My mother grew up in poverty, raised by a single widowed mother in a non-English speaking household in New York City. Without the slightest hint of today’s buzzword – “privilege”- in her upbringing, she worked and earned herself a scholarship to Barnard College and later, Columbia Business School, paving the way for her unprecedented career successes.
I, on the other hand, grew up drowning in privilege. Every night my parents would sit down with me and review my homework. If I wasn’t doing well, I would be sent to tutoring after school. If I was struggling in a class, they’d help me with extra credit projects. I was signed up for so many extracurriculars it was like my parents were challenging colleges to reject me.
I had just about every resource at my disposal to develop my skill sets, learn to problem solve, and learn to learn. That privilege is what afforded me the opportunity to pursue something as impractical as theater and end up broke. It’s also the privilege that allowed me to apply my critical thinking and problem solving skills to eventually break free of broke.
When it comes to poverty, despite my financial expertise and very real experience of limited income, I still feel at a loss for giving advice. Knowing my privilege also makes me very cognizant of the fact that I have no idea what it means not to have privilege.
I’ve been without income, but never for a moment have I lacked privilege. Never for a moment have I not been equipped every skill I needed to find appropriate information, resources, and connections to solve whatever challenge I was facing. Never for a moment have I had to face the risk of sleeping on the street or going hungry or having nowhere and no one to turn to. My network of support – not necessarily monetary, but human- is so vast and valuable that I can afford to take big risks – like pursuing theater, traveling the world, and starting my own business. If I fail miserably, I know there’ll always be a couch to crash on.
When I think about the value of my privilege, I find it comes down to learned skills and a network of support more than anything else. By redefining privilege in this way, I also start to understand how my mom became such a raging success.
Yes, my mother grew up without the benefit of high- or even subsistence-level income, but she grew up with a remarkable model of work, my grandmother (though low earning, hard working), and high expectations of achievement. She also had a vast community network comprised of fellow immigrants that, despite severely limited resources, had an insatiable appetite for “something better”.
While she may have faced great hardships, my mother had extraordinary models of what was expected and what was possible in her life that made her very connected to the potential for opportunity and success. In fact, that entire community she grew up with “lifted itself” from poverty in one generation.
So what’s the barrier for those in poverty now to do the same?
It’s not a monetary construct, it’s an opportunity construct.
Models for success have segregated themselves from the people who need those models most. My mom doesn’t live in poverty anymore. She moved to Connecticut to send her kids to better public schools, an understandable decision for which I am grateful, but one that according to research by Robert Putnam, has lead to the growing opportunity gap between rich and poor.
Upper-middle-class families separate themselves into affluent suburbs with separate public schools, and as a result, poorer children don’t get the necessary access to the same amenities and exposure to the same models of achievement. The end result according to further research by Rebecca Diamond – an ever-growing income gap between high-skilled and low-skilled workers, which no doubt perpetuates privilege (and lack thereof) even further.
No matter how many times I cry broke or fear the threat of unemployment or dwindling bank account balances, I will always know my privilege.