This past Sunday's NY Times Magazine Money issue was full of great stuff. An article called The Class-Consciousness Raiser particularly interested me:
She had already explained why rich people don’t eat casseroles, why poor people hang their pictures high up on the wall, why middle-class people pretend to like people they can’t stand. She had gone through the difference between generational poverty and situational poverty and the difference between new money and old money, and she had done a riff on how middle-class people are so self-satisfied that they think everyone wants to be middle class.Interesting... why DO poor people hang their pictures high up on the wall? But more importantly, how will knowing the answer to that question help anyone?
The "she" referred to is a woman named Ruby Payne, whose best-known book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, has been in the top 50 on Amazon for the last couple of days. Payne has made millions by doing seminars for teachers (and selling related products) to help them understand students who come from poverty. Her fans think she is doing great things. Her detractors say that her work is anecdotal, not researched, and that she is just perpetuating harmful class stereotypes.
The story about Payne has been one of the most-emailed articles on the NYT website in the days since it appeared, which I think is indicative of Americans' obsession with the mystery of class. We all know there are elements of money and education to it. Birth can matter, your job can matter, and then there are those other tricky aspects like the accent in which you speak, or whether you're anxious about knowing which fork to use-- because of course using the wrong fork could be very classy indeed as long as you did it with insouciance and panache and full knowledge that your fork-usage transgression was carried out in the spirit of delightful qualities whose names are deriven from French. We all seem to find it fascinating that we might telegraph these little signals about what kind of people we are, and we love trying to decipher those signals in others.
I have to confess that I am really tempted to read some of Ruby Payne's books, some of which focus on class/money differences at the office, and in relationships. I have always had a pet peeve about pictures hung at inappropriate heights, and when I moved in with a long-ago ex-, whose family background was a notch down the income/education scale from mine, I got really bossy about deciding where things should be hung, and always found myself insisting that they be lower! So for all that that detail seemed a little ridiculous, it definitely caught my interest! Perhaps there is a grain of truth in these stereotypes...
The other piece in the magazine that I found particularly devastating was the photo essay called Money Talks. Take this quote from a 17 year old boy:
You have to be popular, you have to be in style-- in order to be popular you have to be in style, so to achieve popularity, you have to have a lot of clothes, a lot of shoes. My parents used to give me the money, but they saw how I got out of hand with my spending, so I had to get a job and pay for everything myself. Sometimes it can go close to $700, $800 a month, just on clothes.Perhaps I am just over the hill and naive, but I thought most teens would at least give some lip-service to the idea that popularity isn't everything, or at least that popularity can be determined by factors other than one's clothes! But I guess this kid was just being honest about it. Unfortunately, ever since the story came out, the guy has probably been ridiculed by all his classmates for breaking the rule of cool by being too nakedly ambitious in his quest for popularity, while the other popular kids suddenly insist that insouciance and panache are all that really matter...