helenic: (Default)
[personal profile] helenic
If I see one more high-income homeowner going "middle class? affluent? ME?" after using the class calculator, I will slap them.

Under-estimating your own class status is common. I'd go so far as to say it's one of the social patterns that maintains structural inequality. It's also something we all seem to be taught.

I grew up thinking I wasn't middle class. I'd grown up in tiny urban terraced houses in the Midlands - one of them was even on a council estate! - with parents working shifts in the NHS. We couldn't afford posh holidays or trainers or clothes or a large screen telly, and sometimes we couldn't afford another food shop at the end of the month. But we always got by. Holidays were self-catering in France or the UK, or house swaps. We had a home full of books and computers that my kind, clever dad built from spare parts.

By the time I was 16, my parents were both vicars with multiple post-graduate degrees, so that possibly made us middle class by default. But lower-middle, surely? For some reason, that distinction felt very important; I didn't want anyone to think we were wealthy when, clearly, we weren't.

Except one of the reasons money was short was that my parents were paying school fees. Okay, okay, private school wouldn't have been affordable without scholarships and bursaries, and it wasn't one of the big old posh ones or anything. But still.

Private school meant I was surrounded by kids from families more affluent than mine, and I felt lower class by comparison. The same thing happened at Cambridge. But being able to afford private school is pretty much 100% textbook "wealthy", even if you have to scrimp and save to do so, and no matter what your background, I think Oxbridge is one of those magical middle (possibly upper) class ticky boxes. Looking back, it's amazing that I ever thought there was the tiniest chance I might not qualify.

In the media, people who are, frankly, fucking posh identify themselves as "middle class". I was startled to discover that Miranda Hart's character in Miranda (which in every other way I have come to utterly adore) identifies as such when I would have pegged her family as upper class or old money. If people posher and richer than you call themselves middle class, you must be lower than that, right? The kids of well-educated people working low-paying or insecure jobs in academia, the arts or the public or third sector are reluctant to identify as middle class because they think it means "wealthy", and very few people believe themselves to be wealthy.

Defining wealthy is pretty hard. For a start, pretty much everyone who can afford to rent in the UK is wealthy on a global scale. But within our culture, everyone places the line somewhere different - and most people place it higher than where they perceive themselves. Does "wealthy" mean being able to buy food each month and afford the rent/mortgage? Does it mean being able to take holidays, eat out, run a car? What if someone gives you a free holiday, does that count? Does owning a home automatically qualify you? How about two homes? What if your income is high but all your money goes on debt repayment or servicing a substance addiction?

Class isn't just about financial security; it's about wealth of opportunity, and our relation to power. Are you able to teach yourself new skills, or convince someone of an idea? Those things give you power. Education is a huge part; not just whether you have a degree and where you got it, but how intellectual your home environment was growing up. That plays into the cultural hobbies and interests factor identified in the class calculator. People with educated and/or cultured parents are more likely to have a wide range of social contacts and cultural interests as adults. Those aren't just a measure of how posh you are; social networks and cultural education are a form of wealth.

We are all brought up to underestimate our class. Placing yourself high on the class scale is seen as being distasteful, snobbish or immodest. But it's also a trend that results in people underestimating their own privilege. Thinking you aren't well off when you are - normalising a level of wealth which many people do not enjoy - is what Iain Duncan Smith is doing when he claims he could live on £53 a week. Underestimating the poverty that people in this country live in - poverty not just of cashflow, but of support networks, opportunity, education, confidence - is the first step towards thinking that they can't be that badly off, surely, they just need to buck up/budget better/eat more lentils.

If the class calculator put you higher than you expected, you are probably better off than you think you are. Consider this: you may not feel wealthy, but compared to you, a lot of people in this country are actually, genuinely poor. Poor as in can't afford food, or bus fares, or phone credit, or electricity bills. People on minimum wage, low-paid part time work or JSA are poor, but they aren't even the bottom tier; they're better off than people living on the street.

No-one thinks of themselves as well off, but there are a lot of people less well off than you. Underestimating your class and relative wealth is to deny the reality of people less fortunate than yourself. And that is one of the ways that structural inequality perpetuates itself.

on 2013-04-03 10:15 pm (UTC)
ailbhe: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] ailbhe
Thank you. I got really upset about it.

on 2013-04-04 05:07 pm (UTC)
taimatsu: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] taimatsu
I actually came out lower than I expected, because it's taking account of my current circumstances more than my upbringing. I grew up in fairly affluent circumstances with plenty of advantages a lot of people don't have, but my current financial situation pulled me further down than I would have thought. It really isn't a particularly helpful set of groupings, I think. I very much agree with your overall point.

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