When Students Talk About Wealth and Class

Are money and privilege now the taboo topics?

Posted Dec 12, 2017

We live in a society with one of the most unequal income distributions in the developed world, yet we rarely talk about how this reality shapes the lives of our children. Parents often don’t know how to talk about it, and teachers often feel stymied about bringing up the topic in their classrooms.

Harder Than Sex?

A high school teacher once admitted to me that talking with students about wealth and privilege was “harder to talk about than sex.”

And like sex, the topic touches on feelings of envy, desire, self- esteem, and shame. We often rank ourselves in terms of how much money we make, we may envy others the seeming benefits of their greater wealth, we may feel that someone else’s success undermines our own sense of self- worth.

However, to not talk about differences in wealth and social opportunity shortchanges both students who come from wealth and those who do not. Not talking about what it is like to live within the “bubble of wealth” prevents students from understanding the real social and emotional disadvantages (not a typo) that growing up with money creates for young people. And, not talking about the realities of income inequity leaves students whose families do not have wealth feeling silenced and often shamed by the also- real realities of class advantage that they see around them.

How Wealth Creates Social-Emotional Vulnerability

We confuse material wealth with psychological well-being in this country, so it can feel like a stretch to think about the emotional and social vulnerability of the affluent. Yet, wealth isolates and distorts the social ties that make for healthy development. Material wealth can itself create a stressful background: the very affluence that evokes so much envy often isolates children in important ways.

There is increasing evidence that children from affluent backgrounds struggle with surprisingly high levels of emotional and social distress. This seems to result from two factors: excessive pressure to achieve, and emotional and physical isolation from parents. The emphasis on material success can compromise other factors essential for psychological well-being, such as close interpersonal relationships. In wealthy families, too, material resources can compromise supportive networks, since parents buy services such as child-care or tutoring rather than sharing them with the extended family or neighbors. For many wealthy students, there are few adults they can confide in.

The Bubble of Wealth

“Some wealthy students live in a bubble,” one upper school teacher observed. “They take trips to Brazil, Hawaii, the Caribbean, but they don’t know what life in this country is really like. They go to Brazil but don’t know what it means to be an ordinary Brazilian. So, in English class, they’d don’t understand what is being talked about when we read a novel like How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent or The Namesake. They don’t understand what the world is like and how it works.“ She commented that “At first, I was stunned at their ignorance and got angry at their privilege, but now I am aware of what the cost is to them. They often look lost when they confront a personal problem.” 

Teachers with experience in less privileged classrooms understand the importance of being upfront about life’s realities. When you teach in a community where there are direct threats to kids, you have to help them learn how to be resilient. You talk about the challenges inner city kids will face. You have “the talk” with young black men.

Similarly, some children of wealth may be painfully unaware and unprepared for what they face as they live their lives. In this case, the “wealth bubble” can leave a student believing that there are no problems out there, or at least none that their wealth or family influence can’t manage. When they confront the ordinary difficulties of making a relationship work, dealing with the inevitable failures and challenges of life, they can be clueless.  

While we need to have conversations about class with all students, perhaps, too, we need a version of “the talk” with students of wealth. The talk could focus on the bubble that wealth creates and the social-emotional challenges that result for such children, with particular attention to the role of empathy and development of their own resilience when facing challenges to their self-esteem.

When Poor Students Believe the System is Fair

Speaking of self- esteem, not talking about the realities of inequity in our society has been shown to have detrimental effects on the self- esteem and behavior of students who come from poorer families. If you’re taught that our meritocracy is a fair system in which hard work results in getting ahead, then you are in a vulnerable position as you try and come to terms with your own experience. As one researcher noted, a poor child who is taught that the meritocracy is just will wonder, “If the system is fair, why am I seeing that everybody who has brown skin is in this kind of job? You’re having to think about that...like you’re not as good, or your social group isn’t as good.”

Schools have a responsibility to help students of all backgrounds—rich and poor and in between—to understand the realities of class and wealth that they will face in their lives.

One of the best places to start a conversation is by engaging students themselves, particularly students from diverse backgrounds brave enough to talk openly about their experiences.

When I’ve suggested to teachers and other adults that they consider trying to reach out to students in such direct conversation about wealth and class differences, they usually roll their eyes. “Are you kidding?” one teacher said to me. I shared their skepticism— until I saw what the students at one school were able to create on their own initiative.

