Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Obligations of Wealth

This is not the blog piece you think it's going to be.

I am not going to write about how the Waltons or the Gates or the Kochs or the Rich Folks Whose Names I Don't Know should live their lives, spend their money, and generally behave themselves. It's not, mind you, that I don't have some thoughts about it. But those are not the wealthy people I'm going to write about today.

I'm going to write about me.

It's fun to focus righteous rage on Those People and condemn the profligate wealthy and their terrible use of their privilege and power and money. But years ago I needed to face up to something. I live in a rural/small town area, one that once upon a time has a decent industrial base, but has lost much of that over the past fifty years. We're not destitute. But we live among the residual pieces of an earlier wealth, the churches and homes and other fine buildings erected 150 years ago by oil barons and captains of industry. Want a beautiful Victorian home dirt cheap? We've got the places for you-- but you need to bring your own job.

As a teacher with thirty years in, I'm pretty well off. I make above the median pay for the county. Hugely above the per capita income for the county. I own my own home, and while it's neither large or without issues, it's also right up against the river and close to the center of town. I have reliable transportation (no small thing-- in the country homelessness isn't nearly as problematic as transportationlessness), and I'm only six minutes from work. I'm not rich in any absolute sense, and I have plenty of bills to pay with a paycheck that doesn't always stretch as far as would be handy. There are things I'd like to have that I can't afford, a level of security and insulation I'd love to provide my family, but can't.

So, to be clear, I am not arguing that I am overpaid and that our next teacher contract should roll our pay back. Because it shouldn't. But that's not what I'm talking about.

It is not easy for me to talk about this. It's not easy to talk about possessing privilege. I don't honestly know how to talk about the benefits I have in life without feeling like I'm bragging, and bragging about things that are just a much a product of luck or grace or whatever you want to call it as any hard work or skill that I brought to the table (and really, how many of my skills are founded on luck of the genetic draw). I have made more than enough mistakes, screwed up more than enough times to have earned a life far less rewarding than the one I've got. And that's before we even get to the things that never happened-- I never developed cancer, never got hit by a bus, never had a heart attack, never lost a limb in a major accident.

Anyway. When I contemplate my lot in life, I feel two things: gratitude and obligation.

It is easy to talk about what obligations Bill Gates should feel because of his wealth. But what should I be doing with my relative wealth? Here are some of the answers I've arrived at.

Think before I open my mouth

Nothing makes me cringe like a teacher complaining about the end of summer vacation. You know who doesn't get much vacation at all? Way too many American workers. Look around. There isn't a holiday left on which workers aren't called in to work a shift. And for people who are on the bottom end of the economic scale, taking a vacation is expensive as hell, because all vacations are without pay. One of the features of the decline of the middle class is that holidays have become a luxury available to only some of the population.

Complaining about the end of summer vacation is like complaining that you get tired walking from one end of your mansion to the other or that you can't get enough sleep because the hot model you live with wants to have sex all the time or that it's just so disappointing when you finally use up the whole stack of $100 bills in your wallet. Nobody who doesn't have a summer vacation wants to hear about it.

I try to think before I talk about my first world problems in front of people who have problems of their own.

Spend money locally

You can't drive past a bunch of local shops on your way to the Big City Mall and then talk about how sad it is that local shops are closing. I spend as much money locally as possible. I eat out at local restaurants, undoubtedly more often than is entirely good for me. I shop at local stores, even when it means I don't necessarily get exactly, precisely the item that I'm looking for.

These people pay my salary. They give up part of their pay to pay me. What a slap in the face for me to take that money and go spend it somewhere else. And at this stage of the game, most places in town employ my former students. If I want to see them become successful, self-supporting parts of the community, how can I not help them do that by spending my money at their workplace?

Support businesses

With more than just money. Everything I said in the previous section I also say to my students. Every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of businesses that you want to see survive. Speak up in support of the people who finance your school and your job.

Support groups that make the community better

As a teacher, I have money and I have time, and that means I can become involved in parts of the community that add to quality of life. For me, that means playing in a 159-year-old community band and doing a variety of jobs in community theater. These are things I care about, and I care about them in part because I believe they make this community a better place to live.

I know there are teachers who feel once they've put in the school work that they've been paid to do, they are entitled to shut themselves up at home and that they owe the community nothing. I respectfully disagree. I have resources that many people in my community do not, and I have those resources precisely because those people gave some of their resources up. I owe them.

Listen and amplify 

Hear other voices. And where privileged to have an audience, try to get those voices heard. This is not the same as speaking for those people, but it is also not sitting back and assuming that they can make themselves heard as easily as I can, so they should just suck it up and get on it.

Don't forget

I try to pay attention to what my students' lives are actually and what challenges their families face, not just with an eye on the academic demands I make, but in understanding how their world looks. I do my best to remember that they don't see things differently because they are defective or wrong, but because I'm standing in a place that gives me a different view. This works both ways-- there are plenty of children in my classroom who are children of professional parents who are just as well-off (or more so) as I am, and so we already tend to speak a similar language, and I have to remember that doesn't mean they're better students or better people than my other students. More importantly, I also have to remember that I'm standing in a place because I have a standard of living that makes it possible for me to stand in that place.

Short form: I'm not better off because I'm better. My wealth gives me some options that not everyone has. That's it.

This is challenging

I wasn't kidding about how hard this is to write about. This has taken way longer than anything on this site ever does, and typing words like "I am wealthy" feels like a display of pride and bragadociousness that just makes my fingers itch. 

I am conscious that many teachers are NOT in my situation, that many teachers are struggling financially and are not wealthy by anybody's standards anywhere, and that many teachers give till it hurts and then they give some more. I am also aware that teacher wealth still lags far behind lawyer wealth and doctor wealth. But I want to-- cautiously, gingerly-- point out that some of us are not in that boat, and also that it is always easy to find people that we are poorer than.

It is easy when discussing privilege to dismiss the advantages that we have. We can always find someone who's better off and say, "Well, you don't need to talk to ME about wealth and privilege-- you should be talking to that Gates guy." But if we really want to push toward a world where people make responsible and ethical use of their privilege, doesn't it make sense to start with ourselves, however short our list of blessings may seem to be?


  1. As always, you've given us much to consider. Thank you. I wish more teachers felt this way.

  2. Responsible and ethical use of privilege. I would like to throw out another angle to the discussion. Having grown up as one of "those people" (poverty, scandalous and awful family circumstances, blah blah blah) in a community filled with people who were middle to upper class social justice activists, I am keenly aware of the passion the community felt towards the disadvantaged. I remember being "interviewed" by a classmate's father who was a famous community organizer. He was not formally interviewing me. Just probing. How did that make me feel as a tween and teenager?

    I figured something out. Well off, educated white people who are very committed to social justice like to feel pity for the less fortunate. They try to figure out who really deserves to be pitied. Many are very motivated by the pity. Some do great work. Others, not so much.

    Pity does not help people. Respect helps people. I could write a book about it. I should. Anyway, I talk to my students about respect and self respect. I look at them and realize that I can learn from them, and every other person. I am not talking about the painful lessons we learn the hard way from our students and our own children.

    You know the addage: people may not remember what you tell or show them, but they will always remember how you made them feel. When you want to help the less privileged, skip the humiliating pity. You can uplift another person by giving authentic respect, no matter your income bracket.

  3. Good stuff. I'm in a similar situation. I live and work in rural northern WI in a county where my teacher's salary is double the median income.

    As a former engineer, in moments of self-pity, I tend to compare my income to that of my old friends, who live in a big city and are still making engineer money. I have to consciously remind myself to compare what I have to the loggers and farmers who live where I now live.