Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Playing with a Stacked Deck: Classism and Economic Privilege

When I was in social work school, we read bell hook's* book Where We Stand: Class MattersIt raised my awareness of the insidious nature of classism in America, in spite of our culture's pretense that it is a place of opportunity for all. We moralize class discrepancies, saying that if people worked harder and made better choices, they too would be able to prosper. However, the economic crisis of the last few years has brought economic inequalities into stark relief.

I work with clients who are economically marginalized, and I've become acutely aware of my own class privilege. While I have always known that I was "privileged," I used to think that meant 1) I had some nice things I didn't have to work for, and 2) I had educational opportunities that prepared me for a good career. Of course, having educational opportunities is itself much more involved than I realized, including for example: family emphasis on education, living in a good school system, knowledgeable assistance applying for college and scholarships, family support and the lack of responsibilities allowing one to attend college rather than work...and so on.

However, I have recently come to realize that classism is much more complex and insidious. Both personally, as I begin preparing to buy a home, and professionally, as I explore the economic barriers my clients are facing, I have recognized more subtle ways that classism operates. Neither economics nor personal finance are self-explanatory. Money management - balancing a checkbook, establishing a budget, spending and saving responsibly - is a skill that has to be taught and learned. Part of my "privilege" is having been taught these skills from early childhood; my clients whose parents barely scraped by learned very different lessons, often about borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

And good credit is more than just paying your bills on time - more than any other thing, FICO strikes me as method of perpetuating class divisions. I was told as a teen that I would need to use credit to establish a credit history; many people aren't told that. I got credit by having credit-worthy cosigners; many people don't have that. Then there's the mystique of the credit score itself, little secrets like: a credit check lowers your credit score, as does carrying a balance of more than a third of your credit limit, while maintaining an account over an extended length of time increases your score. If you don't know that these kinds of things are factors in your credit score, you wouldn't even think to wonder. Then there's something that wasn't explained to me: a factor in obtaining credit is your debt to income ratio, so student loans are not as benign as I was led to believe. APRs, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and retirement accounts are also confusing, and often counter-intuitive.

Like a secret handshake, these little pieces of information allow those of us with class privilege to attain and maintain financial independence, while those who haven't been initiated into the secrets by virtue of upbringing or education struggle without being able to figure out what they're missing. This is classism, and economic privilege: we're all playing with a stacked deck, and while we may all realize that it's stacked, only some of us know how it's stacked.

* Note that bell hooks chooses not to capitalize her name

1 comment:

  1. This is so true and I assure you that the people in power know this as well, yet there is nothing done about it. It is such a shame that some legislatures focus their energy on dividing Americans by class. And further ensuring that some people are not able to enjoy the full benefit of a being an American. Great blog