NPR’s morning report aired the first part of a two-part series, “Making it in the U.S.: More than Just Hard Work” offers statistics and the powerful narrative of two California women,
Dametra Williams and Stephanie Upp, who aren’t that different in many ways. Both were raised by single mothers who struggled financially. Both worked hard to get where they are today.
But how they describe basically the same thing about how they got to where they are today differs.
Williams is 40, black and a single mother of one. She just started her own business.
“It’s funny, the American dream is sort of steeped in this myth of work hard, be self sufficient and push yourself forward, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that kind of thing. But much of the wealth in this country was not built on that, in no way, fashion or form,” Williams says.
Upp, 43, is white, a mother of two and a part-time consultant.
“I think about the little things, like when I went to college. When I graduated, my mom had enough resources to give me her car so that I had a car to get to work so that I could earn money that I could then save to help put me into the next position,” Upp says. “I could then save more money and have opportunities. So it wasn’t like we had a lot, but there was enough. I didn’t do it all by myself.”
And that’s the difference. Study after study shows that white families are more likely than blacks and Hispanics to enjoy certain economic advantages — even when their incomes are similar. Often it’s the subtle things: help from Mom and Dad with a down payment on a home or college tuition, or a tax break on money passed from one generation to the next.
Reading the personal narratives of Williams and Upp detail the long term, generational effects of the security of owning a home, access to higher performing schools, and long term family support (through college tuition and inheritances) on one’s long term economic stability and success.
Upp, her husband Ben Corson and their two children live in a small bungalow in Oakland. This family is well on its way to achieving the American dream. Corson works in software. Upp consults for nonprofits.
For Stephanie Upp, shown here with her husband, Ben Corson, with their two children, Clare and Calder, there was “never a question that I would have a richer life than I grew up with.”
Upp credits her success, in part, to something that happened a long time ago. When her parents divorced, her mother insisted on keeping their home in suburban Kansas. They didn’t have much money, but they had stability and good schools, where college was a given and expectations were high.
“In my mind, there wasn’t a question that I would have a richer life than I grew up with both financially and then also in terms of experience,” Upp says.
College led to graduate school, then a career, then Corson. They started a family, and when they wanted to buy their first house, they got an unexpected boost.
“We were able to have a down payment for this house, thanks to my great aunt,” says Corson. “So that definitely helped us.”
His great aunt left the couple $60,000 in her will.
One of the biggest differences between the two is all the knowledge and strategies Upp had simply by virtue of her family that Williams did not. She explains:
At the urging of a school counselor, Williams attended the University of California at Berkeley, but she says she dropped out when she realized she didn’t have the right skills. Instead, she started a family. When she and Yvonne’s father split, though, her one income as a youth counselor wasn’t enough. Williams and her daughter wound up homeless, then in public housing.
“It was really hard,” Williams says.
But here’s where her story takes a turn. Williams was poor but smart. With the help of a housing authority savings program she eventually returned to college and got her degree.
She also got Yvonne into private schools through a special program for inner-city youth. A San Francisco nonprofit called EARN helped her save money for tutors and a business. Today, she thinks she might be breaking the cycle that have kept so many others in poverty.
“Families of color in particular are becoming much more knowledgeable and much more aware of how to create wealth here in America,” she says. “I think there is a formula for it, and it’s not work hard and do well. Most poor people work really hard.”
Williams says she’s still trying to figure out the formula and working hard to catch up. But, she thinks that Yvonne at least is going into the world with the head start she never had.
There are many important points in this story and I look forward to the second part of the series. The statistics and research on the racial wealth gap are important. However, I want to highlight another aspect quickly.
The unrelenting attacks on all of our social safety net operate under the misapprehension that it serves no purpose and has no value, is completely ineffective, a failure. This is simply a blatant lie. It is far perfect and needs considerable attention (in particular, dealing with the criminalization of poverty and persistent joblessness). We should be strengthening it not gutting it. In the calls for smaller government and less spending – please remember these are not abstract government entities – we are talking about real peoples lives, people who are suffering and struggling. For Christian ethics, people are ALWAYS more important than profits or money.
It is easy for those with a family safety net like Upp to take that for granted and overlook the advantage it gives (both in opportunities like college and in connections/strategies) as well as the cushion it provides in a time of crisis. What happens when you have no cushion? no room for mistakes? no room for a crisis?
For the past two weeks, I have spent considerable time pondering these questions thanks to Hurricane Irene. Thanks to Hurricane Irene, my ground floor apartment suffered approximately 18inches of flood damage – destroying furniture, books, every major appliance as well as structural damage to the walls. Thus, I have been displaced from my apartment for at least the 6 weeks it will take to repair and rebuild. Luckily, I was able to move into my parents house while my apartment is fixed. Without the family support like Upp and without any financial cushion, a situation like mine would quickly place someone in thousands of dollars of debt, pushing someone with their head just above water down into poverty. As a white, middle class woman from a highly-educated, upper-middle class family the deck is stacked in my favor- even in times of natural disasters. (A closer look at both Hurricane Katrina and the Hatian earthquake will reveal the connections between levels of devastation and poverty.) Accepting this reality isn’t the beginning of a guilt trip nor does it negate actual accomplishments of my hard work but it does put those accomplishments into proper perspective. Facing the reality of privilege is necessary if we are to have any hope of dealing with injustice, poverty and the structural inequality in this country – an inequality which is currently increasing.