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Worldwide Ace » What Means Mean

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What Means Mean

17 February, 2011 (06:46) | Social Commentary

“Ben can’t recognize a bobcat. He grew up in an East Coast upper-class family.” The way he says it drips with a silent hatred.

Fuck you, I think. Now is neither the time nor the place for the argument.

“I seriously feel insulted,” I announce, unwilling to let the barb pass unfettered. “Seriously.”

“Ok, I’m sorry,” he replies. “That sounded insincere. Let me try that again. I’m sorry. Better?”

“No. But you don’t need to apologize. I’ll just hold a grudge.”

“Good. I’m good at dealing with people with grudges since I don’t really care.”

It’s already gone further than it should’ve. I decide to keep my mouth shut. It’s a moderately rare occurrence, but one I’ve been trying to cultivate. I suspect it’s too little too late.

What defines a person’s class?

Is it the amount of money they make? Is it the amount of education they have? Is it race? Where they grew up? The privilege they experienced? Can it change or is it set for life? Who decides the thresholds? The government? The people?

The world groups itself. Some of that is intentional: groups of friends setting themselves apart from the other crowds; kids dividing by sex, race, or style; adults separating by religion, hobbies, or political affiliation. It’s self-segregation for the most part, decisions made for comfort or for ease, people choosing to group in a way that makes them happy.

Many people, myself included, seem to have a great deal of difficulty and/or a lack of desire in finding a singular homogeneous social group. In doing so, I’ve often come into conflict with those who feel that I’ve experienced undue privilege and deride me for such.

I admit it.

I grew up in a white, upper-middle class family with many of the benefits and accoutrements of the status it provided. To an extent, I’m embarrassed and ashamed, especially given my current situation. I have neither lived up to the expectations of my initial class, nor do I have any real desire to. Many of the people who enjoyed the same or better status and rank were and are assholes, and as such, I’m often treated accordingly.

At the same time, that’s painting my life and my family’s existence with a large swathe of classism that ignores many of the details.

My parents are both Harvard educated with masters degrees in business. My father also has a masters from MIT in architecture. When I was small, he worked for real estate companies making six figures. My mother, though certainly capable of working for a six figure salary at a private firm, has eschewed this, working primarily non-profits.

My maternal grandfather has a degree from the University of Illinois in engineering; he worked all his life for Caterpillar in service and sales, living overseas and raising his three children in a cultured home. My maternal grandmother also graduated from the University of Illinois, and though she worked as a journalist for quite some time, eventually chose to become a homemaker and mother for her career.

My paternal grandmother was a single mother who went back to school for a masters in education and worked as a substitute teacher. Her family was one of means, though by the time I was born it was neither evident nor palpable to myself or any of those who weren’t privy to that information. My paternal grandfather was a watch repairman. He and my grandmother met in the navy and divorced when my father was still a child. I didn’t meet him until several years after my grandmother has passed away.

My mother’s siblings, a pair of younger brothers, are a plumbing supply specialist and a truck driver for Pepsi respectively. The latter spent years in the navy as a submariner. Both have embraced a cultured blue collar existence. My father, on the other hand, was an only child, and though he worked construction and enjoyed building things in his workshop, never struck me as all that blue collar.

When I was born, my parents both worked. I had an au pair (a fancy way of saying a foreign nanny) and attended a private school in San Francisco. My parents had the means to live this way and I was too small to understand the quality of life they were providing.

Most of my friends were in similar situations, but a handful of them came from families who lived significantly differently. My best friend Tito lived in the Mission district of San Francisco, a lower income Latino and Hispanic area. Though he attended the same private school, if I had been paying attention, I would’ve recognized that his collection of toys was smaller and cheaper and his home more cramped and less ornately decorated than mine. I was too young to note the distinction, and for me, it didn’t matter. Tito was my best friend because he was creative and inventive, clever and witty, and, perhaps most importantly, we understood each other. Hopefully I never flaunted my privilege, but if I did, I’m sure I didn’t know any better.

At the age of 8, we moved to Boston. We moved into a very nice neighborhood. Our house was huge with a large backyard. Our neighbors were successful doctors, lawyers, news anchors, and real estate agents. I didn’t really care what they did as long as I had other kids to play with. I switched into public school for the first time, but given the high property taxes that fed a strong educational system, this wasn’t much of a downgrade if at all.

