My current net worth is about -78,500. Yes, negative. This number is only mine. It does not account for my husband’s student loan debt, or our mortgage. I also didn’t add in the “value” of my car, just how much I owe on it. This number includes my student loan and auto debt.
Judging by my lifestyle and “socioeconomic status” (in quotes because it is my perceived SES – what you would see from the outside), you’d never know I am “poorer” than most people living in poverty. I have a dramatically lower net worth than people who have zero dollars to their name. Yet I am able to sustain a comfortable lifestyle, without wanting for anything. This is due largely in part to privilege.
Privilege seems to be a buzzword lately, for good reason. Google defines privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” I acknowledge and am well aware of many of the advantages I’ve had and my immunity to many struggles by being born typically healthy, straight, cis, white, and into a middle class, educated family. I also know there are many advantages, rights, and instances of immunity that have worked to my advantage that I’m NOT consciously aware of.
It’s because of the privilege I have that I was ever able to acquire a total of more than $85,000 of debt in the first place. This isn’t to say that privilege is to blame for my debt; rather, it is to acknowledge that privilege is a part of my story that I cannot ignore. I refuse to ignore it. It’s my reality. I can’t claim to use a mindfulness perspective (mindfulness = awareness) without considering how privilege has affected my life.
I grew up in a small, rural, white, farm town. My graduating class size was 120, and this year the high school football team is playing for their third state championship title in five years. We had a “drive your tractor to school” day. Kids flew confederate flags from the back of their pickup trucks. Yeah, Ohio was not a confederate state, by the way. Despite the small-town drama and racist symbolism (definitely not excusing that in any way), I got a high-quality education at a high performing school that offered many electives and extracurricular activities. This is privilege.
The people in my town cared about each other. Everyone knew everyone and pretty much looked out for one another. We had our share of bullying and problems too, but it was a generally safe place to grow up. I didn’t have to worry about crime, and I rarely worried about my safety; we left our doors unlocked always. I didn’t even have a house key. This is privilege.
I have one sibling. I was never parentified as a child – that is, I never had any responsibility to care for my brother (though I was pretty authoritarian and thought I could tell him what to do, admittedly). I always trusted that my parents were coming home, would pay all the bills, would provide food and a warm home for us. I never wondered if I would eat or if our electricity would be working. I never had to miss school so I could work and make money to help with the bills, or babysit a sibling so my parents could work or go to a job interview. This is privilege.
Because of the high-quality education I received, and because I never had to miss school to take care of anyone else or to make money or because I was seriously ill or disabled or any other combination of things, I got accepted to every college I applied to. My parents made too much money for me to qualify for any grants (privilege) and I didn’t try that hard to apply for scholarships (I’m kicking myself about that now; you know what they say about hindsight), so I paid for college largely through student loans. My parents also paid for a significant portion of my college education while I was in school. THAT is privilege.
While I was in school, I commuted from my hometown, but lived in an apartment on my own. I worked part-time at a local movie theater, babysat frequently, and had some other jobs here and there. I frequently ate out, went out with friends, bought themed outfits for parties, and sometimes didn’t have enough money to cover the rent. My parents would foot the bill and I never had anxiety or insecurity about whether I would have a roof over my head. You guessed it. Privilege.
After college I went to graduate school, and paid for it with more loans. I took a full-time job and moved to the city and really got a taste of what it looks like when you don’t have the kind of privilege I grew up with. I worked with some of the poorest families in the city. I worked with people who frequently encountered blatant discrimination, racism, abuse, health problems, addiction. I was surrounded by the most diverse groups of people – clients and coworkers and classmates alike – that I had ever been around in my life. What an incredible experience when you actually get to talk with and live day-to-day life with people who are different from you.
I lived most of my life in a bubble, thinking I knew what the world was like, thinking I had all the answers. How could I have known what I didn’t know? That is privilege: to live a life where you don’t even know what you don’t know (though you think you do), don’t know what real struggle is, and what other real people experience. I had negative opinions about people who use public assistance. I thought the poor just needed to work harder. I cringe now when I think about all the wrong assumptions I made. Yet to this day I know I’m still making them sometimes. I know I’m blinded by my own experience of this life and no matter how hard I try to look at things objectively, I will never fully be able to take off the lens of life that I have lived.
I know that what I can do is ask others about their experiences, and believe them.
But I have really gotten off track here. Because of the situation I was born into, I had a lot of advantages that many people don’t have. I went to college and paid for it with loans. Because of my education level I have a job. And as much as I think I’m underpaid and my field as a whole is underpaid, I get a salary that is much higher than most people around the globe. And because of that salary, I am able to finance my car, get as much credit as I want, and get into as much debt as I possibly can (theoretically). It is because of my level of privilege that creditors expect me to be able to pay off my debts and are willing to lend me money.
Thankfully, while I wasn’t always the best with my money, I have never gotten myself into much consumer debt and I’m working really hard to pay off the student debt. To add another layer, I was easily and legally able to marry my partner without any objections. Some people cannot say the same. He is also highly educated and works, and we wouldn’t be able to make the kind of progress we’re making on our debt if that wasn’t the case. I am privileged to have a partner who is also healthy and making money.
Again, all this talk of privilege is not to dismiss or discount the real work I’ve done and continue to do when it comes to my money and paying off debt. It’s not to put the blame of my debt on anything other than myself. But it is to point out the reality of my situation. Privilege has played a central role in getting me to where I am today, and I would be lying by omission if I didn’t acknowledge its part. Yes, I have done a lot of hard work in my life. I have been able to do much of that hard work in great part because of the privilege I was born with. I am so grateful especially to my parents who have supported my immensely, financially and otherwise, throughout my life. Not everyone has that kind of opportunity.