Tuesday, May 31, 2005

When the Joneses Wear Jeans

When the Joneses Wear Jeans
BEACHWOOD, Ohio - It was 4:30 p.m., sweet hour of opportunity at the Beachwood Place Mall.
Shoppers were drifting into stores in the rush before dinner, and the sales help, as if on cue, began a retail ritual: trying to tell the buyers from the lookers, the platinum-card holders from those who could barely pay their monthly minimum balance.
It is not always easy. Ellyn Lebby, a sales clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue, said she had a customer who regularly bought $3,000 suits but "who looks like he should be standing outside shaking a cup."
At Oh How Cute, a children's boutique, the owner, Kira Alexander, checks out shoppers' fingernails. A good manicure usually signals money. "But then again," Ms. Alexander conceded, "I don't have nice nails and I can buy whatever I want."
Down the mall at the Godiva chocolate store, Mark Fiorilli, the manager, does not even bother trying to figure out who has money. Over the course of a few hours, his shoppers included a young woman with a giant diamond ring and a former airplane parts inspector living off her disability checks.
"You can't make assumptions," Mr. Fiorilli said.
Social class, once so easily assessed by the car in the driveway or the purse on the arm, has become harder to see in the things Americans buy. Rising incomes, flattening prices and easily available credit have given so many Americans access to such a wide array of high-end goods that traditional markers of status have lost much of their meaning.
A family squarely in the middle class may own a flat-screen television, drive a BMW and indulge a taste for expensive chocolate.
A wealthy family may only further blur the picture by shopping for wine at Costco and bath towels at Target, which for years has stocked its shelves with high-quality goods.
Everyone, meanwhile, appears to be blending into a classless crowd, shedding the showiest kinds of high-status clothes in favor of a jeans-and-sweatsuit informality. When Vice President Dick Cheney, a wealthy man in his own right, attended a January ceremony in Poland to commemorate the liberation of Nazi death camps, he wore a parka.
But status symbols have not disappeared. As luxury has gone down-market, the marketplace has simply gone one better, rolling out ever-pricier goods and pitching them to the ever-loftier rich. This is an America of $130,000 Hummers and $12,000 mother-baby diamond tennis bracelet sets, of $600 jeans, $800 haircuts and slick new magazines advertising $400 bottles of wine.
Then there are the new badges of high-end consumption that may be less readily conspicuous but no less potent. Increasingly, the nation's richest are spending their money on personal services or exclusive experiences and isolating themselves from the masses in ways that go beyond building gated walls.
These Americans employ about 9,000 personal chefs, up from about 400 just 10 years ago, according to the American Personal Chef Association. They are taking ever more exotic vacations, often in private planes. They visit plastic surgeons and dermatologists for costly and frequent cosmetic procedures. And they are sending their children to $400-an-hour math tutors, summer camps at French chateaus and crash courses on managing money.
"Whether or not someone has a flat-screen TV is going to tell you less than if you look at the services they use, where they live and the control they have over other people's labor, those who are serving them," said Dalton Conley, an author and a sociologist at New York University.
Goods and services have always been means to measure social station. Thorstein Veblen, the political economist who coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" at the beginning of the last century, observed that it was the wealthy "leisure class," in its "manner of life and its standards of worth," that set the bar for everyone else.
"The observance of these standards," Veblen wrote, "in some degree of approximation, becomes incumbent upon all classes lower in the scale."
So it is today. In a recent poll by The New York Times, fully 81 percent of Americans said they had felt social pressure to buy high-priced goods.
But what Veblen could not have foreseen is where some of that pressure is coming from, says Juliet B. Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College who has written widely on consumer culture. While the rich may have always set the standards, Professor Schor said, the actual social competition used to be played out largely at the neighborhood level, among people in roughly the same class.
In the last 30 years or so, however, she said, as people have become increasingly isolated from their neighbors, a barrage of magazines and television shows celebrating the toys and totems of the rich has fostered a whole new level of desire across class groups. A "horizontal desire," coveting a neighbor's goods, has been replaced by a "vertical desire," coveting the goods of the rich and the powerful seen on television, Professor Schor said.
"The old system was keeping up with the Joneses," she said. "The new system is keeping up with the Gateses."
Of course only other billionaires actually can. Most Americans are staring across a widening income gap between them and the very rich, making such vertical desire all the more unrealistic. "There is a bigger gap between the average person and what they are aspiring to," Professor Schor said.
But others who study consumer behavior say that the wanting and getting of material goods is not just a competitive exercise. In this view, Americans care less about emulating the top tier than about simply having a fair share of the bounty and a chance to carve out a place for themselves in society.
"People like having stuff, and stuff is good for people," said Thomas O'Guinn, a professor of advertising at the University of Illinois who has written textbooks on marketing and consumption. "One thing modernity brought with it was all kinds of identities, the ability for people to choose who you want to be, how you want to decorate yourself, what kind of lifestyle you want. And what you consume cannot be separated from that."
Falling Prices, Rising Debt
Throughout the mall in this upscale suburb of Cleveland, high-priced merchandise was moving: $80 cotton rompers at Oh How Cute, $40 scented candles at Bigelow Pharmacy. And everywhere, it seemed, was the sound of cellphones, one ringing out with a salsa tune, another with bars from Brahms.
Few consumer items better illustrate the democratization of luxury than the cellphone, once immortalized as the ultimate toy of exclusivity by Michael Douglas as he tromped around the 1987 movie "Wall Street" screaming into one roughly the size of a throw pillow.
Now, about one of every two Americans uses a cellphone; last year, there were 176 million subscribers, almost eight times the number a decade ago, according to the market research firm IDC. The number has soared because prices have correspondingly plummeted, to about an eighth of what they were 10 years ago.
The pattern is a familiar one in consumer electronics. What begins as a high-end product - a laptop computer, a DVD player - gradually goes mass market as prices fall and production rises, largely because of the cheap labor costs in developing countries that are making more and more of the goods.
That sort of "global sourcing" has had a similar impact across the American marketplace. The prices of clothing, for example, have barely risen in the last decade, while department store prices in general fell 10 percent from 1994 to 2004, the federal government says.
Even where luxury-good prices have remained forbiddingly high, some manufacturers have come up with strategies to cast more widely for customers, looking to middle-class consumers, whose incomes have generally risen in recent years; the median family income in the United States grew 17.6 percent from 1983 to 2003, when adjusted for inflation.
One way makers of luxury cars have tapped into this market is by introducing cheaper versions of their cars, trying to lure younger, less-affluent buyers in the hope that they may upgrade to more prestigious models as their incomes grow.
Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi already offer cars costing about $30,000 and now plan to introduce models that will sell for about $25,000. Entry-level luxury cars are the fastest growing segment of that industry.
"The big new trend that is coming to the U.S. is 'subluxury' cars," said David Thomas, editor of Autoblog, an online automotive guide. "The real push now is to go a step lower, but the car makers won't say 'lower.' "
