- Not One of Us: Four Books that Explore the Implications of Class in America
My parents met and married after graduation from Lake Forest College, a small, private liberal arts school in an affluent suburb of Chicago. By 1969 they had three children, a starter home in the suburbs and a messy divorce. My mother joined Parents without Partners and met and soon married my stepfather, a son of Polish immigrants. He had dropped out of high school to join the air force during the Korean conflict and then worked a series of blue-collar jobs until he found his knack for sales. My stepfather occasionally told the story of when my mother introduced him to her pastor at the First Presbyterian Church. When my stepfather left the sanctuary with its fine acoustics, he overheard Reverend Showalter whisper to my mother, “Elizabeth, really, he’s not one of us.”
Postdivorce, I moved between two worlds: the upper-middle-class life my father had created in San Antonio, Texas, and the lower-middle-class [End Page 163] existence my mother and stepfather barely maintained in Libertyville, Illinois. During the school year in Libertyville I was the poorest among friends who had their own bedrooms, indoor swimming pools, clothes from Marshall Field’s and European vacations. Yet during my Texas summers I joined their ranks with horseback-riding lessons, tea at my stepmother’s favorite upscale department store and weekends filled with plays or movies and fine restaurants. I have always been aware that class exists in America and have tried to educate myself and work in a way that kept me on the right side of the divide.
Since my childhood in the 1970s, in America there have been ongoing discussions about race, gender and sexuality, but we have come late to the topic of class. Though class has always existed in America, many of us were taught to behave as if it didn’t. The majority self-identified as middle class and gave little thought to what it meant or why it mattered. The poor were simply middle-class people who didn’t make much money. A person’s luck could change, and if it didn’t, of course there was always sheer gumption. As a culture we have taken Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches myth to heart; we trust so completely that it is possible to start out poor, work hard and become rich. It is un-American to think otherwise.
Today we no longer deem class irrelevant, and we are beginning to recognize that there are a lot of obstacles to social mobility. Current statistics suggest that Americans are likely to remain in the class into which they were born. Though we remain relatively upbeat about the prospects of getting ahead, it’s a fiction that’s getting tougher to maintain. The news is infused with discussions of class. Daily we are reminded of the widening income gap between the haves and the have-nots, the decline of blue-collar jobs and the increasing struggles of the growing numbers of poor. Among the rhetoric of politicians, class figures prominently, as it does in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. There are several refrains about class being played all at once: The top 1 percent is getting richer while the middle class is disappearing. The hyper-rich are pulling away from the pack while other economic tiers find their wages stagnating. And college degrees are becoming the luxury of the upper class.
Stark inequality in wealth and income does indeed exist in America. How it happened, who is to blame and what should be done about it are questions that are being asked, particularly now, in the current, all-too-resilient recession. There are...