Jacalyn Carfagno: Better not to be or act poor

Paper towels, opera and class struggle

Herald-leader editorial writerFebruary 3, 2013 

Jacalyn Carfagno

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A few years ago I heard a story about one of the old generation of elite horse farm owners. He's long dead now but you'd recognize the name. One day he was in the farm's office when something spilled on him. A staff member quickly handed him a paper towel. "What's this?" he asked. He'd never seen a paper towel, much less touched one.

This came to mind last fall when I listened to an interview with Anthony Clark Evans, the young man from Elizabethtown who last year won the Metropolitan Opera's young singers' competition. The college dropout went on to make enough money competing with his baritone that he could give up his day job selling cars. Evans said many of the opera roles for his voice are men from the nobility or upper classes. The singing he could manage but he really needed help learning how to carry himself as a person accustomed throughout life to wealth and position.

Of course, as a performer, that's Evans' job. But when someone assumes the persona of a different class for less transparent reasons we're not always thrilled. We have terms like "déclassé" and "slumming" for stepping down, and "putting on airs," and "acting snooty," for reaching above our station. Truth is, usually it makes us uneasy if someone even learns a more mainstream accent to fit in somewhere new. It's not nearly so bothersome if that same person learns a completely different language. That we admire.

I'm not a class warrior, but I've always been fascinated by stories that go beyond the numbers to provide an insight into how class works in this country that prides itself on universal opportunity and permeable classes.

Still, the numbers matter. We have become a much more economically stratified society. This is measured any number of ways but I'll cite one analysis: Average real income for a household in the top one percent more than tripled between 1979 and 2007, from $350,000 to $1.3 million. During the same period, real income for households in the middle 60 percent went from $44,000 to $57,000. For the bottom 20 percent, average real household income barely budged, from $15,500 to $17,500.

What's especially depressing about the way income inequality is trending is that it seems it will only get worse. It's possible but hard to rise from the lower middle class to the top. Only a very, very few will be able to overcome vast odds to rise from that bottom 20 percent.

When I lost my job in the fall of 2009, it quickly became apparent that I faced two related but different struggles. One was to make money, the other was to maintain my sense of where I stood in society. I not only didn't want to be poor, I didn't want to appear poor. Either was a very scary prospect. Believe me, most of the best things in life aren't free, or even cheap.

I'm sure I wasn't alone, almost no one wants to either be or appear to be poor.

But how do you manage that? This isn't just a question of how you'll pay for things like clothes and haircuts and make-up, but of how you carry yourself, how you act?

I was lucky. I had years of experience not being poor, the social training, education and diction that come along with it. All those gave me a huge advantage as I sorted out how to rebuild a career and an income.

I also had savings, equity in my home and a retirement account, something very few people who start out poor have to cushion the blow when hard times hit.

Some of this, I'll give myself credit for. I worked and saved. But when I'm being really honest I give much more credit to my parents because they insisted I learn to do both. Perhaps even more than that, I was lucky to grow up at a time when two adults, neither with a college degree (my dad only had a GED) could raise six kids in a rural town in a poor state and manage to get them all to college, most on to graduate schools.

Truth is, I wasn't at great risk of either becoming or seeming truly poor, not by American standards, certainly not by Kentucky standards. At my age in this environment I'll probably never fully replace the income I lost but I've never had to worry seriously about buying food, paying utility bills, having a home or being able to help my daughter go to college.

I grew up in rural Arkansas and have spent many years in Kentucky. In places like these with entrenched poverty, we pretend that local culture and lore make up for lack of wealth, that indigenous intelligence will outwit the city slicker every day.

But it won't. Most days that poor person with a funny accent will wind up on the short end of the deal.

And we like to pretend that kids have the same opportunities now that my siblings and I, our cousins and friends had in the '50s and '60s.

But they don't. College costs much, much more and the gulf between have-a-lots and have-very-littles — in terms of both money and culture — has widened into a yawning chasm.

Class is rooted in money, of course, but money alone is not enough to scale the walls of any class structure. If it were, centuries of novelists would have had much less to write about and lottery winners would ascend seamlessly into higher society.

This is why I get so annoyed not just about vast income and opportunity disparities but also about the things that reinforce them: Regressive tax codes; school systems dumbed down by corruption and indifferent tax collection; political systems and public office holders that exist, first and foremost, to perpetuate themselves; water and air that make people who have little access to health care sick.

You can add to that list accepting gimmicks like sprawling development, lotteries and casinos as economic growth instead of demanding business activity that creates jobs people might actually retire from.

And this is why I find it so offensive when people shout "class warfare" every time there's talk about even the smallest steps to right these things. It's not even a fair fight, much less a true war, when almost all the assets are stacked on one side.

Reach Jacalyn Carfagno at jcarfagno@herald-leader.com.

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