In 1985, when I was only a year old, my parents divorced. My mother was then 20 years old and came from a poor Puerto Rican family. My entire family on my mother’s side was uneducated, and at the time she did not have her high school diploma. My father was 27 and came from a blue-collar, middle-class family. Because of the divorce, I grew up between Puerto Rico and Cleveland, Ohio. Growing up, my cousins and I had very different lives. My cousins attended respectable Catholic schools all of their lives, while I attended public schools. I took public transportation back and forth to high school, while my cousins all had cars at the age of 16. Through no fault of my own, I was the child my family took pity on, yet no one ever bothered to try to help. Although I did manage to obtain an education, I struggled financially for my achievements. Today, all of my cousins on my father’s side of the family are steadfast Republicans, they own property, and they all have high-paying jobs. I am a politically liberal artist who lives in the city of Chicago. In their mind, their success is due to the fact that they worked hard. It is true that they worked hard academically, but whenever they met any type of struggle, they always had a safety net. Meanwhile, I did not. That safety net is what privilege is.
We as Americans, and liberal Americans as well, underestimate the leg up we may have had growing up in comparison to a person who grew up in poverty. Being poor is the one stigma we do not want to talk about. Poverty has a certain amount of shame to it. It implies you did not work hard enough in order to achieve economic success. You hear stories time and time again of the immigrant who came to the United States in the 1950s or 1960s and was able to achieve a middle-class life, open their own business, or work a blue collar job. The truth is that the economic landscape has changed immensely since then, and economic success can only be achieved when you have a mix of diverse economic households in a community. Instead, we live in a nation that is incredibly divided both socially and economically.
Take for example the state of Illinois: the best school district with the highest test scores is in New Trier Township, where a recent 2015 graduate earned a rare perfect AP test score. His accomplishments are indeed impressive, but we need to take into account what resources, opportunities, and even human capital students like him have available to them. New Trier is located in Winnetka, Illinois where, according to the most recent statistics, the median household income is over $200,000 a year. This student and his peers will likely live great lives. Opportunities and doors have been opened to them.
We live in a nation that is incredibly divided both socially and economically.
Compare New Trier High School to the lowest performing school in the state, YouthBuild McLean County Charter School, located in Normal Illinois, where according to the Illinois Policy Institute Special Report, “almost 96 percent of students at YouthBuild McLean County Charter School, failed to meet standards on the Prairie State Achievement Test, or PSAE – a test taken by all juniors in Illinois.” According to the 2014-2015 Illinois report card, only 8% of YBMC graduates are ready for college. Economically, 68.6% of students who live in this school district are from low-income families. In order for students to meet the low-income criteria, their parents must receive or live in households that receive public aid from SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or TANF (Targeted Assistance for Needy Families); are classified as homeless, migrant, runaway, Head Start, or foster children; or live in a household where the household income meets (USDA) guidelines to receive free or reduced-price meals.
There are many debates between economists on how we should fix wealth and income inequality. One of the arguments posed by economists is that students work best if they are surrounded by other high-achieving students, creating a mix of low-income and middle-class students who will essentially help each other flourish academically. In Thomas Piketty’s book Income Inequality, he references the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, whose data shows that “for a given level of parental education and income, the likelihood of upward social mobility varies over a range of two to one depending on the average income of the neighborhood the parent lives in.” However, having neighborhoods of mixed income becomes difficult because the very poor cannot afford the astronomical prices of housing and living expenses in those neighborhoods. This leaves us with a broken system where wealth and wage inequality continue to grow, and a good life is more likely for the few who had the privilege of having a middle-class life and great education.
Although we may not realize it, or think of it in our everyday lives, economic segregation has been internalized and it manifests in how we view and think of people. We are quick to judge a person who sends an email with a typo, or who may not speak the best English. We tribalize and we become self-righteous, we talk about sexism and racial inequality, yet we are quick to judge a person who is not educated. We gang up on people on Facebook and judge their critical thinking skills and knowledge to debate a subject. Our current political landscape and tribalism is a manifestation of the tribalism and cliquishness that has been growing in our country for the last sixty years. In order to defeat this and truly unite to accomplish real change, we must be aware of our own privilege and opportunity, be less judgmental, and help people who want to be helped, and may not have gained the proper skills to succeed because of the zipcode they were born in.
Isabel Dieppa is a writer and actor. Her interests lie in science, art, and history. Past writing includes interning for the Chicago Field Museum ECCO program, the national theater blog HOWLROUND, music reviews for UR Chicago, and in a former life was a beat reporter for the Indiana Daily Student. She is currently aspiring to be a science and culture writer and debating graduate school. The next big adventure may include digging near Mount Vesuvius, she also loves cats and wants to harness the power of words to save the world.
Photo via Pictures of Money/Flickr
More from BUST