Commentary Economic Justice

When Education Doesn’t Mean Escaping Poverty

Brook Bolen

America’s poor today are the most educated in history.

In the weeks leading up to Grandparents Day, my 4-year-old daughter couldn’t stop expressing her excitement about the celebration at her school. She was thrilled at the prospect of showing my parents her school and showing her friends her grandparents. Plus, there was going to be cake! At the last minute, though, my daddy got sick and my mama was offered an extra shift at the rural North Carolina Walmart where she works. “I’m sorry, I really wish I could come,” she said to me over the phone. “But that’s an extra $55, and we need it.”

I understood, of course, and as the day progressed, I felt my disappointment turn to fear.

For many people, $55 isn’t a lot of money. It won’t make or break them. Yet this relatively small amount was essential to my mama. I knew how badly she wanted to be at Grandparents Day, but when you’re struggling to make ends meet, every little bit helps.

Growing up in a working class family, I’ve always been fixated on achieving financial security. While my financial life has never been stable, I’ve held onto the hope that with enough effort, I can still achieve my goals; I just have to keep working and writing, and one day, especially given my education, I will make it to the land of the Solidly Middle Class. But the day my mama took the extra shift, I started to have what I consider a working class existential crisis. Despite the fact that I have a Bachelor’s degree and very nearly two Master’s degrees, I wondered: Will I be in my mama’s shoes two decades from now? Though I work as a freelance writer, I’m still always looking for something full time with benefits. What meaningful life events will I miss out on because my survival depends whatever on low-paying jobs I can find?

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I grew up believing education was crucial to being successful, but it wasn’t until I met my first serious boyfriend’s family that I saw that relationship play out in real life. His was a family full of highly credentialed academics and executives. Their homes had fancy appliances, swimming pools, and unchipped, matching dishes. They had investments, health insurance, and annual vacations. If my family’s blue collars were real, they’d be heavily soiled with tobacco, grease, and the sweat that comes from manual labor. But the white-collar lives of my then-boyfriend’s family sparkled with promise. As someone just one generation removed from dirt floors, I knew I wanted their kind of life—and that education was the vehicle to get me there.

I’d already planned for college. It was the dream I held close every night. I knew education was the key that opened all the doors to the future. Without it, you stayed stuck, clocking in and out for your hourly wage job, working as many holidays as possible for the time and half, and having little, if anything, to show for it. When I enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, I became the second person in my family to attend college and the first, at North Carolina State University, to go on to graduate school.

As an undergraduate, I attended community college before transferring to a university on partial scholarship (and working all the while). I had to take out student loans to live. Later, when I attended graduate school, I supplemented my meager teaching stipend with more student loans.

While I loved my classes and earned nearly all straights As, I struggled to relate to my peers. With few exceptions, my classmates were people like my boyfriend’s family: They knew how to play the game at a time when I didn’t even know yet that there was a game. They seemed to feel natural in classrooms and on campus; they’d seen their families in the same sorts of places; I was acutely aware of how out of place I was.

Some of my fellow students frequently commented on my thick Southern accent and how incongruent it sounded discussing academic theories. They said their families had multiple homes and traveled the world. They were shocked that I’d not studied abroad or gone backpacking in Europe. On the contrary, for the first five years of his life, my daddy and his family lived in a converted chicken coop; he didn’t have indoor plumbing until he was in his twenties.

It wasn’t necessarily so much that I couldn’t relate to my peers because they had more money than I did—it was the way they approached poverty and the poor. To them, it was all conceptual; to me, it was my lived reality.

With no family or friends to help me navigate this new world, I felt totally alone. I withdrew from school before defending my thesis proposal.

When it was all said and done, I ended up with two almost-graduate degrees—which means a lot of work, no graduate degrees, and six figures in student loan debt. As someone with no real work experience save for graduate school, I took the best jobs I could get. I worked in several doggy day cares and some retail positions. My debt to income ratio was sobering. It wasn’t until my late thirties that I landed my first white collar, salaried position: as a copywriter, which helped me also start freelance writing—a job I didn’t even know existed.

After my daughter was born, I worked to support my family. My husband stayed home to care for our child. With one income and one car, our days were nonstop work. I lived in daily terror of becoming homeless because everything depended on me. When the company I worked for folded and I lost my job, my worst fears were realized. Fortunately, my parents offered to let us stay in my late granddaddy’s trailer in rural Virginia.

I couldn’t make sense of things: I had gone to college and graduate school. I had done the things I’d always been taught would take me where I wanted to go in life. I was incredibly well-educated, yet at my financial best, I never even made an annual income commensurate with my age. This was especially hard to swallow when I turned 40—and should have been making investments rather than staring down a future where retirement will likely never happen.

Unfortunately, I’m nowhere near the only one. More and more studies are showing that education, the so-called great equalizer, does not guarantee social mobility or success. Other factors, including where one lives and their social capital, are proving to be more significant. A 2014 study confirms that poverty is no lower now than it was in 1991—but America’s poor today are the most educated in history. In particular, millennials are predicted to be less prosperous than previous generations.

While the prospect of a lifetime of living paycheck to paycheck is daunting, what worries me most is my fear that, despite my best efforts, my daughter will not ascend beyond the class she’s been born into. Both of her parents and their families are working class. While both our families are Southern, mine has the distinct disadvantage of being rural and therefore having less access to things that are vital to social mobility, like quality health care and contemporary infrastructure.

Although poverty is transmitted across generations, affluence is even more strongly inherited.

There will be no private schools in my daughter’s future. She may be forced, like I was, to work multiple jobs and incur student loan debt to pay for college. She may reach old age, like my mama and her mama and the rest of the mamas before them, and see a life marked by unfulfilled wants. She may have to live without a financial safety net.

Watching my child sometimes, I’m struck by how full of kindness, joy, and wonder she is. She’s pure magic. I want for her what every parent wants for their child: I want her to have a good life. I want and expect her to work for her successes and follow her dreams as freely as possible. And by virtue of being born to working-class, Southern, rural-dwelling parents, those chances will almost certainly be hindered.

I worry a lot about lack—what it’s meant in my parents’ lives and mine, how it threatens to shape my daughter’s, yet even if I could give her everything she wanted, I wouldn’t. I’ve seen what that does to people. People who’ve never struggled not only lack the particular strength of character that difficulty creates, they can lack empathy and compassion as well. A popular response to conversations around social mobility is that those with less want a handout.

I don’t want everything to be handed to my daughter. I just don’t want her to have to claw her way to even ground.

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