The luxury car industry is just one that has made its products more accessible to the middle class. The cruise industry, once associated with the upper crust, is another.
"The cruise business has totally evolved," said Oivind Mathisen, editor of the newsletter Cruise Industry News, "and become a business that caters to moderate incomes." The luxury end makes up only 10 percent of the cruise line market now, Mr. Mathisen said.
Yet today's cruise ships continue to trade on the vestiges of their upper-class mystique, even while offering new amenities like on-board ice skating and wall-climbing. Though dinner with the captain may be a thing of the past, the ships still pamper guests with spas, boutiques and sophisticated restaurants.
All that can be had for an average of $1,500 a week per person, a price that has gone almost unchanged in 15 years, Mr. Mathisen said. The industry has kept prices down in part by buying bigger ships, the better to accommodate a broader clientele.
But affordable prices are only one reason the marketplace has blurred. Americans have loaded up on expensive toys largely by borrowing and charging. They now owe about $750 billion in revolving debt, according to the Federal Reserve, a six-fold increase from two decades ago.
That huge jump can be traced in part to the credit industry's explosive growth. Over the last 20 years, the industry became increasingly lenient about whom it was willing to extend credit to, more sophisticated about assessing credit risks and increasingly generous in how much it would let people borrow, as long as those customers were willing to pay high fees and risk living in debt.
As a result, to take one example, millions of Americans who could not have dreamed of buying their own homes two decades ago are now doing so in record numbers because of a sharp drop in mortgage interest rates, a surge in the number of mortgages granted and the creation of the sub-prime lending industry, which gives low-income people access to credit at high cost.
"Creditors love the term the 'democratization of credit,' " said Travis B. Plunkett, the legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer lobbying group. "Over all, it has certainly had a positive effect. Many families that never had access to credit now do. The problem is that a flood of credit is now available to many financially vulnerable families and extended in a reckless and aggressive manner in many cases without thought to implications. The creditors say it has driven the economy forward and helped many families improve their financial lives, but they omit talking about the other half of the equation."
The Marketers' Response
Marketers have had to adjust their strategies in this fluid world of consumerism. Where once they pitched advertisements primarily to a core group of customers - men earning $35,000 to $50,000 a year, say - now they are increasingly fine-tuning their efforts, trying to identify potential customers by interests and tastes as well as by income level.
"The market dynamics have changed," said Idris Mootee, a marketing expert based in Boston. "It used to be clearly defined by how much you can afford. Before, if you belonged to a certain group, you shopped at Wal-Mart and bought the cheapest coffee and bought the cheapest sneakers. Now, people may buy the cheapest brand of consumer goods but still want Starbucks coffee and an iPod."
Merchandisers, for example, might look at two golfers, one lower middle class, the other wealthy, and know that they read the same golf magazine, see the same advertisements and possibly buy the same quality driver. The difference is that one will be splurging and then play on a public course while the other will not blink at the price and tee off at a private country club.
Similarly, a middle-income office manager may save her money to buy a single luxury item, like a Chanel jacket, the same one worn by a wealthy homemaker who has a dozen others like it in her $2.5 million house.
Marketers also know that today's shoppers have unpredictable priorities. Robert Gross, who was wandering the Beachwood mall with his son David, said he couldn't live without his annual cruise. Mr. Gross, 65, also prizes his two diamond pinkie rings, his racks of cashmere sweaters and his Mercedes CLK 430. "My license plate reads BENZ4BOB," he said. "Does that tell you what kind of person I am?"
But a taste for luxury goods did not stop Mr. Gross, an accountant, from scoffing as David paid $30 for a box of Godiva chocolates for his wife. The elder Mr. Gross had been to a local chocolate maker. "I went to Malley's," he said, "and bought my chocolate half price."
Yet virtually no company that has built a reputation as a purveyor of luxury goods will want to lose its foothold in that territory, even as it lowers prices on some items and sells them to a wider audience. If one high-end product has slipped into the mass market, then a new one will have to take its place at the top.
Until the early 1990's, Godiva sold only in Neiman Marcus and a few other upscale stores. Today it is one of those companies whose customers drift in from all points along the economic spectrum. Its candy can now be found in 2,500 outlets, including Hallmark card stores and middle-market department stores like Dillard's.
"People want to participate in our brand because we are an affordable luxury," said Gene Dunkin, president of Godiva North America, a unit of the Campbell Soup Company. "For under $1 to $350, with an incredible luxury package, we give the perception of a very expensive product."
But the company is also trying simultaneously to hold on to the true luxury market, which has increasingly been seduced away by small, expensive artisan chocolate makers, many from Europe, that are opening around the country. Two years ago, Godiva introduced its most expensive line ever, "G," handmade chocolates selling for $100 a pound. Today it is available only in holiday seasons and only at selected stores.
The New Status Symbols
While the rest of the United States may appear to be catching up with the Joneses, the richest Joneses have already moved on.
Some have slipped out of sight, buying bigger and more lavish homes in neighborhoods increasingly insulated from the rest of Americans. But the true measure of upper class today is in the personal services indulged in.
Professor Conley, the New York University sociologist, refers to these less tangible badges of status as "positional goods." Consider a couple who hire a baby sitter to pick up their children from school while they both work, he said. Their status would generally be lower than the couple who could pick up their children themselves, because the second couple would have enough earning power to allow one parent to stay at home while the other worked.
But the second couple would actually occupy the second rung in this after-school hierarchy. "In the highest group of all is the parent who has a nanny along," Professor Conley said.
Status among people in the top tier, he said, "is the time spent being waited on, being taken care of in nail salons, and how many people who work for them." From 1997 to 2002, revenues from hair, nail and skin care services jumped by 42 percent nationwide, Census Bureau data shows. Revenues from what the bureau described as "other personal services" increased 74 percent.
Indeed, in some cases, services and experiences have replaced objects as the true symbols of high status. "Anyone can buy a one-off expensive car," said Paul Nunes, who with Brian Johnson wrote "Mass Affluence," a book on marketing strategies. "But it is lifestyle that people are competing on more now. It is which sports camps do your kids go to and how often, which vacations do you take, even how often do you do things like go work for Habitat for Humanity, which is a charitable expense people can compete with."
In the country's largest cities, otherwise prosaic services have been transformed into status symbols simply because of the price tag. In New York last year, one salon introduced an $800 haircut, and a Japanese restaurant, Masa, opened with a $350 prix fixe dinner (excluding tax, tips and beverages). The experience is not just about a good meal, or even an exquisite one; it is about a transformative encounter in a Zen-like setting with a chef who decides what will be eaten and at what pace. And it is finally about exclusivity: there are only 26 seats. Today, one of the most sought-after status symbols in New York is a Masa reservation.
And that is how the marketplace works, Professor Conley says. For every object of desire, another will soon come along to trump it, fueling aspirations even more.
"Class now is really like three-card monte," he said. "The moment the lower-status aspirant thinks he has located the nut under the shell, it has actually shifted, and he is too late. "

