“It’s Not Fair:” A Working-Class Mama with Middle-Class Kids

“It’s not fair.” The first words out of my seven-year old’s mouth after leaving a birthday party turned barbecue at the home of one of her classmates. She had a great time, and her brother too as he tagged along for the party. I sort of knew what she meant when she said those words, but I wanted to be sure. “What’s not fair?”

Although she sat in the backseat as I was driving out of the house’s circular rocky driveway, I could practically feel her eyes as they narrowed in annoyance. “You know, this house.” “Well, what about the house?” “It’s so big. It’s not fair.”

Can’t argue with her first assessment. The house was big — 9,000 square feet big. Sitting on a large lot of approximately two acres, the house stands at the edge of our pricey suburb. While the median home price in the area is a crazy $2.4 million dollars, this house was easily worth $9 million, and Zillow says $11 million. To me and my kids, the house was a mansion. None of us had ever been in anything like it.

The backyard was enormous. The birthday party was a nerf-gun battle, and there was more than enough room for the 15+ eight- and nine-year-olds to run around, dodging darts. There was a trampoline, which is my daughter’s dream contraption. Inside was a beautiful gourmet kitchen, and upstairs were eight bedrooms bedrooms and seven (!) bathrooms. The deck sported several gas grills, and the adult conversation over dinner included vacation plans to Europe and South America.

We were in the middle of a world we could only dream about.

I’ve written before about how I grew up in a black working-class neighborhood. While defining class is a preoccupation of sociology, I typically think about it as occupations that don’t require a college degree, where people are generally paid hourly, and don’t have a great amount of savings or other income-producing capital. People may own their homes, but in a place like Philadelphia, the average home price is only $117, 000 — 2.5% of the average home price where we live now. We were not poor — there was always food on our table, clothes on our backs and heat in our house. Our neighborhood was full of working class people like us — day care providers, police officers, EMTs, etc. My brother and I each had our own rooms, along with televisions and stereo systems. My parents believed that having good shoes on your feet was a necessity, so we always had name-brand sneakers, even if they were the bottom of the line. I worked afterschool during high school to have the nicer things I wanted, like clothes and shoes. Because everyone around us were also working-class, I never had the sense that I had a lot less than other people. Furthermore, I went to the best public school in the state, and were surrounded by other very smart working class kids. I didn’t know how to drive, so I took the bus and subway every where. So, I thought that how I lived was pretty representative of how most everyone else lived. I had what I needed. Of course, I was naive.

When I got to Penn, I was shocked. I got a 95% scholarship to go to Penn, and was only required to pay $5,000 a year, which was our expected family contribution. We didn’t have all of that, so I was required to do a work-study job. I did both a work-study job and a retail job to make everything work.

But I learned that many people were paying full tuition, or something close to it. There were folks who didn’t need to work while also doing school, who actually went places for Spring Break. (I’d never been on a plane until the summer right before college started.) They had cars on campus, and I didn’t know how to drive. They wore expensive clothes and carried nice handbags. I worked at The Gap, so I could at least dress nice. And, being the teenager I was, I got totally caught up in the credit card hoax so many college students get caught in. But I didn’t have parents that could pay those bills.

Nevertheless, I worked hard and …long story short, here I am now. A law degree and doctorate from one of the best schools in the world. But still struggling financially.

We live in a small two-bedroom town house. It’s beautiful, and we have two pools and a community center and a gym, all made possible though my husband’s employment with the University. But it’s a crazy amount of rent (rents in the area are around $3600/month), and we are five people squeezed into 1100 square feet. My three kids share a bedroom and every month, we are barely breaking even. We truly live paycheck to paycheck.

So when my daughter expressed how she thought it was unfair for people to live in such a big house, I could sympathize with her. It does seem unfair that we are all humans, but some folks have more than they need, while other folks have less then what they need. But I explained to them that one day, we’d have what we needed. That I and their father work really hard to provide for our family, and that while things are tight right now, I’m sure that things are going to get better soon. And they will. I’m at a junction with my career goal to be a professor, taking on lower-paying employment now to set me up for much higher paying employment in a few years. We may never have a mansion, but we will be okay. Furthermore, right now, while what we have is not ideal, it’s also not too shabby. We are doing better than most folks. Just maybe not better than most folks around here.

But I also want them to dream and have expectations. I want them to feel entitled to having a good life, which many black kids don’t feel. And I need them to dream for me. Because while I know things are going to get better, I honestly can’t see if for myself. My whole life has been paycheck to paycheck, and I simply cannot imagine what it will feel like to go on vacation to another country, let alone another continent. I have an internal acceptance of what is, and it’s hard for me to feel entitled to what I don’t presently have. I can’t imagine having money for my kids to play whatever sport they’d like, or to be able to send them to camps that cost $300 + a week per kid to attend. I can hardly imagine having two cars!

So I asked them what they would want in a house. My son started, “I want four bedrooms. So each kid can have their own bedroom.” My daughter said, “I want a yard big enough for a trampoline.” My son: “I don’t really need a big yard. I just want my own bedroom.” Anything else? My son: “Two bean bag chairs.” My daughter: “No, you don’t need two bean bag chairs. If someone comes over, you just give them yours.”

Sensing the argument, I interceded: “So if you have those things, will it be fair?” My daughter: “Yes, because we’ll have what we need.”

Even after being surrounded by opulence, they still just wanted simple things.

A bedroom.

A bean bag chair.

I think we’ll be able to swing that.

Orange Stands Out
“Orange Stands Out” by Doug via Flickr

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