Is the Socioeconomic Divide the Hardest Wall to Overcome?

This weekend, I came across this story about affordable housing in suburbia.  The story covers the conflict between residents of traditional suburbia and those inside the new suburban affordable housing.

I read it and wondered if the cultural gap that stems from our socioeconimic difference may be the hardest difference to overcome.

Think about it. If you are a millionaire, your world is completely different from someone below the poverty line. Your concerns are nothing alike. You don’t worry about penny-pinching or decision-making based on the price. You don’t worry about where tonight’s dinner is coming from. You don’t think about lying on a credit card application so that you can borrow a few thousand dollars. You’re worried about effectiveness, productivity, value (which is different from price).

If you’re barely scraping by, those concerns that rich people do not think about are precisely the things you care about. Details. Finding the grocery store that sells you $2.50 loaf of brad as opposed to $4.00. Picking out the cheapest gas station in your neighborhood and always going there. Buying a used car.

These cultures are so different that you don’t relate or understand each other. If you’re on a similar level economically, then it’s easier to overcome other differences, such as ethnic, religious, or professional.

I myself am from a middle-class Japanese family. But I also grew up in Brazil, where we were a part of the top 2% richest there, so I had a taste of a wealthy life. Then after college, I had an era where we were definitely lower than middle-class, although I still didn’t relate to or feel like I was in a working-class. I didn’t feel comfortable in some of the places designed primarily for those people, like a laundromat. Even now, I ride the bus and realize that a lot of my fellow riders are riding because they have to, not because they choose to. But this is the case because I live in the city of St. Paul and not in suburbs. I’ve taken buses to suburbs, and the ridership are very different — everybody there is choosing to take the bus and they have cars and they drive to park-and-rides. On the inner-city bus I take everyday, I am not uncomfortable, but I am not comfortable enough to bust out my laptop on the bus, either.

One time I was in a grocery store, and heard a woman mutter, “it’s just not right to have to pay $3.00 for a loaf of bread.” Inflation notwithstanding, this is a kind of thinking that is foreign to me. I pay whatever it takes to get the most value out of my money in a given store — so I do pay attention to prices. But I don’t spend time thinking about the difference in gas prices, for example. I don’t drive enough to feel the difference, so I put gas in wherever I happen to stop by.

On the other hand, recently I had to make a decision on a dental procedure. I had 4 choices — a $200 option, a $800 option, and the latter two costing over $2000. The $800 one is the one that appealed to me the most, so I was initially going to choose that one. But we were hit with some unexpected expenses, and I changed my mind and picked the $200 one.

In my current socioeconomic status, a difference of a few hundred dollars is something to consider carefully. But just like I don’t worry about a few dollars’ worth of differences, I’m sure in a class above me people don’t worry about differences of a few hundred dollars. If the choices were between $2000 and $8000, then you start thinking. Then there’s the class above that….

Socioeconomic classes are not purely determined just by financial resources. It is a culture. I’m from a middle-class, with a taste of upper-class in my background. That’s why, even when I was definitely not in middle-class in terms of income, culturely I still associated myself with middle-class. It felt odd and stressful to me to worry about penny-pinching. I wasn’t good at it, because I wasn’t used to operating that way. If you look at Wikipedia’s definitions on the middle- and working-classes, you can see how the terms are vague.

My point is, our financial resource is a powerful definer of our culture. Just like religion, ethnic, and region, it’s one of the major driving forces.

Human relationships are made on common grounds. When we don’t see the commonality, we see the other group as foreign, and it’s easy to feel threatened, as they make decisions in ways that we don’t comprehend. We don’t understand their priorities, their needs, their motives.

In the story mentioned at the beginning, it profiles one homeowner whose home was devalued because affordable housing went up very close by. I can definitely appreciate his frustration — I’m sure I would be, if I were in his shoes.

But for suburbia, or middle- and upper-class to tell working-class “don’t exist here” is clearly short-sighted and selfish thinking, too. For example, people who live in the so-called affordable housing include many just-out-of-college young adults, just getting started. Many in middle- and upper- classes were once just like them.

I really don’t see a clear and easy answer here. I myself have to admit that I want to live among people who are like-minded. I would be uncomfortable living in a slum, but I’d be also uncomfortable living in a neighborhood of huge houses costing a million dollars or more. It’s not the amount of financial assets that divide us — most of us do understand that people have varying degrees of financial riches.

It’s the cultures stemming from it that divides us. And once we understand this, we can start to see way to cross this divide.

What are the ways in which we can overcome this cultural divide between haves and have-nots?  A townhall meeting?  “A day in the life of” type inter-exchange?  I think once we frame the problem as a cultural one and not a financial one, we may begin to see bridges that can cross this gap.

In your experience, have you ever experienced discomfort in a socioeconomic environment that is foreign to you?  Have you ever made connections with or gained understanding of people who are far richer or poorer than you?  Please share your thoughts and experience by commenting on this entry.

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