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

15 Years on the Bottom Rung

15 Years on the Bottom Rung

In the dark before dawn, when Madison Avenue was all but deserted and its pricey boutiques were still locked up tight, several Mexicans slipped quietly into 3 Guys, a restaurant that the Zagat guide once called "the most expensive coffee shop in New York."
For the next 10 hours they would fry eggs, grill burgers, pour coffee and wash dishes for a stream of customers from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. By 7:35 a.m., Eliot Spitzer, attorney general of New York, was holding a power breakfast back near the polished granite counter. In the same burgundy booth a few hours later, Michael A. Wiener, co-founder of the multibillion-dollar Infinity Broadcasting, grabbed a bite with his wife, Zena. Just the day before, Uma Thurman slipped in for a quiet lunch with her children, but the paparazzi found her and she left.
More Mexicans filed in to begin their shifts throughout the morning, and by the time John Zannikos, one of the restaurant's three Greek owners, drove in from the North Jersey suburbs to work the lunch crowd, Madison Avenue was buzzing. So was 3 Guys.
"You got to wait a little bit," Mr. Zannikos said to a pride of elegant women who had spent the morning at the Whitney Museum of American Art, across Madison Avenue at 75th Street. For an illiterate immigrant who came to New York years ago with nothing but $100 in his pocket and a willingness to work etched on his heart, could any words have been sweeter to say?
With its wealthy clientele, middle-class owners and low-income work force, 3 Guys is a template of the class divisions in America. But it is also the setting for two starkly different tales about breaching those divides.
The familiar story is Mr. Zannikos's. For him, the restaurant - don't dare call it a diner - with its $20 salads and elegant décor represents the American promise of upward mobility, one that has been fulfilled countless times for generations of hard-working immigrants.
But for Juan Manuel Peralta, a 34-year-old illegal immigrant who worked there for five years until he was fired last May, and for many of the other illegal Mexican immigrants in the back, restaurant work today is more like a dead end. They are finding the American dream of moving up far more elusive than it was for Mr. Zannikos. Despite his efforts to help them, they risk becoming stuck in a permanent underclass of the poor, the unskilled and the uneducated.
That is not to suggest that the nearly five million Mexicans who, like Mr. Peralta, are living in the United States illegally will never emerge from the shadows. Many have, and undoubtedly many more will. But the sheer size of the influx - over 400,000 a year, with no end in sight - creates a problem all its own. It means there is an ever-growing pool of interchangeable workers, many of them shunting from one low-paying job to another. If one moves on, another one - or maybe two or three - is there to take his place.
Although Mr. Peralta arrived in New York almost 40 years after Mr. Zannikos, the two share a remarkably similar beginning. They came at the same age to the same section of New York City, without legal papers or more than a few words of English. Each dreamed of a better life. But monumental changes in the economy and in attitudes toward immigrants have made it far less likely that Mr. Peralta and his children will experience the same upward mobility as Mr. Zannikos and his family.
Of course, there is a chance that Mr. Peralta may yet take his place among the Mexican-Americans who have succeeded here. He realizes that he will probably not do as well as the few who have risen to high office or who were able to buy the vineyards where their grandfathers once picked grapes. But he still dreams that his children will someday join the millions who have lost their accents, gotten good educations and firmly achieved the American dream.
Political scientists are divided over whether the 25 million people of Mexican ancestry in the United States represent an exception to the classic immigrant success story. Some, like John H. Mollenkopf at the City University of New York, are convinced that Mexicans will eventually do as well as the Greeks, Italians and other Europeans of the last century who were usually well assimilated after two or three generations. Others, including Mexican-Americans like Rodolfo O. de la Garza, a professor at Columbia, have done studies showing that Mexican-Americans face so many obstacles that even the fourth generation trails other Americans in education, home ownership and household income.
The situation is even worse for the millions more who have illegally entered the United States since 1990. Spread out in scores of cities far beyond the Southwest, they find jobs plentiful but advancement difficult. President Vicente Fox of Mexico was forced to apologize this month for declaring publicly what many Mexicans say they feel, that the illegal immigrants "are doing the work that not even blacks want to do in the United States." Resentment and race subtly stand in their way, as does a lingering attachment to Mexico, which is so close that many immigrants do not put down deep roots here. They say they plan to stay only long enough to make some money and then go back home. Few ever do.
But the biggest obstacle is their illegal status. With few routes open to become legal, they remain, like Mr. Peralta, without rights, without security and without a clear path to a better future.
"It's worrisome," said Richard Alba, a sociologist at the State University of New York, Albany, who studies the assimilation and class mobility of contemporary immigrants, "and I don't see much reason to believe this will change."
Little has changed for Mr. Peralta, a cook who has worked at menial jobs in the United States for the last 15 years. Though he makes more than he ever dreamed of in Mexico, his life is anything but middle class and setbacks are routine. Still, he has not given up hope. Querer es poder, he sometimes says: Want something badly enough and you will get it.
But desire may not be enough anymore. That is what concerns Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's consul general in New York. Mr. Sarukhan recently took an urgent call from New York's police commissioner about an increase in gang activity among young Mexican men, a sign that they were moving into the underside of American life. Of all immigrants in New York City, officials say, Mexicans are the poorest, least educated and least likely to speak English.
The failure or success of this generation of Mexicans in the United States will determine the place that Mexicans will hold here in years to come, Mr. Sarukhan said, and the outlook is not encouraging.
"They will be better off than they could ever have been in Mexico," he said, "but I don't think that's going to be enough to prevent them from becoming an underclass in New York."
Different Results
There is a break in the middle of the day at 3 Guys, after the lunchtime limousines leave and before the private schools let out. That was when Mr. Zannikos asked the Mexican cook who replaced Mr. Peralta to prepare some lunch for him. Then Mr. Zannikos carried the chicken breast on pita to the last table in the restaurant.
"My life story is a good story, a lot of success," he said, his accent still heavy. He was just a teenager when he left the Greek island of Chios, a few miles off the coast of Turkey. World War II had just ended, and Greece was in ruins. "There was only rich and poor, that's it," Mr. Zannikos said. "There was no middle class like you have here." He is 70 now, with short gray hair and soft eyes that can water at a mention of the past.
Because of the war, he said, he never got past the second grade, never learned to read or write. He signed on as a merchant seaman, and in 1953, when he was 19, his ship docked at Norfolk, Va. He went ashore one Saturday with no intention of ever returning to Greece. He left behind everything, including his travel documents. All he had in his pockets was $100 and the address of his mother's cousin in the Jackson Heights-Corona section of Queens.
Almost four decades later, Mr. Peralta underwent a similar rite of passage out of Mexico. He had finished the eighth grade in the poor southern state of Guerrero and saw nothing in his future there but fixing flat tires. His father, Inocencio, had once dreamed of going to the United States, but never had the money. In 1990, he borrowed enough to give his first-born son a chance.
