Friday, January 9, 2009

Born Without a Silver Spoon in My Mouth

There's a fascinating conversation going on across several blogs. Meg at World of Wealth started it all by admitting that she comes from a wealthy family who continue to give her money and to back her financially. In later posts, she explores the effects of growing up wealthy in even more detail. Madame X from My Open Wallet weighs in thoughtfully. The Dog Ate My Finances explores the same issue from a the perspective of a poor girl who's made good, as indeed she has since she's in her mid-20's and earns around $200,000 a year.

I guess you know where Grace falls in all this--my background is much like the author of "The Dog Ate My Finances." My dad was a carpenter first, and then a longshoreman. We were solidly working class, living in a solidly working class mill town. With only one elementary school, one junior high and one high school, there wasn't much of a "wrong side of town," though if there had been, we were probably living in it.

I grew up, went to a state college (on scholarship), and then to an ivy league graduate school (on scholarship) on the east coast where I was blown away by the distinctions between rich and poor. It was as though the rich were an alien species--so far removed from my life that I couldn't relate to them but was still intrigued by their lives and delighted to share in that from time to time.

Now I'm in the middle of the middle class or maybe a tad toward the lower middle class when you add in my five kids. While I could use more money and less debt, I'm not unhappy with my position in life. Having friends who are wealthy and politically powerful (though not always both), as well as friends who never made it out of the small town we grew up in, and a few friends who got lost along the way to mental illness, drug abuse or Vietnam, I've also had a chance to compare my life with theirs.

The biggest advantage I can see to having been reared poorer is an enhanced sense of choice. Once I went to college, my parents considered their work done. They had no further aspirations for me (or for my sister--actually, they didn't even expect her to go to college, much less graduate, head into international banking and make a fortune). When my sister went into banking, they were thrilled. But then, they were thrilled when she first wanted to go to nursing school, and if she had succeeded there, they would have been just as satisfied.

I note that many of my friends felt like they HAD to go to certain schools, HAD to make a lot of money, HAD to have certain kinds of jobs, HAD to marry certain types of partners and HAD to leard certain lives. My choices, on the other hand, were wide open. When I made an early decision to work among the poor, my family thought that decision was fine. When my first job paid me $9,000 a year, no one in my family told me it was beneath me.

My parents were both reared during the depression. They were savers but they were also sharers. If I needed money, they gave it to me. The quid pro quo was that I never asked for too much because I knew they didn't have it to give.

The other great advantage is an ability to move between classes with greater comfort. By this, I mean it is easier for me to hang out with wealthy friends than it is for them to be constantly in the company of working class people. I know more about their way of life than they do of mine or, God forbid, my lower class friends. They are never going to be comfortable camping out and drinking beer but I do just fine in fancy restaurants drinking wine that costs more than the dinner.

Poor people know that the wealthy make fun of them, but it never really occurs to wealthy people that they can look ludicrous as well or that poor people notice and mock them in return.

I don't believe that there is anything ennobling about poverty. However, being reared without a lot of extra money in a working class or middle class home often brings with it choices and aspirations that are not limited by the ennui or demands of having too much money.

In my personal view, being born poverty stricken or extremely wealthy are both situations to be financially and emotionally overcome


Anonymous said...

I've read the posts you link and found them interesting, with the following additional comments. From their self descriptions, I'm not sure any of the bloggers in question came from families that truly were "poor." Lower middle class, maybe but not poor. Second, you have to wonder about the bona fides of someone who speaks of building wealth when in fact almost all of that wealth was given to them. Third, although the attitudes of some wealthy people toward the not so wealthy can be obnoxious and arrogant, I have found that these bad attitudes can be even worse in folks who were "poor" them acquired wealth themselves. Anyway, great reading for all of us.

DogAteMyFinances said...

I agree, Grace, and thanks for the link! This is also just a lovely post.

The rich have choices we don't have (like charity boards) but we have choices they don't (like managing the Walgreens).

Fede said...

