A message from a working class academic

Still a working draft, but thought I’d share anyway:

Friends, I think it is long past time for those of us from working class backgrounds but have been lucky enough to find success to start sharing our stories.

All of us have witnessed tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, with the poor always being most impacted. We know that most if not all of these tragedies could have been prevented.  And we know that prior to these tragedies, the concerns of the poor were ignored or mocked. From the lead-contaminated drinking water of Flint to the Grenfell fire to the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, poor suffer our society’s greatest tragedies not just because they have fewer resources to escape these conditions but because society has systematically ignored their concerns and actively failed them.

These examples are the norm not the exception, and in one form or another they impact every single person living in poverty – or trying to escape from it.

Those who have not experienced poverty do not understand the numerous ways in society holds back the poor.  How our systems exacerbate rather than ameliorate this inequality.  How talent and beauty thrives amongst all parts of society but is only uplifted for some, is marginalised for others and for many is ultimately snuffed out.

And when the poor go onto success in academia, industry, the media or politics we too often hide it.  Or we are held up as examples that ‘the system works.’

So I am going to share some of my own experiences with you.

I grew up on a farm and we were poor. We had third-hand clothes, second-hand cars and periods without hot water. To make ends meet, my dad also had a part-time job and my mom had a full time job. But – and this is so very very important – we had it better than most people living in poverty. On a farm, you have food. And long-term housing. We had some relatives who were better off financially and that helped (My Aunt Barb and Uncle Roy got my brother and me wonderful and essential winter coats one year…)

Also: I’m white.  And a male.  And straight. And grew up in the wealthiest nation on Earth.

In other words, these examples only scratch the surface of the challenges faced by many in poverty.  I had it relatively easy, had a lot of luck, a huge amount of support – and I barely made it.  And this is what I learned on the way.

 

Poor lives are expendable

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in America.  While I was growing up, I knew an Amish kid who suffocated in a silo.  A family friend lost his hand.  The father of a friend lost his arm.  One of my brother’s friends died when his arms were torn out, caught in a silage shredder.

And once.

My mom’s hair was caught in the tractor’s power take off shaft.  She was working alone.  In a field.  A mile from home.  It pulled out all of her hair and separated her scalp from her skull.  It was a miracle she survived. I remember coming home from School and finding her alone in bed, the lights off, the window shades drawn… a bag of her hair on the dresser.  I made sure she was okay. And then I went to do my homework.

Small family farming is not a great career from which to draw examples of worker’s rights – on a small farm, you are CEO, foreman and labourer.  (But industrial farming certainly is – it is profoundly exploitative and hides behind the family farm myth to justify it.) But it illustrates that when you are poor, you live on a more dangerous edge.  You compromise on safety because if you don’t, you cannot pay your mortgage.

So when wealthy landlords or employers or city councils or politicians cut corners, exploit their workers, ignore contaminated water, or burn up health and safety regulations, I see people who put profit above lives.

Of course, they can only get away so much.  They can only get away with putting profit above some lives. Over poor lives, nomadic lives, black lives.  But trust me my privileged friends, they’d do the same to all of us if they could.

 

Health Care

Health care in the United States is a disgrace. But the government does have schemes to help farmers purchase health insurance, a small sacrifice to ‘big government’ in order to feed your population.  My Dad also had Veterans Insurance due to his service in the Army. And that health care was essential for my family to survive those numerous accidents.

That health insurance, however, is associated with large deductibles, large bills, often thousands of dollars, that you have to pay before the health insurance kicks in.  And this means you do not go to the doctor when you are in pain or have a lump.  Of course, you also do not go to the doctor because you cannot get off work or you have to work two jobs or you have to milk the cows. So you wait –  often until it is too late.

My dad waited when he had a sharp abdominal pain.  The family debates the history of that, my dad suggesting he went to the doctor after 2-3 weeks and my mom suggesting it was months.  Regardless, he waited.

He had gall stones.  Or rather his gall bladder had been nearly completely replaced by a single massive gall stone.  And infection had set in.  The doctors said that if he waited another day or so, it would have likely become gangrenous and infected the liver.

Poor people do not go to the doctor until it us sometimes too late. And afterwards live under a cloud of bills, anxiety and harassment.

 

Dental Health

The consequences of poverty on dental health is scandalous.

I had a few cavities as a kid.  Not too many – Mom taught me good habits.  But I had a few and that costs money and there was no health insurance for that.

One day, I was dropped off at the new dentist’s office after school.  I had an appointment at 3:30 to get a filling.  I sat in the office for hours. Patients arrived and left.  I was vaguely aware that the dentist was looking at me, there was a phone call, there seemed to be some tension.  Eventually my dad showed up, told me to come with him and we left.