Mr. Peralta was 19 when he boarded a smoky bus that carried him through the deserted hills of Guerrero and kept going until it reached the edge of Mexico. With eight other Mexicans he did not know, he crawled through a sewer tunnel that started in Tijuana and ended on the other side of the border, in what Mexicans call el Norte.
He had carried no documents, no photographs and no money, except what his father gave him to pay his shifty guide and to buy an airline ticket to New York. Deep in a pocket was the address of an uncle in the same section of Queens where Mr. Zannikos had gotten his start. By 1990, the area had gone from largely Greek to mostly Latino.
Starting over in the same working-class neighborhood, Mr. Peralta and Mr. Zannikos quickly learned that New York was full of opportunities and obstacles, often in equal measure.
On his first day there, Mr. Zannikos, scared and feeling lost, found the building he was looking for, but his mother's cousin had moved. He had no idea what to do until a Greek man passed by. Walk five blocks to the Deluxe Diner, the man said. He did.
The diner was full of Greek housepainters, including one who knew Mr. Zannikos's father. On the spot, they offered him a job painting closets, where his mistakes would be hidden. He painted until the weather turned cold. Another Greek hired him as a dishwasher at his coffee shop in the Bronx.
It was not easy, but Mr. Zannikos worked his way up to short-order cook, learning English as he went along. In 1956, immigration officials raided the coffee shop. He was deported, but after a short while he managed to sneak back into the country. Three years later he married a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. The marriage lasted only a year, but it put him on the road to becoming a citizen. Now he could buy his own restaurant, a greasy spoon in the South Bronx that catered to a late-night clientele of prostitutes and undercover police officers.
Since then, he has bought and sold more than a dozen New York diners, but none have been more successful than the original 3 Guys, which opened in 1978. He and his partners own two other restaurants with the same name farther up Madison Avenue, but they have never replicated the high-end appeal of the original.
"When employees come in I teach them, 'Hey, this is a different neighborhood,' " Mr. Zannikos said. What may be standard in some other diners is not tolerated here. There are no Greek flags or tourism posters. There is no television or twirling tower of cakes with cream pompadours. Waiters are forbidden to chew gum. No customer is ever called "Honey."
"They know their place and I know my place," Mr. Zannikos said of his customers. "It's as simple as that."
His place in society now is a far cry from his days in the Bronx. He and his second wife, June, live in Wyckoff, a New Jersey suburb where he pampers fig trees and dutifully looks after a bird feeder shaped like the Parthenon. They own a condominium in Florida. His three children all went far beyond his second-grade education, finishing high school or attending college.
They have all done well, as has Mr. Zannikos, who says he makes about $130,000 a year. He says he is not sensitive to class distinctions, but he admits he was bothered when some people mistook him for the caterer at fund-raising dinners for the local Greek church he helped build.
All in all, he thinks immigrants today have a better chance of moving up the class ladder than he did 50 years ago.
"At that time, no bank would give us any money, but today they give you credit cards in the mail," he said. "New York still gives you more opportunity that any other place. If you want to do things, you will."
He says he has done well, and he is content with his station in life. "I'm in the middle and I'm happy."
A Divisive Issue
Mr. Peralta cannot guess what class Mr. Zannikos belongs to. But he is certain that it is much tougher for an immigrant to get ahead today than 50 years ago. And he has no doubt about his own class.
"La pobreza," he says. "Poverty."
It was not what he expected when he boarded the bus to the border, but it did not take long for him to realize that success in the United States required more than hard work. "A lot of it has to do with luck," he said during a lunch break on a stoop around the corner from the Queens diner where he went to work after 3 Guys.
"People come here, and in no more than a year or two they can buy their own house and have a car," Mr. Peralta said. "Me, I've been here 15 years, and if I die tomorrow, there wouldn't even be enough money to bury me."
In 1990, Mr. Peralta was in the vanguard of Mexican immigrants who bypassed the traditional barrios in border states to work in far-flung cities like Denver and New York. The 2000 census counted 186,872 Mexicans in New York, triple the 1990 figure, and there are undoubtedly many more today. The Mexican consulate, which serves the metropolitan region, has issued more than 500,000 ID cards just since 2001.
Fifty years ago, illegal immigration was a minor problem. Now it is a divisive national issue, pitting those who welcome cheap labor against those with concerns about border security and the cost of providing social services. Though newly arrived Mexicans often work in industries that rely on cheap labor, like restaurants and construction, they rarely organize. Most are desperate to stay out of sight.
Mr. Peralta hooked up with his uncle the morning he arrived in New York. He did not work for weeks until the bakery where the uncle worked had an opening, a part-time job making muffins. He took it, though he didn't know muffins from crumb cake. When he saw that he would not make enough to repay his father, he took a second job making night deliveries for a Manhattan diner. By the end of his first day he was so lost he had to spend all his tip money on a cab ride home.
He quit the diner, but working there even briefly opened his eyes to how easy it could be to make money in New York. Diners were everywhere, and so were jobs making deliveries, washing dishes or busing tables. In six months, Mr. Peralta had paid back the money his father gave him. He bounced from job to job and in 1995, eager to show off his newfound success, he went back to Mexico with his pockets full of money, and he married. He was 25 then, the same age at which Mr. Zannikos married. But the similarities end there.
When Mr. Zannikos jumped ship, he left Greece behind for good. Though he himself had no documents, the compatriots he encountered on his first days were here legally, like most other Greek immigrants, and could help him. Greeks had never come to the United States in large numbers - the 2000 census counted only 29,805 New Yorkers born in Greece - but they tended to settle in just a few areas, like the Astoria section of Queens, which became cohesive communities ready to help new arrivals.
Mr. Peralta, like many other Mexicans, is trying to make it on his own and has never severed his emotional or financial ties to home. After five years in New York's Latino community, he spoke little English and owned little more than the clothes on his back. He decided to return to Huamuxtitlán (pronounced wa-moosh-teet-LAHN), the dusty village beneath a flat-topped mountain where he was born.
"People thought that since I was coming back from el Norte, I would be so rich that I could spread money around," he said. Still, he felt privileged: his New York wages dwarfed the $1,000 a year he might have made in Mexico.
He met a shy, pretty girl named Matilde in Huamuxtitlán, married her and returned with her to New York, again illegally, all in a matter of weeks. Their first child was born in 1996. Mr. Peralta soon found that supporting a family made it harder to save money. Then, in 1999, he got the job at 3 Guys.
"Barba Yanni helped me learn how to prepare things the way customers like them," Mr. Peralta said, referring to Mr. Zannikos with a Greek title of respect that means Uncle John.
The restaurant became his school. He learned how to sauté a fish so that it looked like a work of art. The three partners lent him money and said they would help him get immigration documents. The pay was good.
But there were tensions with the other workers. Instead of hanging their orders on a rack, the waiters shouted them out, in Greek, Spanish and a kind of fractured English. Sometimes Mr. Peralta did not understand, and they argued. Soon he was known as a hothead.
