By LUCINDA ROSENFELD
January 7, 2017
With all the talk of the white working class having catapulted our incoming president to power, I’ve been pondering my own status, past and present, on the socioeconomic ladder. Admittedly now a card-carrying member of the liberal and coastal elite so despised by Donald J. Trump’s core constituency, I didn’t always see myself this way. But then, whether you consider yourself lower, middle or upper has a good deal to do with whom you’re standing next to.
Attending public school in the late ’70s and early ’80s in suburban New Jersey, I don’t think the subject of social class ever really occurred to me, except in the context of the BBC productions (“Upstairs Downstairs,” “Brideshead Revisited”) that my mother liked to watch on PBS. The town I grew up in was made up of what was once known as White Ethnics (Irish-, Italian- and Jewish Americans), and pretty much everyone I knew was middle class. There were a handful of families who were less than that, and I remember classmates whispering in the hall that so-and-so’s family was “on welfare.” But even the poor kids hung out at the same recreation center as we did, played on the same softball teams and appeared at the same roller-disco and pizza birthday parties.
That all changed when, in the mid-’80s, I began attending a private high school in a nearby town, with the help of financial aid. On the event of their 17th birthdays, my classmates would appear in the school parking lot in brand-new Audis and Mercedes coups, Yaz’s “Upstairs at Eric’s” blasting from their state-of-the-art sound systems. Though my best friend at the time drove a black Chrysler LeBaron convertible with a butterscotch leather interior, she also lived in a beautiful limestone mansion from the 1920s that, not unlike Castle Howard — the real-life setting for the “Brideshead” adaptation — sat at the end of a long white-gravel driveway behind elaborately rococo iron gates. I’ll never forget the time I struggled to back out of her cul-de-sac in my parents’ beat-up Ford Fairmont station wagon, nearly knocking over one of the giant topiary-filled urns that flanked the entrance.
The incident didn’t simply make me feel incompetent; on some more primal level, it confirmed for me some confused sense of myself as a hapless intruder and perpetual outsider who would never be fully embraced by the people who mattered.
It was true that my family possessed a fraction of the wealth that my best friend had. But although my freelance classical musician and writer-collagist parents made a modest income, they were far from destitute. For one thing, they owned their own home. For another, after my paternal grandparents died, they inherited a 1760 Guadagnini violin — unwisely sold for a song soon after, but still. We also made multiple house-swapping trips to Europe during my childhood and were part-owners of a summer house in Vermont.
What I failed to recognize was that, to a certain extent, my parents’ low-budget artistic lifestyle was a choice. Both of them looked down on the unabashed conspicuous consumption that came to signify the Reagan era. Yet their apparent need to purchase the cheapest cars/televisions/sneakers/even cuts of meat filled me with resentment, shame and longing. For a while, it even convinced me that I hailed from the lower end of the middle class.
At the same time, I was aware that my parents were huge snobs, albeit of the cultural variety. My father regularly used the term “good music” to differentiate classical music from popular forms of the art. My mother exhibited disdain for people who mispronounced the names of great artists and composers; for instance, omitting the middle-T sound from Mozart. I was almost as embarrassed about my parents’ arcane snobbery as I was about the fact that they owned one car and a dilapidated one at that.
My perspective changed in college, when I discovered the work of a French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu. In his groundbreaking book, “Distinction,” Bourdieu argued that class status was not merely a measure of money in the bank, but an accumulation of signs. Although my parents ate generic-brand potato chips, they possessed what Bourdieu called “cultural capital” — both what he termed the institutional kind (degrees from elite colleges) and the embodied type (they spoke English with the “correct” accent).
Yet, living in New York in the first years after college, where I worked as a temp secretary and wrote half-realized novels, I again migrated toward the fiction that I was going it alone in the big city. It was both true and untrue. Unlike most of my friends, I got almost no financial help from my parents. But they never would have left me to starve. Perhaps most significant, my family and education had provided me with a wealth of pre-existing connections to the media establishment and, no less important, the social acumen to make use of them. Even so, in my mid-20s, when a handful of my city friends began buying two-bedroom apartments in the West Village — despite making just $24,000 a year as editorial and production assistants — it confirmed my sense of myself as everyone’s “poor relation.”
It was the man who became my husband, who writes about economics and politics and who grew up in an indisputably working-class family in the north of England, who hammered home for me that all along I had been a bona fide member of the bourgeoisie. It was a classification that was even harder to dispute when, 13 years ago, true to the Brooklyn cliché, we took our accumulated savings and bought a dilapidated brownstone, marking us as certified gentrifiers as well.
My relative privilege came into even starker relief seven years ago — and I began to appreciate the extent to which privilege and deprivation are passed down from generation to generation — when our older daughter began attending a rare mixed-race-and-income public elementary school in the neighborhood. At classroom celebrations, in addition to lawyers and literature professors, I found myself in the company of transit workers and security guards. Some lived in housing projects, a few in homeless shelters.
I’ve been disheartened to discover the extent to which, in a mixed environment, the children themselves seem to self-segregate by socioeconomic status. Even at a young age, the fields of reference between the haves and have-nots are apparently too different. Conversely, children from similar backgrounds, even similarly employed parents, somehow sniff one another out. My younger daughter had been in kindergarten only three weeks when she announced she had made a new best friend and asked me to schedule a play date. To my never-ending amazement, she’d managed to home in on the only other child in her class of 25 whose parents worked in book publishing.
Of course, the most privileged segment of society does not use the public schools at all, a fact I learned as a teenager and then all over again when a good 50 percent of my parent-friends in the city began enrolling their children in private schools where, thanks to exorbitant tuition costs and selection processes built in part on pre-existing connections, the children of the well-off are guaranteed to interact almost exclusively with other members of the lucky in birth. (Even those who receive financial aid, as my family once did, tend to pay in the thousands, an impossibility for most families.)
Not that reproducing one’s social access and class advantage is an oft-stated goal by those who send their children to such places. Instead, one tends to hear about the “small class sizes” or “amazing theater program.” But these perks constitute only half the equation. The other half goes unmentioned. For if there’s one taboo subject left in the United States, it may be the existence of a class system as closed and inflexible as the one my husband left across the Atlantic.