Getting By: Reflections on Social Class

When I was a young child (and before I was born), my parents chose a simple life to minimize their needs and live on minimal income. They did this living off the land in Northern Wisconsin, in the International Volunteer Service in Botswana, and piecing things together near Stockholm, Wisconsin. Our family income was well below the poverty line although they qualified for government assistance they did not take it. Here is a video from an NBC Nightly News story about our family and others making similar choices (I’m the blonde 5 year old digging for carrots).

Reflections on Social Class

1. Social Class is Complicated

We often think about class or socio-economic status (SES) in terms of money. But class/SES is socially constructed around income, wealth, education level, cultural capital, status, and more. My family was incredibly poor when considering income and wealth. At the same time we were privileged in terms of class/SES as well. My parents were well-educated, had friends and neighbors living similar lives they could collaborate with, and although family dynamics were complicated and they didn’t get financial support they both came from families with some means. They were also living this way by choice and still experienced systemic privilege from many other social group identities. It is also important to point out that their lifestyle choice based on values and embracing the challenge is very different than being caught in cycles of systemic poverty in both urban and rural settings.

2. Experiences of Social Class are Relative

Although I grew up with very little family income and no wealth to speak of, neither did any of the other families in my community in rural Wisconsin – as far as I knew. I don’t believe I knew anyone whose family had bought a new car until I went to college. I don’t think I experienced much pain and isolation due to my class background because those around me essentially shared those class/SES experiences. Had I grown up in more diverse or more privileged class/SES environment I think my class identity would have been more salient for me.

3. Social Class Status May Change but Many of the Values Remain

Despite having much greater means my current family unit still maintains some of the lower and middle SES patterns and values that we grew up with. We still dry clothes on the line in the summer, garden, and our children almost exclusively wear second hand clothes. Growing up my family did these things out of necessity. Today my family does these things because we value sustainability, want to keep things simple, enjoy them, and those habits, patterns, and values are still internalized to a great extent.

4. Social Class Assumptions

When I share how I grew up in terms of class/SES, I often find that people, even those who know me well, are very surprised or shocked. I think this is because we create simple stories based on the limited information that we know. Based on my current class/SES status and my many visible dominant social group identities, it seems that a simple story of universal privilege,dominance, and lack of struggle or complexity comes readily to people. I readily fit that archetype, even though it isn’t entirely my experience.

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