Still, he worked hard, and every night he returned to his growing family. Matilde, now 27, cleaned houses until the second child, Heidi, was born three years ago. Now she tries to sell Mary Kay products to other mothers at Public School 12, which their son, Antony, 8, attends.
Most weeks, Mr. Peralta could make as much as $600. Over the course of a year that could come to over $30,000, enough to approach the lower middle class. But the life he leads is far from that and uncertainty hovers over everything about his life, starting with his paycheck.
To earn $600, he has to work at least 10 hours a day, six days a week, and that does not happen every week. Sometimes he is paid overtime for the extra hours, sometimes not. And, as he found out in May, he can be fired at any time and bring in nothing, not even unemployment, until he lands another job. In 2004, he made about $24,000.
Because he is here illegally, Mr. Peralta can easily be exploited. He cannot file a complaint against his landlord for charging him $500 a month for a 9-foot-by-9-foot room in a Queens apartment that he shares with nine other Mexicans in three families who pay the remainder of the $2,000-a-month rent. All 13 share one bathroom, and the established pecking order means the Peraltas rarely get to use the kitchen. Eating out can be expensive.
Because they were born in New York, Mr. Peralta's children are United States citizens, and their health care is generally covered by Medicaid. But he has to pay out of his pocket whenever he or his wife sees a doctor. And forget about going to the dentist.
As many other Mexicans do, he wires money home, and it costs him $7 for every $100 he sends. When his uncle, his nephew and his sister asked him for money, he was expected to lend it. No one has paid him back. He has middle-class ornaments, like a cellphone and a DVD player, but no driver's license or Social Security card.
He is the first to admit that he has vices that have held him back; nothing criminal, but he tends to lose his temper and there are nights when he likes to have a drink or two. His greatest weakness is instant lottery tickets, what he calls "los scratch," and he sheepishly confesses that he can squander as much as $75 a week on them. It is a way of preserving hope, he said. Once he won $100. He bought a blender.
Years ago, he and Matilde were so confident they would make it in America that when their son was born they used the American spelling of his name, Anthony, figuring it would help pave his passage into the mainstream. But even that effort failed.
"Look at this," his wife said one afternoon as she sat on the floor of their room near a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Mr. Peralta sat on a small plastic stool in the doorway, listening. His mattress was stacked against the wall. A roll of toilet paper was stashed nearby because they dared not leave it in the shared bathroom for someone else to use.
She took her pocketbook and pulled out a clear plastic case holding her son's baptismal certificate, on which his name is spelled with an "H." But then she unfolded his birth certificate, where the "H" is missing.
"The teachers won't teach him to spell his name the right way until the certificate is legally changed," she said. "But how can we do that if we're not legal?"
Progress, but Not Success
An elevated subway train thundered overhead, making the afternoon light along Roosevelt Avenue blink like a failing fluorescent bulb. Mr. Peralta's daughter and son grabbed his fat hands as they ran some errands. He had just finished a 10-hour shift, eggs over easy and cheeseburgers since 5 a.m. It had been especially hard to stand the monotony that day. He kept thinking about what was going on in Mexico, where it was the feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary. And, oh, what a feast there was - sweets and handmade tamales, a parade, even a bullfight. At night, fireworks, bursting loud and bright against the green folds of the mountains. Paid for, in part, by the money he sends home.
But instead of partying, he was walking his children to the Arab supermarket on Roosevelt Avenue to buy packages of chicken and spare ribs, and hoping to get to use the kitchen. And though he knew better, he grabbed a package of pink and white marshmallows for the children. He needed to buy tortillas, too, but not there. A Korean convenience store a few blocks away sells La Maizteca tortillas, made in New York.
The swirl of immigrants in Mr. Peralta's neighborhood is part of the fabric of New York, just as it was in 1953, when Mr. Zannikos arrived. But most immigrants then were Europeans, and though they spoke different languages, their Caucasian features helped them blend into New York's middle class.
Experts remain divided over whether Mexicans can follow the same route. Samuel P. Huntington, a Harvard professor of government, takes the extreme view that Mexicans will not assimilate and that the separate culture they are developing threatens the United States.
Most others believe that recent Mexican immigrants will eventually take their place in society, and perhaps someday muster political clout commensurate with their numbers, though significant impediments are slowing their progress. Francisco Rivera-Batiz, a Columbia University economics professor, says that prejudice remains a problem, that factory jobs have all but disappeared, and that there is a growing gap between the educational demands of the economy and the limited schooling that the newest Mexicans have when they arrive.
But the biggest obstacle by far, and the one that separates newly arrived Mexicans from Greeks, Italians and most other immigrants - including earlier generations of Mexicans - is their illegal status. Professor Rivera-Batiz studied what happened to illegal Mexican immigrants who became legal after the last national amnesty in 1986. Within a few years, their incomes rose 20 percent and their English improved greatly.
"Legalization," he said, "helped them tremendously."
Although the Bush administration is again talking about legalizing some Mexicans with a guest worker program, there is opposition to another amnesty, and the number of Mexicans illegally living in the United States continues to soar. Desperate to get their papers any way they can, many turn to shady storefront legal offices. Like Mr. Peralta, they sign on to illusory schemes that cost hundreds of dollars but almost never produce the promised green cards.
Until the 1980's, Mexican immigration was largely seasonal and mostly limited to agricultural workers. But then economic chaos in Mexico sent a flood of immigrants northward, many of them poorly educated farmers from the impoverished countryside. Tighter security on the border made it harder for Mexicans to move back and forth in the traditional way, so they tended to stay here, searching for low-paying unskilled jobs and concentrating in barrios where Spanish, constantly replenished, never loses its immediacy.
"Cuidado!" Mr. Peralta shouted when Antony carelessly stepped into Roosevelt Avenue without looking. Although the boy is taught in English at school, he rarely uses anything but Spanish at home.
Even now, after 15 years in New York, Mr. Peralta speaks little English. He tried English classes once, but could not get his mind to accept the new sounds. So he dropped it, and has stuck with only Spanish, which he concedes is "the language of busboys" in New York. But as long as he stays in his neighborhood, it is all he needs.
It was late afternoon by the time Mr. Peralta and his children headed home. The run-down house, the overheated room, the stacked mattress and the hoarded toilet paper - all remind him how far he would have to go to achieve a success like Mr. Zannikos's.
Still, he says, he has done far better than he could ever have done in Mexico. He realizes that the money he sends to his family there is not enough to satisfy his father, who built stairs for a second floor of his house made of concrete blocks in Huamuxtitlán, even though there is no second floor. He believes Manuel has made it big in New York and he is waiting for money from America to complete the upstairs.
Manuel has never told him the truth about his life up north. He said his father's images of America came from another era. The older man does not know how tough it is to be a Mexican immigrant in the United States now, tougher than any young man who ever left Huamuxtitlán would admit. Everything built up over 15 years here can come apart as easily as an adobe house in an earthquake. And then it is time to start over, again.