By Middle School, my social awareness had grown and my desire to fit in started reaping unfortunate results. My best friend was a Ukrainian immigrant whose family lived in a townhouse in what we referred to as the projects of South Brookline. I didn’t know from projects, and when I went to hang out with friends in lower income neighborhoods like Roxbury, there was a stark difference but not one I recognized. Kids would come into school with the latest toys or clothes, talking about their Nintendos and fancy game systems, and I felt jealousy. It didn’t make sense that some people would have these things and I wouldn’t.

SIDE NOTE: That right there is the error of my class privilege. Because I lived well and was treated well, I came to expect that quality of life. For the most part, it’s not a bad thing to desire a quality of life, but once I reached college and beyond, when frugality became a necessity, I often made poor financial decisions because I had certain expectations of how I should live. It’s taken many mistakes and humbling experiences to effect a change, and I still have to carefully watch myself.

As a small child, my parents made me earn many of my more expensive toys. I performed chores for my allowance, though I’ll admit to be vastly overpaid compared to my current wages. When I wanted a large toy like the G.I. Joe Aircraft Carrier, my parents told me to save half and they would pay half. I remember working for three months, eschewing my normal comic books and candy purchases to scrimp for the five-foot long plastic playset.

By the time middle school had rolled around, I was finding ways to play the system, arguing payment systems more in my favor and acting as a one-boy union for my allowance. My parents still bought me nice things and while I had come to expect it to a certain extent, I knew I had to earn anything I truly wanted, mostly through hard work, but sometimes through less than the most upstanding means. I mowed lawns, set up computers and performed tasks and chores for my fmaily and my neighbors in order to make up the difference. I also learned how to pirate software and trade and barter goods.

After fucking up royally academically at public school, my parents decided I needed more structure and sent me to a private school. At the same time, my father left his high paying job and my mom soon followed, leaving our finances much tighter than I could realize from afar. Attending boarding school put a financial strain on my parents, especially since my spending there increased to keep up with far more well-off students I lived with, children of magnates and purported drug czars from Venezuela.

I can only assume that jealousy and a desire to fit in drove my bad financial decisions. I wasn’t the only member of a lower class thrust into the midst of moneyed assholes. There were scholarship kids from New York, children of employees at the school, and at least a dozen other kids like me, stretching their parents finances for opportunity, structure and a good education. I also wasn’t alone in feeling to pressure to spend money as if I were among the elite, though my first roommate Tyler, who was also more middle class than the others, certainly didn’t fall prey to the trappings I so easily did.

In high school, I returned to public school, but my monetary habits remained poor. I continued to live beyond my own and my family’s means through much of college too. It’s not that I didn’t understand that my parents worked for the money they lavished on me; nor was it that I was a JAP and simply expected these things without a personal cost. It was moreso that without many of he privileges of money, I felt unable to be myself. I couldn’t spend evenings at the movies with friends or eat good food at restaurants. When I did have money, I would use it moreso on my friends, to allow them to enjoy these moments with me, the cost be damned. If they couldn’t afford to go out, I would offer to cover the difference or find a way to make things happen. Eventually, it came back to bite me in the ass and I learned, but it took longer than it should.

I have never made more than $12,000 in a year. The times when I’ve been flush have been thanks to gifts, inheritance, aid from my family, and loans, I’ve managed my money poorly. I’m still nearly $15,000 in debt from college and, given my current life path, I don’t see climbing out of that hole any time soon. I still need to pay for rent and living costs, for entertainment, and for all the various accoutrements necessary for my job.

The US government defined the poverty line in 2009 as $10,840 in income for a single person household, which exceeded my earnings for the year. In 2010, that number dropped to $10,830, which still exceeded my income. Middle class is defined roughly as a household earning between $25,000 a year and $100,000 a year. It does not take into account the number of people in a household, the area and cost of living there, nor the various expenses associated with having dependents who add nothing to the income.

If I sit below the poverty line year after year, how can I be considered middle or upper class?

Perhaps I’m wrong to feel insulted.

