Oddments: Feeling Thankful

We finally closed on our new house the week before Thanksgiving, finalizing my move back to Appalachia (although I’d already been in my empty apartment for a couple months).  This is our third house, and we are still in our thirties.  Which probably isn’t that impressive.  Even these days, the age of the average first-time homebuyer is only 32.  The three houses thing is mostly a function of repeatedly moving across the country.  I am proud that we went from 5% down to 10% to 20% down.

Dave Ramsey is fond of saying that young couples want to start with the standard of living it took their parents 35 years to build.  It is a good point, and a lot of people need to hear it.  But I exceeded my parents’ standard of living the day I walked out of grad school.  I’ve been broke since then, but I haven’t been poor.  Broke and poor aren’t the same thing.  I’ve been well off, broke, and poor—there is a very clear hierarchy among the three.

I’ve never lived the way my parents did.  Doing it as a kid isn’t the same.

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Nonfiction: Class Dismissed: Why College Isn’t the Answer by Nick Adams

Nick Adams’ argument against college, Class Dismissed, might seem an odd fit for Hillbilly Highways.  But, coming from a rural, working class, blue collar background, college was my gateway to the professional and managerial elite.  I experienced firsthand some of the class bias embedded in the process.  And I saw friends who should have gone to college not go and friends who shouldn’t have gone to college go.

This is in the Hillbilly Highways wheelhouse because the question at the heart of the book is more relevant—and higher stakes—for a people who are disproportionately working class and blue collar and who are more likely to be first generation college students.  Adams’ target audience is 17-year-olds trying to decide if they should go to college and their parents.  My target audience for this review (or “review”) is roughly the same then, but specifically thinking of the people I know (and I’m of an age that I have a lot of high school friends who are in this boat with their kids).

Of course I have a pretty big vested interest in all this.  My college experience is as anecdotal as any of the stories Adams tells.  But it did prove hugely beneficial for me personally.  I teach at a regional public university (you will see me stick up more than once for regional publics).  The amount of money I’m putting into my baby daughter’s college fund every month shows I’m pretty damn confident she will go to college.  I am a big proponent of the skilled trades—a large part of the impetus for writing this review—but I also live in a state with a shrinking pool of high school graduates.  More money for skilled trades necessarily means less money for four-year universities.  But I also feel like I can say what I think because I lack the power to bring the entire system crashing down around me even if I wanted to (and because the First Amendment, tenure protections, a union contract, and a thin veil of anonymity shield me from retaliation).

This is a big issue.  Two-thirds of high school graduates go to college, but fewer than 40% graduate in four years.  That 60% have a problem.  They borrow more money for school.  And if they never finish they earn significantly less than the average holder of a bachelor’s degree but significantly less than the average holder of an associate’s degree.  And there is a big class divide in that stat.  Your parents earn more than $90k per year?  You have a 1-in-2 chance of earning a bachelor’s degree by 24.  Your parents earn less than $30k?  Your chances drop to 1-in-17.

There is a regular cottage industry in running down our higher education system.  I have seen too much commentary less interested in seriously engaging with the issues than with scoring cheap points, easy clicks, and book sales.  From commentators who probably happily cash the checks and send their kids to Ivy League schools.  Adams, at least, doesn’t fall into that group: for one, he doesn’t have kids.  And he has the right basic approach to the book.  It is a meandering but that left me underwhelmed, nonetheless.

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Nonfiction: White Working Class by Joan Williams

I learned two things when I opened White Working Class.  One, I am a class migrant (“someone who has moved from one class to another”).  Two, apparently I’m not working class at all, and never was.  Williams curiously defines “working class” to mean middle class.

She defines working class as: “Americans . . . with household incomes above the bottom third but below the top 20%.”  She adds in as well “families with higher incomes but no college graduates,” highlighting the increasing relevance of education to class in America.  This results in a range of family incomes from $41,005 to $131,962.  Williams has a point when she says that almost all Americans consider themselves middle class.  But calling couples who make $130,000 a year “working class” is silly.  Williams contrasts the working class with “elites,” i.e., “Americans with household incomes in the top 20% and at least one member who is a college graduate.”  This elite is largely a professional and managerial elite (PME).

By this measure I was only working class for a brief few years between grad school and law school.  Otherwise I have been poor or elite my entire life.

(I don’t like Williams’ definition, but for the purposes of this post, when I say “working class,” I mean working class as she defines it.)

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