A Conflict Erupts
It was the end of another busy lunch at 3 Guys in late spring 2003. Mr. Peralta made himself a turkey sandwich and took a seat at a rear table. The Mexican countermen, dishwashers and busboys also started their breaks, while the Greek waiters took care of the last few diners.
It is not clear how the argument started. But a cross word passed between a Greek waiter and a Mexican busboy. Voices were raised. The waiter swung at the busboy, catching him behind the ear. Mr. Peralta froze. So did the other Mexicans.
Even from the front of the restaurant, where he was watching the cash register, Mr. Zannikos realized something was wrong and rushed back to break it up. "I stood between them, held one and pushed the other away," he said. "I told them: 'You don't do that here. Never do that here.' "
Mr. Zannikos said he did not care who started it. He ordered both the busboy and the waiter, a partner's nephew, to get out.
But several Mexicans, including Mr. Peralta, said that they saw Mr. Zannikos grab the busboy by the head and that they believed he would have hit him if another Mexican had not stepped between them. That infuriated them because they felt he had sided with the Greek without knowing who was at fault.
Mr. Zannikos said that was not true, but in the end it did not matter. The easygoing atmosphere at the restaurant changed. "Everybody was a little cool," Mr. Zannikos recalled.
What he did not know then was that the Mexicans had reached out to the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a workers' rights group. Eventually six of them, including Mr. Peralta, cooperated with the group. He did so reluctantly, he said, because he was afraid that if the owners found out, they would no longer help him get his immigration papers. The labor group promised that the owners would never know.
The owners saw it as an effort to shake them down, but for the Mexicans it became a class struggle pitting powerless workers against hard-hearted owners.
Their grievances went beyond the scuffle. They complained that with just one exception, only Greeks became waiters at 3 Guys. They challenged the sole Mexican waiter, Salomon Paniagua, a former Mexican army officer who, everyone agreed, looked Greek, to stand with them.
But on the day the labor group picketed the restaurant, Mr. Paniagua refused to put down his order pad. A handful of demonstrators carried signs on Madison Avenue for a short while before Mr. Zannikos and his partners reluctantly agreed to settle.
Mr. Zannikos said he felt betrayed. "When I see these guys, I see myself when I started, and I always try to help them," he said. "I didn't do anything wrong."
The busboy and the Mexican who intervened were paid several thousand dollars and the owners promised to promote a current Mexican employee to waiter within a month. But that did not end the turmoil.
Fearing that the other Mexicans might try to get back at him, Mr. Paniagua decided to strike out on his own. After asking Mr. Zannikos for advice, he bought a one-third share of a Greek diner in Jamaica, Queens. He said he put it in his father's name because the older man had become a legal resident after the 1986 amnesty.
After Mr. Paniagua left, 3 Guys went without a single Mexican waiter for 10 months, despite the terms of the settlement. In March, an eager Mexican busboy with a heavy accent who had worked there for four years got a chance to wear a waiter's tie.
Mr. Peralta ended up having to leave 3 Guys around the same time as Mr. Paniagua. Mr. Zannikos's partners suspected he had sided with the labor group, he said, and started to criticize his work unfairly. Then they cut back his schedule to five days a week. After he hurt his ankle playing soccer, they told him to go home until he was better. When Mr. Peralta came back to work about two weeks later, he was fired.
Mr. Zannikos confirms part of the account but says the firing had nothing to do with the scuffle or the ensuing dispute. "If he was good, believe me, he wouldn't get fired," he said of Mr. Peralta.
Mr. Peralta shrugged when told what Mr. Zannikos said. "I know my own work and I know what I can do," he said. "There are a lot of restaurants in New York, and a lot of workers."
When 3 Guys fired Mr. Peralta, another Mexican replaced him, just as Mr. Peralta replaced a Mexican at the Greek diner in Queens where he went to work next.
This time, though, there was no Madison Avenue address, no elaborate menu of New Zealand mussels or designer mushrooms. In the Queens diner a bowl of soup with a buttered roll cost $2, all day. If he fried burgers and scraped fat off the big grill for 10 hours a day, six days a week, he might earn about as much as he did on Madison Avenue, at least for a week.
His schedule kept changing. Sometimes he worked the lunch and dinner shift, and by the end of the night he was worn out, especially since he often found himself arguing with the Greek owner. But he did not look forward to going home. So after the night manager lowered the security gate, Mr. Peralta would wander the streets.
One of those nights he stopped at a phone center off Roosevelt Avenue to call his mother. "Everything's O.K.," he told her. He asked how she had spent the last $100 he sent, and whether she needed anything else. There is always need in Huamuxtitlán.
Still restless, he went to the Scorpion, a shot-and-beer joint open till 4 a.m. He sat at the long bar nursing vodkas with cranberry juice, glancing at the soccer match on TV and the busty Brazilian bartender who spoke only a little Spanish. When it was nearly 11 p.m., he called it a night.
Back home, he quietly opened the door to his room. The lights were off, the television murmuring. His family was asleep in the bunk bed that the store had now threatened to repossess. Antony was curled up on the top, Matilde and Heidi cuddled in the bottom. Mr. Peralta moved the plastic stool out of the way and dropped his mattress to the floor.
The children did not stir. His wife's eyes fluttered, but she said nothing. Mr. Peralta looked over his family, his home.
"This," he said, "is my life in New York."
Not the life he imagined, but his life. In early March, just after Heidi's third birthday, he quit his job at the Queens diner after yet another heated argument with the owner. In his mind, preserving his dignity is one of the few liberties he has left.
"I'll get another job," he said while baby-sitting Heidi at home a few days later. The rent is already paid till the end of the month and he has friends, he said. People know him. To him, jobs are interchangeable - just as he is to the jobs. If he cannot find work as a grillman, he will bus tables. Or wash dishes. If not at one diner, then at another.
"It's all the same," he said.
It took about three weeks, but Mr. Peralta did find a new job as a grillman at another Greek diner in a different part of New York. His salary is roughly the same, the menu is roughly the same (one new item, Greek burritos, was a natural), and he sees his chance for a better future as being roughly the same as it has been since he got to America.
A Long Day Closes
It was now dark again outside 3 Guys. About 9 p.m. Mr. Zannikos asked his Mexican cook for a small salmon steak, a little rare. It had been another busy 10-hour day for him, but a good one. Receipts from the morning alone exceeded what he needed to take in every day just to cover the $23,000 a month rent.
He finished the salmon quickly, left final instructions with the lone Greek waiter still on duty and said good night to everyone else. He put on his light tan corduroy jacket and the baseball cap he picked up in Florida.
"Night," he said to the lone table of diners.
Outside, as Mr. Zannikos walked slowly down Madison Avenue, a self-made man comfortable with his own hard-won success, the bulkhead doors in front of 3 Guys clanked open. Faint voices speaking Spanish came from below. A young Mexican who started his shift 10 hours earlier climbed out with a bag of garbage and heaved it onto the sidewalk. New Zealand mussel shells. Uneaten bits of portobello mushrooms. The fine grounds of decaf cappuccino.
One black plastic bag after another came out until Madison Avenue in front of 3 Guys was piled high with trash.
"Hurry up!" the young man shouted to the other Mexicans. "I want to go home, too."

