The 99%: Thoughts from the 1%

We’ve arrived at my last entry.  I hope that you’ve enjoyed the posts and the discussions—I certainly appreciate everyone’s comments and shares over the past two months.

I’ve been thinking about and studying social class for many years now.  It was something I first became aware of when I was transplanted from my big, suburban high school to my very small, private, liberal arts college.  Things that I’d previously only been peripherally aware of come to the forefront at colleges like mine, where some students in my class shared their last names with those of now failed investment banks.  I don’t think I even knew what an “i-banker” was as a new freshman; by the end of my senior year, I assumed that half of my graduating class had chosen that as their new career.  I, on the other hand, had chosen graduate school, where I would make social class, inequality, and poverty cornerstones of my personal intellectual development and academic research. 

Then, in my fourth (of five) years in graduate school, I began dating someone, and we’re going to be married later this year.  Why is this important?

Well, that 99% that I’ve used at the catchy, attention-getting title of this series?

I’m not part of it anymore. 

As a feminist who studies poverty and inequality, this is a hugely uncomfortable thing for me, and it’s an even more awkward revelation.  Many of my acquaintances and a few friends will probably be surprised, because I am very reluctant to talk about this in my interpersonal life.  But if I can criticize Mitt Romney for not acknowledging his privilege, I should be able to do the same.

One of my close friends pointed out when I began to write this series that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to explore a freelance writing career if I weren’t able to take risks with my own earnings.  And she’s completely right.  Bitch is wonderful, but as an independent, nonprofit publication, blogging for them doesn’t exactly pull in large amounts.  If I had a family dependent upon my wages, I would have found a more traditional academic or salaried nonprofit job that allowed me to have a reliable income, but I probably wouldn’t have had time to write this series for this audience.  At least in part, my current class privilege is what allows me to write about class privilege.

I don’t worry about how to pay bills, or what happens if my partner and I have a health emergency, and—right now, before they’re even born—I know my children will be able to attend whatever college they can get into, and we will be able to pay for it.  When I began graduate school with my $15,000 a year stipend (which won’t get you very far in Boston!), this was a life that I did not expect to lead.  The challenge before me, then, is to figure how best to use the opportunities I have now to further my values and to create a more economically just world. (The irony that I’m more likely to be heard and more capable of enacting change now is not lost on me.)

To start, we should pay more taxes.

To go one step further, we should acknowledge that, on a societal level, having wealth is not entirely the result of working hard and being talented.  There’s an inherent value to both hard work and talent, but many hard-working, talented people aren’t met with monetary success.  To a large extent, prior privilege opens up great opportunities which, in turn, contribute to better future prospects.  We don’t live in the wholly meritocratic world that we like to believe we do.

And finally, we should recognize that this level of inequality is bad for the whole of society; it represents a fundamental abandonment of what I believe to be the core values of our country.  It’s so simple: we should help take care of people when they need help.  We should recognize that those who are successful have a moral and fiscal debt to the society in which they were able to become so successful.  And we should understand that, until it is real, the American Dream is only a tool to blame people for their own oppression.

With those thoughts, and the hope that change can and will be made, I’m signing off.  Thanks for reading these past many weeks.

Previously: Mamas with Money and Parents in Poverty, Republican Classism Roundup

by Gretchen Sisson
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Gretchen is a research sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies cultural representations and constructions of parenthood and reproductive choice.

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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Wow if I was rich I would

Wow if I was rich I would definitely acknowledge my privilege like u. Bravo! I moved from a community with many lower class people to an upper middle class community and some are even really rich and have mansions and going to high school with these people is hard because they judge me so harshly for not having the right clothes. It seems like a simple thing but not in high school. People can't believe I dont have a cellphone and most people here have blackberries. Luckily I dont compare myself to other people and I dont care what other people have. All I need is death metal lol.

I have to congratulate you.

I have to congratulate you. When I read the first few paragraphs, I didn't feel incline to disregard your opinion or be disgusted. Why? Because, like you said, you recognized your own privilege in a gracious and sincere way. You aren't fake and I;m glad that you took the time to tell us that you don't lead the same life. You didn't have to do that. You have my respect even more. If only all of the 1% was as self-aware as you, there would be no 1%, just one big America. I going to miss your articles here and thank you so much for the time you put into them. Congrates on getting married as well.

Thank you.

I feel a bit uncomfortable

Hi Gretchen,

I am feeling a bit conflicted about the way in which you acknowledged your privilege. While I really enjoyed (what I've read of) your series, and I appreciate your honesty, I feel like if you're going to go to the trouble of stating your positionality at all, why not do so at the outset?

The purpose of my comment is only to express a feeling that I had upon reading this last post. Maybe others feel similarly; maybe I'm being finicky. But, if nothing else, I think reflecting on the <i>way in which</i> one states her or his positionality is a worthwhile exercise.

Definitely a fair question. I

Definitely a fair question. I considered writing this at the beginning, but I felt that then I would have to continually clarify my position throughout the posts, and it would become a distraction. The series, after all, hasn't been about me and I didn't want it to become about me. I also needed time to consider the extent to which my own position was necessary to acknowledge and, until writing these posts and engaging with the audience, it was hard for me to assess the value of that disclosure. I think are a number of ways I could have handled this, and I think there are arguments for and against both. This is the one I chose, but I know some readers might a preferred a different decision.

Aren't the 1% earners of like

Aren't the 1% earners of like >400,000/year?

Translation: my fiance's

Translation: my fiance's wealth is familial, not current income. Hi capitalism.

I have to say I find this ending piece both rather naive and solipsistically confessional in tone. The epiphany that we need to recongize current inequality levels as societally damaging has an easy personal-political solution. Give away all your money to the many people and poverty-fighting organizations that need it. To the point where you do actually have to work for your financial security. Is that going to happen? No.

As a member of the 1%, getting there just recently through income and being a child of a poor single immigrant mother, I'm down with the discomfort and ethical questions this piece hints at. But there are simple answers to these questions. It's just that the answer that the 1% gives is "no". No, we won't give up the wealth to the point that we are no longer the 1%. There are lots of reasons for this, from the fact that for some it is "family wealth" that is is "not theirs to give up" to the fact that some have gotten lucky and are not going to give up the financial security they never imagined.

Anyway, I think the failing of this piece is that it uses liberal platitudes that are hypocritical, practically speaking. It does not acknowlege that ultimately the 1% makes the decision every day to use and maintain their income inequality. The fact is they, we, do. I find the vagueness about this reality to be disingenous.

"Translation: my fiance's

"Translation: my fiance's wealth is familial, not current income. Hi capitalism."

It's neither, actually - not that it matters. But this isn't a question of inheritance.

You might think these are merely liberal platitudes, but I think your response is overly simplistic. I'm not saying "no" -- I'm asking "how?" Give money away? To whom? What organizations should be prioritized? How much do they need? Domestic or international efforts? How much should it be spread around?

My bigger point is that this is a new position to be in (for both of us), and we're still trying to figure out how to align our values with our means, and vice versa. To presume that we aren't giving money to "poverty-fighting organizations" is wrong. But I want to invest in systemic change, not charities that frequently perpetuate inequality by providing stop-gap measures. I don't know what this investment should look like, I don't know how to fund radical change on a large scale. That's what I'm trying to figure out.

You might think this is disingenuous, but I think it's irresponsible to give money away for the sake of giving money away. I think that does very little to change an inherently flawed system. I believe there are better ways to change our society's structural inequalities, and I'm trying to figure out exactly what they are.

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