Republicans often blame the poor and their choices for poverty. Choices matter, but class influences both our choices and their consequences. (More)

Class Matters, Part II – Directions

This week Morning Feature looks at Class Matters, a compilation of articles from a 2005 series in the New York Times. Yesterday we explored distinctions of class and how they affect our health. Today we discuss directions of class, how class impacts our decisions and their outcomes. Saturday we’ll conclude with destinies of class and whether Horatio Alger stories are still possible in reality.

The cards of Class

In their introductory overview, Times reporters Janny Scott and David Leonhardt use the metaphor of a hand of cards to talk about class:

One way to think of a person’s position in society is to imagine a hand of cards. Everyone is dealt four cards, one from each suit: education, income, occupation and wealth, the four commonly used criteria for gauging class. Face cards in a few categories may land a player in the upper middle class. At first, a person’s class is his parents’ class. Later, he may pick up a new hand of his own; it is likely to resemble that of his parents, but not always.

No metaphor is perfect, but this one is useful for the key point that your starting hand of Class comes from your parents. Class isn’t entirely about education, income, occupation, and wealth, and those factors do not guarantee success. But they correlate strongly with other important factors that enable success: such as your social network, awareness of opportunity and risk, and capacity to recover from mistakes and setbacks.

Individual choices do matter, but few choices are entirely individual. Our parents and our peers – where we live, what schools we attend, and what community activities we take part in – influence the options we know about and what we know about those options. If your parents and most of your friends’ parents are college graduates, the odds are high that you’ll attend schools and participate in activities that encourage preparing for college, and the odds are good that you’ll earn a college degree.

Otherwise, your life may look more like Andy Blevins.

“The natural thing to do”

In 1995, back home after his first year of college, Blevins took a summer job in a supermarket warehouse. His college grades had been Cs and Ds and he didn’t feel at home on campus. He didn’t mind the hard work at the warehouse, and he did it well. He was earning a steady paycheck, and his girlfriend and high school buddies were all nearby. Blevins didn’t so much decide to quit college as to keep working. It seemed like the natural thing to do. Ten years later, when the Times interviewed him, Blevins was a produce buyer for the same supermarket company. He was married and had a young son. The one decision he regretted in life was the one that seemed like the natural thing to do.

And it was, for him. Blevins came from a working class family. Fewer such children attend college, and fewer still will graduate. The Times cited a Department of Education study finding that only 41% of below-median-income students entering college would graduate within five years, as compared to 66% of higher-income students. That does not include below-median income teens who never enter college at all.

In 2005, the Times found that only 8% of the undergraduates at the University of Virginia came from the bottom half of incomes. It’s not simply a matter of financial aid. Students from below-median-income families are less likely to have been read to as children, less likely to have had tutors, and less likely to attend schools that emphasize college preparation. They’re also more likely to live in communities that don’t value college very highly. Their parents are more likely to have married and found a job straight out of high school, if they finished high school. Their peers are also more likely to follow that track. In their communities, “college kid” is more often an insult than a compliment.

For others, college is a near certainty….

“I’ve been trying to find my passion”

For Issac and Jonah Woolner, the options were different. Their mother Cate grew up in Westchester County, New York, the daughter of a doctor and a dancer. Her mother’s father had Rolls Royce, a butler, and a second home in Florida. For her, and for her sons, the best schools, the visits to museums, the horizon-broadening vacations, and attending college were taken for granted.

Like Andy Blevins, Issac Woolner took a break from college. But unlike Blevins, Issac took two semesters off to study in India and attend a massage school. Both Woolner sons had graduated from a top prep school, and paying for college was not the problem. They just weren’t sure what they wanted to do. Issac thought he might want to open a combination micro-brewery and performance space. Jonah told Times reporter Tamar Lewin, “I’ve been trying to find my passion. But I haven’t been passionately trying to find my passion.”

“It’s a lot easier to live your ideals”

Such ideas sounded almost alien to the Woolners’ stepsisters, Maggie and Lael Crocteau. Their father Dan met Cate Woolner when he was a car salesman. She was wandering the lot as her car was being repaired. They hit it off and married. The two families’ contrasting backgrounds have created stress in their marriage, and also highlight how class influences choices and consequences.

Maggie and Lael went to public schools. They were the first of their twelve cousins to attend college. Maggie worked three jobs during her second year of law school. She could not consider taking a semester off to study massage. She wanted to take a summer internship with a human rights group, but with $100,000 in student loans she knew she would need a paying job when she graduated. With Cate’s help, Maggie found an internship with a major law firm. When Issac teased her about selling out, Maggie told him “it was a lot easier to live your ideals when you didn’t have to make money to pay for them.”


Everyone makes mistakes. But which mistakes we’re likely to make, why we make them, and how likely we are to recover from the consequences, are as much a function of class as of individual choices. Andy Blevins left college because it seemed like “the natural thing to do.” Jonah Woolner was trying “to find his passion.” Maggie Crocteau kept her nose to the grindstone through college and law school, knowing she could not afford any other option.

The cards of Class are not destiny, as we’ll see tomorrow. But the directions in which they steer us are firmer than Americans like to admit.


Happy Friday!