My friend wears his assumed class like a badge of honor. Yet his family owns multiple properties. He doesn’t pay rent. He spends lavishly on games and equipment for his passions. He complained recently that his family dipped into his college fund to deal with some expenses, and yet his own monetary concessions seem not to change with this revelation.

In many ways, I feel like he’s in a situation very similar to mine. Certainly, his growing up more rurally in a more blue collar family changes his view on the world, but class-wise, we aren’t much different, especially now.

When everyone is so tight-lipped about their money and hold so closely to their personal identity, how are we expected to avoid conflict from the invisible lay lines of capitalism?

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  • TheOldBear

    Those “invisible lines of capitalism” are a lot more visible than you might imagine. Income and education are very broad categories that one might use to define social class in America. But the marketing professionals classify the population using much more subtle variables than income and education alone.

    Two of the major psycho-demographic marketing tools are VALS (from a company called Strategic Business Insights) and PRIZM (from Claritas Inc. which is part of Nielsen.) These companies sell their analytic tools to business, government, political organizations and anyone else who wants to reach specific types of households who are most likely to buy — of buy into — their product.

    VALS stands for Values and Life Styles. It defines US adults as belong to eight distinct types using psychological traits and key demographics. It then applies two critical concepts for understanding consumers: primary motivation and resources. (Consider their use of the term “resouces” as roughly equivalent to your use of “means.”) The combination of motivations and resources determines how a person will express himself or herself in the marketplace as a consumer.

    PRIZM, which stands for Potential Rating Index for Zip Marketers, is a little more complex, sorting US households into 67 categories, each with a descriptive – and sometimes amusing – name. For example, “Young Digerati,” “Pools & Patios”, “Shotguns & Pickups,” or “White Picket Fences.”

    For example, PRIZM would identify the typical residents of a zip code first by two general categories: social group and lifestage group. For example, the zip code 80302 in Boulder would be descibed:

    Social Group: City Centers
    The five segments in the City Centers social group consist of a mix of Americans–old and young, homeowners and renters, families and singles–who’ve settled in the nation’s satellite cities. What they share is a middle-class status, educations that include at least some college, and a lifestyle heavy on leisure and recreation. The members of City Centers tend to be big fans of home-centered activities: Internet surfing, video renting, TV viewing, and playing games and musical instruments. Outside their homes, they go to movies, museums, and bowling alleys at high rates.

    Lifestage Group: Young Achievers
    Young, hip singles are the prime residents of Young Achievers, a lifestage group of twenty-somethings who’ve recently settled in metro neighborhoods. Their incomes range from working-class to well-to-do, but most residents are still renting apartments in cities or close-in suburbs. These seven segments contain a high percentage of Asian singles, and there’s a decidedly progressive sensibility in their tastes as reflected in the group’s liberal politics, alternative music, and lively nightlife. Young Achiever segments are twice as likely as the general population to include college students living in group quarters.

    These groups could be further subdivided:

    City Centers:
    – Up-and-Comers
    – Middleburg Managers
    – White Picket Fences
    – Boomtown Singles
    – Sunset City Blues

    Young Achievers:
    – Young Digerati
    – Bohemian Mix
    – Young Influentials
    – Greenbelt Sports
    – Up-and-Comers
    – Urban Achievers
    – Boomtown Singles

    Ultimately, PRIZM develops a very fine granularity, with sophisticated definitions of 67 demographic segments.
    You can download a list and description in PDF format. The descriptive names are of the various segments are informative — and sometimes amusing.

    Back in 1988, Michael J. Weiss wrote a book The Clustering of America (ISBN: 0060157909) which provided a very readable discussion of psycho-demographics and what they say about us and how we view ourselves. You can find this book at your library or buy a good used copy online for a dollar or two. (Check ADDall.)

    There is a woman named Betsy Leondar-Wright who co-authored the book The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide (ISBN: 1595580042) and who has written about the social issues of race and class in America using the techniques of segmentation modeling. I strongly recommend that you take a look at this essay on her “Class Matters” website. I really think you will appreciate much of what she has to say and find it to be especially resonant with your own personal philosophy.

    (USA Today also has a graphic and video presentation about the PRIZM model if you don’t mind watching their somewhat artless style of multi-media production.)