Sorry Grace, but this is going to be a long post. I was lucky enough to be born into wealth. I am the 7th of 12 kids and by the time l came along, my parents were well off. He was a self made millionaire who didn't learn to read till he was 17 (my mom was a teacher and she taught him after he ran away from home to make his fortune), this at a time when the country was still under British rule!. Anyway, it was private schools, everyone educated in London or Boston, education fully paid for, Anyway, my mum always impressed upon us that it was "their" money! and they might choose not to leave any for us, so we better make our own. Most of us took the advice and went on to become professionals (dentist,lawyer,pharmacists,biochemist etc). I was so impressed by his story that l was determined to make my own money. I got a job in college as a foreign student, 20 hrs a week which was the max we could do and l earned $2.75 an hour. I was so proud and so was my dad, l was the first one who ever got a job while in school. From that day, l never got another penny from him, this was in 1981 and l've never looked back. Everything since then, l've made on my own. I've done well and l'm extremely proud of myself. I have friends from both ends of the spectrum, and l find a lot of times, it's the rich ones that bother me when they look down on others. My husband is from the opposite side, was always poor and had to fight for everything. I wouldn't trade him for anything! We're handling our cash crunch ourselves. As for my dad's's all in a trust to be dispersed when the youngest turns a certain age. It doesn't matter to me because with the exchange rate, it's not worth what it used to be.

Kristine said...

I think a lot about this, and always have. I was raised to believe I was middle-class, but the reality was more like lower-middle class. My Mom's mom is the only woman in my family who has never had to work. She is not wealthy, but comfortable. I was the second person on that side to earn a B.A. and finished with a hefty student loan. I was taught that I will always have to work, and I don't think my parents will ever retire. They are divorced and each own property, but I'm sure they have life-long mortgages to pay off, and no savings.

I'm making different choices. I may own property one day, but I am definately planning to retire before 65. I have thirty years to get my act together :)

As for class differences, I work for Ph.D.s and some of them treat me as an equal. Some don't but that doesn't bother me too much.

Living Almost Large said...

I will write about it early next week, and mr. goto, there aer many bloggers who were poor.

I think my mom and I were lower middle class/poor. Single parent with fortunately one child. But my mom for sure was poor.

I wasn't raised with my considering I've bathed outside with wood heating the water and had to use an outhouse for most of my childhood, but I still think I'm lower middle/poor. I could be wrong however.

Then my mom remarried and we went to upper middle class. I can definitely see the difference.

Anonymous said...

All for a wadded crinkled dollar bill.

In 67 years I have worked for a $1.00 per hour up to $200.00 an hour,and everything in between. I have lived in 5 star hotels,and in a fox-hole. My friends are both rich, and poor,and I enjoy all. I like to call myself "No Class"

Family and friends are worth more than money any day.

AS I type this I'm setting next to a lake in the woods,coffee in hand,enjoying my week-end. Monday it's back to the daily work grind.Yes I still work-because I enjoy what I do.

I have always told my children to find something you love to do, and learn to live with-in the income it provides, and you will be happy.
You can always be rich or poor. The choice is to happy in which one you choose, just be careful what you wish for-it might come true.

Very nice post Grace

Krista said...

I have to admit that I unsubscribed from World of Wealth after the first post, and going back today, I am glad that I did.

Her post "The Effects of Not Having to Struggle Financially" was so offensive to me - as someone who as a child and young adult struggled financially more than I care to remember.

I applaud Meg for not becoming the spoiled brat she easily could have been, but please.

"In short, you never really get the opportunity to see who you are without money clouding the view." Gag me with a spoon.

Spend a few days trying to figure out where dinner is coming from, or a week without electricity because the brakes went out on the car and then we will talk. Until then, I wish her well, but will not subject myself to the condescending tone I have found in her last few blog posts.

Grace. said...

Krista, I think you are talking about poverty on a level that most of us haven't lived. I was born working class, but so was everyone else around me, so I don't recall feeling poor. However, I work with clients who definitely meet that definition. They don't have family to fall back on because their parents and siblings have even less. They DO have to make choices between paying the rent or putting food on the table. Every time I hear someone griping about how "well off" and "subsidized" the poor are in our country, I want to tear my hair out. Um, scratch that. I want to tear THEIR hair out, because they have no idea what true poverty is like.

I like Meg's blog, and I enjoy her candor. Though, I don't get her family wanting so many guns around. Do they think the poor are coming after them?