We had not paid our bills.  We couldn’t afford it. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for my father, the embarrassment and rage, to have to go in there, pick me up, knowing that I would not get the treatment I needed.  At the same time, I knew that the dentist was a young woman, probably just out of school, trying to start a practice. She couldn’t afford to take on patients who could not pay their bills, and I cannot imagine how it felt to her to send away a 12-year old farm kid.  I’ve never felt more powerless and angry.

I never saw her again.  We went back to our older dentist, further away, but more established, more able to be flexible in billing.

I am now very well off financially, but some legacies never go away. My teeth are crooked. I lost a filling.  That led to an infection. Then a root canal. And then a deep extraction and implant. I get headaches most days, where the implant aggravates my sinus.  My second root canal failed, leaving a gap.

My parents lost most of their teeth.

 

Time

Poverty is not just economic, it is time.

One of the few times I saw my mom really angry was when she was called out for not contributing to the school bake sales. My mom, who was working in purchasing at a local factory all day, doing farm chores each night and on the weekend, and cooking, cleaning, doing everything else to keep the house functional did not have the time to bake fucking cookies for your fucking bake sale.

Fuck you for asking that and fuck you for shaming my mother.

Poor people are smart, creative, wise and beautiful.  But we do not have time for your shit. We do not have time for *your agenda*.  When you ask us to contribute, try to engage us, even try to help us, know what you are asking.  We don’t have time for your town halls, your focus groups, baking brownies.

This is also why poor people eat pre-prepared meals. It is why my mom had a crock pot, so she could start something cooking and leave it.  It is why we had mushy vegetables – she would bring them to a boil, turn the temperature to a simmer and then go out to do the evening chores.

Our time is precious and it is ours.

Remember that when you are engaging marginalised communities.

 

Fear

You can’t fuck up when you are poor.

I saw friends sucked into alcoholism and drug abuse (and this was before the current opioid crisis ravaging rural America).  More often, I saw friends, cousins, friends of cousins getting pregnant or knocking a girl up.

When you are poor, an unplanned pregnancy means that your hopes and dreams are fucked.

There are exceptions – lots of exceptions.  But in my world, when you got pregnant, that was it.  You tried to finish High School and got a part time job and that was the end of your dreams of college, sports or a band.

Everyone knows you live at the margins.  Don’t get knocked up.  Don’t get in trouble with the law.  Don’t take drugs. Everyone deals with it differently – some steer into the risk, some live large, burn out, burn bright.

I… I lived… I cannot really describe it.  It was a long time ago. Saying I lived in fear is over-stating it. But I just continuously – continuously – tried to avoid any possible mistake that could ruin my life. I was terrified of getting a girl pregnant.  I did not have sex until I was 20.  I followed all the rules.  I did argue – with everyone, all of the time – I’m rather proud of the fact that my desire to walk the straight and narrow did not stifle my activism or values. But I never took risks and I never broke the rules.

[As an aside, I did fuck up once.  And…. it was not the end of the world.  The point is not so much about the consequences but the fear.]

I guess what I am saying here is that when you are poor, you live in fear of fucking up.

Rich people fuck up all the time.

 

Education.

My parents did not go to college but they recognised early on that I was rather smart and studious.  And so they pushed me; Mom pushed me so hard, endlessly.  And then, when those good grades in year 1 stopped being a success story and started becoming the norm, they either got out of my way and let me excel or stepped in to support me.  Farm kids have to do LOTS of chores.  My brother and I had rather modest chores – my parents wanted us to prioritise our homework.  My dad drove me to debate tournaments on Saturday mornings, after milking the cows, before other chores and sometimes through ridiculous Northern Ohio blizzards.

So when I was thirteen and two of my friends persuaded me to apply for an elite private school in the area, my parents supported me.  The school was all about excellence.  They claimed that they were value-driven. They wanted to support the community and the best and brightest.

I had higher standardised test scores than my friends.  I had higher grades.  They went to the school and I did not.  I was admitted.  But when it came to the fees, their values disappeared. No grants.  No loans.  No advice on where one might get loans. They led my parents and me, naively perhaps, down a path suggesting that they would be supportive.  I suspect they never thought some poor kid could get the grades to get in.

Not going there was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  Fuck them.

Fortunately, four years later, I discovered that Universities, despite extortionate tuition fees in the United States, do their best to match financial support to need.  Every university I applied to provided an impressive variety of support.  I attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and they did right by me.

But:

College still cost my parents $3000 a year.  And when my brother also went to college, they had to sell the farm.

And I had to work part-time for my final three years.

And I still finished with $10,000 in loans.

And to get those scholarships, I had to have a 4.0 GPA in High School and the highest SAT scores in its history. (Not bragging; I am test savvy.)

So fuck ‘social mobility,’ where we claim to have an equal society just because a very few lucky, smart, hard-working kids can escape structural poverty, inequity and racism. If a society genuinely wants to excel, to thrive, to innovate, it invests in all forms of education at all levels for everyone.