Monday, May 23, 2005

No Degree, and No Way Back to the Middle

No Degree, and No Way Back to the Middle


SPOKANE, Wash. - Over the course of his adult life, Jeff Martinelli has married three women and buried one of them, a cancer victim. He had a son and has watched him raise a child of his own. Through it all, one thing was constant: a factory job that was his ticket to the middle class.

It was not until that job disappeared, and he tried to find something - anything - to keep him close to the security of his former life that Mr. Martinelli came to an abrupt realization about the fate of a working man with no college degree in 21st-century America.

He has skills developed operating heavy machinery, laboring over a stew of molten bauxite at Kaiser Aluminum, once one of the best jobs in this city of 200,000. His health is fine. He has no shortage of ambition. But the world has changed for people like Mr. Martinelli.

"For a guy like me, with no college, it's become pretty bleak out there," said Mr. Martinelli, who is 50 and deals with life's curves with a resigned shrug.

His son, Caleb, already knows what it is like out there. Since high school, Caleb has had six jobs, none very promising. Now 28, he may never reach the middle class, he said. But for his father and others of a generation that could count on a comfortable life without a degree, the fall out of the middle class has come as a shock. They had been frozen in another age, a time when Kaiser factory workers could buy new cars, take decent vacations and enjoy full health care benefits.

They have seen factory gates close and not reopen. They have taken retraining classes for jobs that pay half their old wages. And as they hustle around for work, they have been constantly reminded of the one thing that stands out on their résumés: the education that ended with a high school diploma.

It is not just that the American economy has shed six million manufacturing jobs over the last three decades; it is that the market value of those put out of work, people like Jeff Martinelli, has declined considerably over their lifetimes, opening a gap that has left millions of blue-collar workers at the margins of the middle class.

And the changes go beyond the factory floor. Mark McClellan worked his way up from the Kaiser furnaces to management. He did it by taking extra shifts and learning everything he could about the aluminum business.

Still, in 2001, when Kaiser closed, Mr. McClellan discovered that the job market did not value his factory skills nearly as much as it did four years of college. He had the experience, built over a lifetime, but no degree. And for that, he said, he was marked.

He still lives in a grand house in one of the nicest parts of town, and he drives a big white Jeep. But they are a facade.

"I may look middle class," said Mr. McClellan, who is 45, with a square, honest face and a barrel chest. "But I'm not. My boat is sinking fast."

By the time these two Kaiser men were forced out of work, a man in his 50's with a college degree could expect to earn 81 percent more than a man of the same age with just a high school diploma. When they had started work, the gap was only 52 percent. Other studies show different numbers, but the same trend - a big disparity that opened over their lifetimes.

Mr. Martinelli refuses to feel sorry for himself. He has a job in pest control now, killing ants and spiders at people's homes, making barely half the money he made at the Kaiser smelter, where a worker with his experience would make about $60,000 a year in wages and benefits.

"At least I have a job," he said. "Some of the guys I worked with have still not found anything. A couple of guys lost their houses."

Mr. Martinelli and other former factory workers say that, over time, they have come to fear that the fall out of the middle class could be permanent. Their new lives - the frustrating job interviews, the bills that arrive with red warning letters on the outside - are consequences of a decision made at age 18.

The management veteran, Mr. McClellan, was a doctor's son, just out of high school, when he decided he did not need to go much farther than the big factory at the edge of town. He thought about going to college. But when he got on at Kaiser, he felt he had arrived.

His father, a general practitioner now dead, gave him his blessing, even encouraged him in the choice, Mr. McClellan said.

At the time, the decision to skip college was not that unusual, even for a child of the middle class. Despite Mr. McClellan's lack of skills or education beyond the 12th grade, there was good reason to believe that the aluminum factory could get him into middle-class security quicker than a bachelor's degree could, he said.

By 22, he was a group foreman. By 28, a supervisor. By 32, he was in management. Before his 40th birthday, Mr. McClellan hit his earnings peak, making $100,000 with bonuses.

Friends of his, people with college degrees, were not earning close to that, Mr. McClellan said.

"I had a house with a swimming pool, new cars," he said. "My wife never had to work. I was right in the middle of middle-class America and I knew it and I loved it."

If anything, the union man, Mr. Martinelli, appreciated the middle-class life even more, because of the distance he had traveled to get there. He remembers his stomach growling at night as a child, the humiliation of welfare, hauling groceries home through the snow on a little cart because the family had no car.

"I was ashamed," he said.

He was a C student without much of a future, just out of high school, when he got his break: the job on the Kaiser factory floor. Inside, it was long shifts around hot furnaces. Outside, he was a prince of Spokane.

College students worked inside the factory in the summer, and some never went back to school.

"You knew people leaving here for college would sometimes get better jobs, but you had a good job, so it was fine," said Mike Lacy, a close friend of Mr. Martinelli and a co-worker at Kaiser.

The job lasted just short of 30 years. Kaiser, debt-ridden after a series of failed management initiatives and a long strike, closed the plant in 2001 and sold the factory carcass for salvage.

Mr. McClellan has yet to find work, living off his dwindling savings and investments from his years at Kaiser, though he continues with plans to open his own car wash. He pays $900 a month for a basic health insurance policy - vital to keep his wife, Vicky, who has a rare brain disease, alive. He pays an additional $500 a month for her medications. He is both husband and nurse.

"Am I scared just a little bit?" he said. "Yeah, I am."

He has vowed that his son David will never do the kind of second-guessing that he is. Even at 16, David knows what he wants to do: go to college and study medicine. He said his father, whom he has seen struggle to balance the tasks of home nurse with trying to pay the bills, had grown heroic in his eyes.

He said he would not make the same choice his father did 27 years earlier. "There's nothing like the Kaiser plant around here anymore," he said.

Mr. McClellan agrees. He is firm in one conclusion, having risen from the factory floor only to be knocked down: "There is no working up anymore."

The College Dropout Boom

The College Dropout Boom


CHILHOWIE, Va. - One of the biggest decisions Andy Blevins has ever made, and one of the few he now regrets, never seemed like much of a decision at all. It just felt like the natural thing to do.

In the summer of 1995, he was moving boxes of soup cans, paper towels and dog food across the floor of a supermarket warehouse, one of the biggest buildings here in southwest Virginia. The heat was brutal. The job had sounded impossible when he arrived fresh off his first year of college, looking to make some summer money, still a skinny teenager with sandy blond hair and a narrow, freckled face.

But hard work done well was something he understood, even if he was the first college boy in his family. Soon he was making bonuses on top of his $6.75 an hour, more money than either of his parents made. His girlfriend was around, and so were his hometown buddies. Andy acted more outgoing with them, more relaxed. People in Chilhowie noticed that.

It was just about the perfect summer. So the thought crossed his mind: maybe it did not have to end. Maybe he would take a break from college and keep working. He had been getting C's and D's, and college never felt like home, anyway.

"I enjoyed working hard, getting the job done, getting a paycheck," Mr. Blevins recalled. "I just knew I didn't want to quit."

So he quit college instead, and with that, Andy Blevins joined one of the largest and fastest-growing groups of young adults in America. He became a college dropout, though nongraduate may be the more precise term.

Many people like him plan to return to get their degrees, even if few actually do. Almost one in three Americans in their mid-20's now fall into this group, up from one in five in the late 1960's, when the Census Bureau began keeping such data. Most come from poor and working-class families.

The phenomenon has been largely overlooked in the glare of positive news about the country's gains in education. Going to college has become the norm throughout most of the United States, even in many places where college was once considered an exotic destination - places like Chilhowie (pronounced chill-HOW-ee), an Appalachian hamlet with a simple brick downtown. At elite universities, classrooms are filled with women, blacks, Jews and Latinos, groups largely excluded two generations ago. The American system of higher learning seems to have become a great equalizer.

