Class influences our choices and their consequences in more ways than Americans like to admit. But class is not (quite) destiny. (More)

Class Matters, Part III – Destiny? (Non-Cynical Saturday)

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

Rags to Riches

Most Americans want class to matter at least somewhat. In their introductory overview, Times reporters Janny Scott and David Leonhardt write:

But there is broad consensus about what an optimal range of mobility is. It should be high enough for fluid movement between economic levels but not so high that success is barely tied to achievement and seemingly random, economists on both the right and left say.
[…]
Yet there should remain an incentive for parents to cultivate their children. “Most people are working very hard to transmit their advantages to their children,” said David I. Levine, a Berkeley economist and mobility researcher. “And that’s quite a good thing.”

Most of us want our children to benefit by our success. From nutrition and health care to schools and extra-curricular activities, we try to give our children the advantages we can afford. But we also want our children to be able to compete with children whose parents who can afford more advantages. Whatever our class, we hope our children can parley their talent, education, diligence, and self-discipline into success.

In short, we hope Horatio Alger “rags to riches” stories are possible. Alger’s own life was not one of those stories. He was a second-generation Harvard graduate, a Unitarian minister forced from the church on sexual misconduct charges. He moved to New York City and became a writer, churning out almost 100 novels for and about young boys. In most of his books, a boy from poor roots made good through hard work and clean living.

That narrative is deeply woven into the American Dream. But is it woven into the American reality? We’ve seen this week the distinctions of class, and the subtle but powerful directions class asserts on our choices and consequences. Class matters, but is it destiny? Not quite.

Up from the Holler

As a child, Della Mae Justice did not expect to become an aptly-named lawyer. She grew up in eastern Kentucky, in a house without indoor plumbing. Her father left. Her mother was mentally ill. Her older half-brother hunted squirrels to feed them. When she was 15, life at home turned violent and she went from having a poor family to having none: sharing a bed with another foster child and picking clothes for school from a box of hand-me-downs. There she remained for nine months, until Joe Justice – an older cousin and a lawyer from the other side of town – heard Della was in foster care and took her in. Suddenly, Della had her own bedroom, her own clothes, and a new school. The culture shock was so complete that when Della ordered a club sandwich on a school trip, she didn’t know what to do with the toothpicks that held it together. So she said she wasn’t hungry.

Joe recognized both Della’s discomfort and her intelligence. He steered her toward Berea College. It was a good fit, a college where all the students came from low-income families. All of the students work. The school charges no tuition. At Berea, Della met Troy Price, whose father was a tobacco farmer with only a sixth-grade education. They fell in love and, after graduation, they married. Della had earned a fellowship in Europe, and Troy went with her for graduate study in family studies. Della also earned a scholarship to the University of Kentucky School of Law, where she graduated fifth in her class, received a clerkship with a federal judge, and a job at a prestigious Lexington law firm.

But Della never quite felt at home in her upper-middle-class Lexington life. In 1999, her half-brother called to say his kids were in foster care. Like her cousin Joe, Della responded. She and Troy moved back to her hometown and took in the children. Della joined Joe’s law firm, while Troy became the executive director of the town’s support center for abused children. Since the 2005 Times story, Della has moved on to the state attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division.

Up from the Projects

For Angela Whitiker, life was a roller coaster. At age 26, she had a GED and five children by almost as many men. She and her oldest son were featured in a Times story about children in poverty. Readers responded with offers of charity, but their generosity did not change the essentials of Angela’s life. She dreamed of being a nurse, but that seemed a dream for someone else’s life. She worked in fast food. She worked nights as a security guard in a housing project. She tried to keep her children out of the line of fire when gangs shot at each other. The only working men her sons saw were drug dealers.

Then Angela met Vincent Allen. He was a police detective, who moonlighted as a security guard. Unlike the other men Angela had known, Vincent was a college graduate and came from a middle-class family. They fell in love, and soon Angela and her children moved into his apartment. She talked about her dream of nursing, and he encouraged her to try it. She would be eligible for financial aid, and they could make it on his income.

Angela enrolled in nursing school. But could she keep her oldest son – who resented Vincent’s presence in her life – away from the drug dealers for whom he had begun working as a lookout? Would Vincent tire of her and the children? Such worries, and feeling out-of-place among her classmates, added to the stress of studying for that week’s test, and the next. She suffered such severe test anxiety that a professor once had to find her in the bathroom, where she was vomiting. Week by week, test by test, course by course, Angela ground on.

In 2001, Angela graduated. She arrived for her state nursing boards two hours early, to be sure she wouldn’t get lost or caught in traffic. When her board results arrives, she was too nervous to open the envelope. A call to her mother bucked up her courage. Everyone heard the shriek of delight. In 2003, she and Vincent got married. In 2005, her daughter became the first of her children to graduate high school. Her two older sons bounced in and out of trouble with the law. Her youngest son was in the school’s gifted program.

Destiny?

Class is not quite destiny. Rags-to-riches stories still happen. So do riches-to-rags stories, the other side of economic mobility. The Times staff devised a brilliant interactive graphic of economic mobility in the U.S. Hover your mouse over each income group and you can see how families in each moved from 1988-1998. But the Horatio Alger myth is indeed a myth. Della Justice and Angela Whitiker worked hard to succeed, but neither made it on hard work alone. Della’s older cousin Joe rescued her from foster care and set her on a path toward college. Vincent’s emotional and financial support made Angela’s dream of nursing school possible.

Della and Angela needed Helpers, and for me that’s the real story of class. The higher your parents’ class, the more likely you’ll have such Helpers around: your parents and their friends, your friends and their parents. The lower your parents’ class, the fewer Helpers you’re likely to have around in childhood, and the luckier you need to get to meet one at a critical moment. Republicans often argue that marriage is the key to women escaping poverty. There’s some truth in that, but middle- and upper-class men hardly queue up to meet poor women. Vincent was such an exception and Angela’s story so rare that sociologists interviewed by the Times said there are no statistics on stories like hers.

Meanwhile, as the Times also noted in that series, the top 1% pull farther and farther away. They boasted about the size of their yachts and muttered about who got into which exclusive country club. But many insist class had nothing to do with their success. Last year, former First Lady Laura Bush described her husband – the son of a former president with blue-blooded family ties dating back decades – as a “self-made man.” And when the 99% gather to demand a more just and fair society, top-one-percenter Mitt Romney called it “class warfare.”

It’s hardly warfare. But it is about class.

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Happy Saturday