treatment, that ensured that professors, supervisors, peers and subordinates also expected much of me.

Growing up middle-class provided me with the expectation that I was going to be successful at pretty much whatever I chose to do.”

My close friend grew up in a working poor household. From an early age, she was taught to limit her life expectations from a well-meaning mother, other family members and church folk who wanted to make sure she did not reach too high and fall back to the ground too hard.

Fewer family assets limited her exposure to many of the advantages I enjoyed and limited her choices. Despite this, she “kicked butt” to become a respected professional and revered community member. She earned her way into an elite private college, had a healthy income, attained significant assets and was held in high esteem in her local community.

But when she got laid off about the same time that I did, my early class advantages provided me with a cushion. I saw my situation as a temporary setback, one that coincided with my need for more flexibility to better support aging family members. My friend saw being “let go” as proof that she had been an imposter all along. She had defied expectations but had early on internalized the classism that others had heaped upon her as a child who grew up poor.

Where I started a small business, my friend took an entry-level job in her old profession. She burned through her small retirement fund, became homeless for several months, and resigned from boards and community obligations from both embarrassment and lack of funds to make her annual board donation. I refused to hide my situation, called on old friends and business contacts to get my business off of the ground, and was able to borrow money from myself.

Granted, it has not been easy for me either, but I expected to get through this period and come out on the other side in pretty good shape. My friend gave up, had fewer options and contacts, and believed that she was to blame for her loss of employment – not that the Great Recession had wiped out her job.

When Classism Trumps Class

Unfortunately, class and classism often go hand-in-hand. Education, income, wealth, status and power are certainly indicators of class that play a role in informing a child’s understanding of the world. But children also can be deeply affected by classism, and the belief that, as my nine-year-old cousin once told me (poor boy, he got such a lecture!) “some people are just better people, because they live in better houses, go to better schools and have more money.”

By nine, my little cousin had learned to expect less from kids with limited class advantage. Without constant vigilance to teach him otherwise, he could grow up to be one of the class-privileged people in positions of power who can limit others’ choices.

There is time to change my little cousin’s beliefs. And there is time to change systems that convince people like my friend to doubt their remarkable abilities and talents. Let’s get started.


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