And KemKem--what an interesting familial history. I've always thought having five kids helped keep me poorer, but your parents secured wealth and reared 12 kids. Good for them.

Living Almost Large said...

I have been there without food and electricity. My mom and I struggled. We were not doing well when I was very young and in the hospital.

But we managed to survive. I like Meg's candor. Where else is someone going to admit they are rich?

Anonymous said...

I just got back from Antarctica where the albatross were flying through the sky. I think that there's something quite bizarre about anyone singing the blues about being wealthy; that's a gift that ought to come with responsibilities for taking care of others. My parents arrived in Canada less than year before I was born with no facility in English and $23 in their pockets. They took turns sitting up and holding me at night when I was an infant because they worried about rats. They worked hard and by the time I was older they were comfortable. I didn't expect them to take care of though, so when I went to university - on student loans - I was happy with whatever accommodation I could manage and didn't mind working hard to take care of myself. Even with that, I always gave money to charity because I never forgot how fortunate I was. I don't think that nobility of character lies in being rich or poor; it is more connected, in my opinion, to what you are willing to do/give. Those of us who are fortunate enough to retire have some responsibility, I believe, to do just that; contribute back to those in our communities who need a hand.

Anonymous said...

hi grace, this is a really thought provoking post and I've read the linked posts and spent a few days pondering the topic.

I suppose it's the luck of the draw wether we're born into wealth or not, and I think Meg has been very honest in talking about her family wealth and how she has benefited from that. I like her honesty.

I think rich or poor we can have a certain amount of choice in how we deal with it, but realistically wealth makes it easier to access things like education and health. At least Meg is not frittering away what she has been given like many people do.

I had a mix of parents and step parents. We were raised poor. Sadly this was a result of alcoholism in the family so while we lived very poor, what has been hard to come to terms with is that there actually was a good middle class income, but the choice was to waste it on drink. I know what it's like to be hungry, to have utilities cut off and bills collectors calling. I know the shame and humiliation of being the 'poor kid' at school. I also lost an inheritance which was stolen by my siblings. They are wealthy, but they got their wealth by doing illegal things over many years.
For me all these experiences just fueled my determination not to live the same life as my family(s)! I had a burning desire to better myself and I have. But I couldn't have done it without the help of others, rich and poor who encouraged and mentored me along the way.

I would class us now as working class, middle income. Everything we have we have created ourselves, nothing from our families.My husbands family is hard working middle class who are financially responsible and comfortable.

I work with a lot of very wealthy clients,and it has only reinforced for me that money is no protection from unhappiness or problems. I think I've seen both poor and rich with 'bad' attitudes and I've also seen great generosity from both poor and rich alike. The wealthy person can no sooner change their accident of birth than the poor person can, it's what both of them do with it that matters most.

mOOm said...

I'm not too sure about the correlation you make between being born poor and choices. Poorer parents might not have very high expectations for their children but those children's opportunities are often limited by going to bad schools and hanging out with an unambitious crowd of friends. Children who have money to back them up can do things like graduate degrees in non-professional fields, being an artist, working for NGOs etc. without worrying about increasing their net worth. So I think it cuts both ways. I grew up what I considered lower middle class in England - compared to most of my middle class friends we had a smaller house, car etc. My Mom had a degree in classics and training as a nurse (came from a working class background in Australia). My Dad came from a relatively wealthy family in Europe but was a refugee/prisoner/factory worker in the Second World War and then gradually built a career as an engineer without a formal degree. So I think we had higher social class attitudes than our actual income/wealth. My parents were definitely ambitious for us to get well educated and my Dad was somewhat concerned that we don't study something he considered useless but there wasn't big pressure to follow some particular type of career etc. I ended up as a professor - I studied geography which my Dad thought was "useless" and economics and just followed the do what you like and are good at route without worrying much about the money. My brother studied civil engineering and then later switched to computer programming.

Funny about Money said...

Awesome post, awesome comments.

Having been born to the working class and married into a modicum of wealth, I can only add that...well, yes. The rich are different from us.

After 25 years I escaped the life of a society matron. Sometimes I wouldn't at all mind another vacation on Maui or another write-off "business trip" (har har) to the Greenbrier. But not so much that I'd ever want to go back.