 “Kickstarting The Conversation”: When Students Start The Talk

Sam Osherson
Source: Sam Osherson

At the Lick-Wilmerding School in San Francisco, a group of juniors and seniors from the VOICE (Valuing Open Inclusive Conversations with Everyone) club believed that “the topic of socioeconomic status is a commonly avoided and uncomfortable topic throughout the school community.” While the school in their opinion did an admirable job of focusing on a variety of core identifiers such as gender and race, the topic of class was much touchier and harder to talk about. 

A number of the students experienced myriad hidden injuries of class in the course of everyday life at the school: as scholarship students they received tickets to school dances on a sliding scale, then heard other students exclaim, “you’re so lucky, you get to pay less to go to the dances”; in the cafeteria main entrees are included in tuition, but not desserts, and they’d listen to more privileged students casually declare that “I’m on my third cookie already today” when they rarely had the money for one; at bake sales raising money for student-sponsored causes they felt perceived as selfish and uncommitted when anything they contributed meant taking money away from their families. The students experienced the student community as subtly segregated by class in terms of who hung out with who, what was talked about in casual conversation (eg, what do you say the day after vacation ends and everyone is talking about their trips to exotic locations?) and how people dressed, often—ironically—to disguise their class backgrounds (students from wealth trying to “dress down” so as not to stand out and working class students trying to “dress up” to fit in—all pretty obvious to the students as to who’s who).

The VOICE club decided to ask for permission to create an all-school assembly with a panel of students and faculty willing to talk in a very personal way about their own socioeconomic status and how they experienced it at the school. The group’s hope was to “kickstart the conversation about class.”

The school administration was very supportive of this effort, and so many students volunteered for the panel that the organizers had to make some “tough decisions’ as to who to include. Ultimately, they choose “people who haven't shared much with the community and are of diverse backgrounds.”

Three students and three teachers participated: one middle-class female student of color, an Asian female student of middle-class background, and a white male student from a local family of significant wealth. The three teachers consisted of a white male teacher and a male teacher of color who were both of middle-class backgrounds and a white female teacher who self-identified as lower-middle-class. The panel addressed the following questions:

  • Before you came to Lick, how did you perceive your socioeconomic status? How and in what ways did Lick change this perception?
  • How do you think people at Lick perceive your socioeconomic status and why?
  • Can you describe a time at Lick when your socioeconomic status felt salient or tangible to you?
  • Have you ever changed your behaviors based on the way you perceived the socioeconomic class of the people you were around? How so?
  • What does recognizing the diversity of SE status at Lick really look like to you?
  • What advice do you have for people when it comes to engaging the topic of socioeconomic status?

What stood out for many students were the comments by the student of wealth and the remarks by the faculty member who lived a life “from paycheck to paycheck.”

The student, the son of investment bankers, talked directly and openly to the school about his experience of wealth and the dissonance it caused him in the school. At home he often heard about large sums of money being talked about in an impersonal manner, then he came to school and listened to his classmates talking in very personal terms about the economic and social challenges in their lives. He challenged his fellow economically advantaged peers to think more about the process of becoming aware of what that difference means in their lives.

The faculty member was a divorced, single mom who experiences herself as living “precariously” economically but having made that choice by virtue of the choice to end her marriage. She related that when her car broke down recently she didn’t have the deposit necessary to rent a car and wound up taking a bus across town after school in order to pick up her daughter from school. To make ends meet she rents out the spare bedroom in her house through Airbnb. “I emphasized the role of choice and context in our lives: I choose these circumstances and I’m getting quite creative in dealing with it all.”

Reflecting back on the panel, the teacher felt a great sense of liberation and release in being so open about her life circumstances instead of trying to hide them. “So many people came up to me—kids and faculty—to thank me for my candor. It was as if they were wrestling with it, too, but it was a taboo topic for them to talk about.”

The outcome of the panel? It’s clearly a work in progress. One of the organizers reflected, “It was amazing how many people bolted for lunch right after the panel rather than stay for discussion.” She reflected, “It’s uncomfortable to come face-to-face with questions about your core identifiers.”

Yet the panel did its job. Several teachers devoted time in their classes to discuss what everyone had heard, and at least one teacher devoted an entire class to reactions that came up from the students. And now the VOICE students and their allies are committed to keeping the conversation alive.

Talking about the realities of class and affluence, the different kinds of problems and opportunities they create, can help remove the stigma and sense of shame that surrounds both the presence and the absence of wealth.

It’s a difficult, at times scary, conversation to have, but doing so can open up new possibilities for connection and understanding.

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