 

Life Choices

I love the American liberal arts university system.  I went to CWRU to study Physics, aspiring to be an astrophysicist, but also loved politics.  Eventually, I decided to major in Geology, fulfilling my passion for science, but intending to go to Law School afterwards and become an environmental lawyer.

But law school costs money.  And PhD students get paid.  Not a lot – but a lot by my standards.

I do not regret my choice to do a PhD in geology.  I do resent the fact that it was not fully my choice.

At 22, after years of success after success after success. After years of hard work and sacrifice, after excelling in High School and University, after being Presidents of clubs and societies, after continuously working part-time jobs.  After doing everything right, it was not my choice.

 

Poor people do not like cops

Yes, even poor white people. Which is why it is so infuriating that some poor white people seem to “love the blue” when it is Black people protesting their murder by police.

As a teenager, my brother once got busted for blowing up mailboxes. It was a stupid thing to do – the kind of stupid thing that kids do in the boring midwest. But what was really stupid is that he did it in the posh township instead of our own. Cops do not like poor people coming into their towns and causing trouble.  So they did him for everything they could, including charging him with corrupting minors since he had turned 18 a few days before and all of his Senior classmates had not.

I have been pulled over for ‘looking like I was in a hurry.’ Our town set up speed traps to catch late-night commuters, factory workers driving to the night shift. My mom told me to hide my long hair in a hat.

During my Sophomore year at Uni, I got a job. So I needed to use the beat up and old family car that summer.  It was okay; my college did not care and it was in a pretty working class area. However, to drive home, I had to drive through the wealthy Cleveland suburbs.  And the cops always shadowed me in and out of them.  One time, they pulled me over and gave me a ticket for every. single. thing. they. could.  It was $500, more than I made the previous two weeks.  If my professors had not been supporting me with some part-time work, I would have had to drop out of college.

Lots of police are nice.  But the police as an institution exists to keep Black people and Latin people and poor people in their place. It always has. It exists to protect capital.  Police do not harass people because of irrational fears about the threats posed to the safety of those posh communities. That might be part of it. But mainly, they harass Black people and the homeless and those driving rusty cars to protect property values.

They are wealth protectors and they never let you forget it. And some of them will kill Black people because of it.

 

Poor people do not trust you. We especially do not trust the government.

And we have reasons for that. We’ve been let down and betrayed. We have been demeaned.

And until the well meaning left understands that, the far right will weaponise those experiences against the same poor people who need government support.

 

A lot of working class academics are alone

When I first posted this blog, a lot of us talked about this privately.  We talked about our disconnection with the academic world but also the world we have left behind.  We all know that academia makes us move about geographically.  It also causes us to move about culturally and politically.  And emotionally.  And that is not all bad but on some days it hurts more than you can imagine.  And I’m not ready to say any more about this yet.

 

So what do I think we should take from these stories?

First and foremost, I must again caveat this blog with the fact that I had it pretty good. There are so many people, even in my own High School, let alone in poorer parts of the country or from marginalised minorities, who had it and still have it much harder.

And I sure as hell am not looking for pity. I’m doing really well. And once you overcome the barriers that society puts in front of you, your working class upbringing makes you strong.  When my mom had her hair ripped from her scalp, she managed to climb back onto the tractor, drive it home and call the doctor herself. If I have one-tenth of that strength, then I am fine.

And of course, poor white people can get rich. Poor Black people can get rich but will always be black in a structurally racist society. Read up on intersectionality, y’all.

Second: Don’t you dare cast this as a narrative ‘that with a bit of pluck and hard work’ anyone can make it.  Fuck that.  I did not work my ass off because I am such a noble worker; I did it and my family did it to survive.

No, the real point of these stories is that I got lucky.  I am smart.  I am good at my job, have authored or co-authored hundreds of papers and taught thousands of students.  Science is better for having me participating in it.  I was the Director of a world-leading environmentally-facing research institute and am now the Head of one of the top Earth Science departments in the world. And the only reason any of that happened is that I got lucky again and again and again.

I got lucky being born white and male, and have benefited from that my entire career. I was adopted by parents who were supportive of my ambitions.  We might have been poor but we had food and shelter and stability. I happened to go to one of the top public schools in Ohio, by dumb luck of geography, and happened to have some of the most amazing teachers. I got lucky during my PhD and Postdoc, who I worked with (amazing supervisors, mentors, colleagues and friends), the lab equipment we had, the discoveries we stumbled on, the grant that barely got funded.

We pretend to live and work in a meritocracy, where everyone has a chance and excellence and hard work is rewarded. We especially believe that myth in academia. And I think we do so because we do work hard but also because we need that story to justify the sacrifices we all make.  But we do not work in a meritocracy. Some people are born into wealth and some into poverty.

And the success of a few poor kids does not change the truth of that injustice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “A message from a working class academic

  1. I am teaching my Access to HE class about the functionalist perspective of education next week – I shall be sharing this blog with them – thanks!

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