In fact, though, colleges have come to reinforce many of the advantages of birth. On campuses that enroll poorer students, graduation rates are often low. And at institutions where nearly everyone graduates - small colleges like Colgate, major state institutions like the University of Colorado and elite private universities like Stanford - more students today come from the top of the nation's income ladder than they did two decades ago.

Only 41 percent of low-income students entering a four-year college managed to graduate within five years, the Department of Education found in a study last year, but 66 percent of high-income students did. That gap had grown over recent years. "We need to recognize that the most serious domestic problem in the United States today is the widening gap between the children of the rich and the children of the poor," Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard, said last year when announcing that Harvard would give full scholarships to all its lowest-income students. "And education is the most powerful weapon we have to address that problem."

There is certainly much to celebrate about higher education today. Many more students from all classes are getting four-year degrees and reaping their benefits. But those broad gains mask the fact that poor and working-class students have nevertheless been falling behind; for them, not having a degree remains the norm.

That loss of ground is all the more significant because a college education matters much more now than it once did. A bachelor's degree, not a year or two of courses, tends to determine a person's place in today's globalized, computerized economy. College graduates have received steady pay increases over the past two decades, while the pay of everyone else has risen little more than the rate of inflation.

As a result, despite one of the great education explosions in modern history, economic mobility - moving from one income group to another over the course of a lifetime - has stopped rising, researchers say. Some recent studies suggest that it has declined over the last generation. [Click here for more information on income mobility.]

Put another way, children seem to be following the paths of their parents more than they once did. Grades and test scores, rather than privilege, determine success today, but that success is largely being passed down from one generation to the next. A nation that believes that everyone should have a fair shake finds itself with a kind of inherited meritocracy.

In this system, the students at the best colleges may be diverse - male and female and of various colors, religions and hometowns - but they tend to share an upper-middle-class upbringing. An old joke that Harvard's idea of diversity is putting a rich kid from California in the same room as a rich kid from New York is truer today than ever; Harvard has more students from California than it did in years past and just as big a share of upper-income students.

Students like these remain in college because they can hardly imagine doing otherwise. Their parents, understanding the importance of a bachelor's degree, spent hours reading to them, researching school districts and making it clear to them that they simply must graduate from college.

Andy Blevins says that he too knows the importance of a degree, but that he did not while growing up, and not even in his year at Radford University, 66 miles up the Interstate from Chilhowie. Ten years after trading college for the warehouse, Mr. Blevins, 29, spends his days at the same supermarket company. He has worked his way up to produce buyer, earning $35,000 a year with health benefits and a 401(k) plan. He is on a path typical for someone who attended college without getting a four-year degree. Men in their early 40's in this category made an average of $42,000 in 2000. Those with a four-year degree made $65,000.

Still boyish-looking but no longer rail thin, Mr. Blevins says he has many reasons to be happy. He lives with his wife, Karla, and their year-old son, Lucas, in a small blue-and-yellow house at the end of a cul-de-sac in the middle of a stunningly picturesque Appalachian valley. He plays golf with some of the same friends who made him want to stay around Chilhowie.

But he does think about what might have been, about what he could be doing if he had the degree. As it is, he always feels as if he is on thin ice. Were he to lose his job, he says, everything could slip away with it. What kind of job could a guy without a college degree get? One night, while talking to his wife about his life, he used the word "trapped."

"Looking back, I wish I had gotten that degree," Mr. Blevins said in his soft-spoken lilt. "Four years seemed like a thousand years then. But I wish I would have just put in my four years."

The Barriers

Why so many low-income students fall from the college ranks is a question without a simple answer. Many high schools do a poor job of preparing teenagers for college. Many of the colleges where lower-income students tend to enroll have limited resources and offer a narrow range of majors, leaving some students disenchanted and unwilling to continue.

Then there is the cost. Tuition bills scare some students from even applying and leave others with years of debt. To Mr. Blevins, like many other students of limited means, every week of going to classes seemed like another week of losing money - money that might have been made at a job.

"The system makes a false promise to students," said John T. Casteen III, the president of the University of Virginia, himself the son of a Virginia shipyard worker.

Colleges, Mr. Casteen said, present themselves as meritocracies in which academic ability and hard work are always rewarded. In fact, he said, many working-class students face obstacles they cannot overcome on their own.

For much of his 15 years as Virginia's president, Mr. Casteen has focused on raising money and expanding the university, the most prestigious in the state. In the meantime, students with backgrounds like his have become ever scarcer on campus. The university's genteel nickname, the Cavaliers, and its aristocratic sword-crossed coat of arms seem appropriate today. No flagship state university has a smaller proportion of low-income students than Virginia. Just 8 percent of undergraduates last year came from families in the bottom half of the income distribution, down from 11 percent a decade ago.

That change sneaked up on him, Mr. Casteen said, and he has spent a good part of the last year trying to prevent it from becoming part of his legacy. Starting with next fall's freshman class, the university will charge no tuition and require no loans for students whose parents make less than twice the poverty level, or about $37,700 a year for a family of four. The university has also increased financial aid to middle-income students.

To Mr. Casteen, these are steps to remove what he describes as "artificial barriers" to a college education placed in the way of otherwise deserving students. Doing so "is a fundamental obligation of a free culture," he said.

But the deterrents to a degree can also be homegrown. Many low-income teenagers know few people who have made it through college. A majority of the nongraduates are young men, and some come from towns where the factory work ethic, to get working as soon as possible, remains strong, even if the factories themselves are vanishing. Whatever the reasons, college just does not feel normal.

"You get there and you start to struggle," said Leanna Blevins, Andy's older sister, who did get a bachelor's degree and then went on to earn a Ph.D at Virginia studying the college experiences of poor students. "And at home your parents are trying to be supportive and say, 'Well, if you're not happy, if it's not right for you, come back home. It's O.K.' And they think they're doing the right thing. But they don't know that maybe what the student needs is to hear them say, 'Stick it out just one semester. You can do it. Just stay there. Come home on the weekend, but stick it out.' "

Today, Ms. Blevins, petite and high-energy, is helping to start a new college a few hours' drive from Chilhowie for low-income students. Her brother said he had daydreamed about attending it and had talked to her about how he might return to college.

For her part, Ms. Blevins says, she has daydreamed about having a life that would seem as natural as her brother's, a life in which she would not feel like an outsider in her hometown. Once, when a high-school teacher asked students to list their goals for the next decade, Ms. Blevins wrote, "having a college degree" and "not being married."

"I think my family probably thinks I'm liberal," Ms. Blevins, who is now married, said with a laugh, "that I've just been educated too much and I'm gettin' above my raisin'."

Her brother said that he just wanted more control over his life, not a new one. At a time when many people complain of scattered lives, Mr. Blevins can stand in one spot - his church parking lot, next to a graveyard - and take in much of his world. "That's my parents' house," he said one day, pointing to a sliver of roof visible over a hill. "That's my uncle's trailer. My grandfather is buried here. I'll probably be buried here."

Taking Class Into Account

Opening up colleges to new kinds of students has generally meant one thing over the last generation: affirmative action. Intended to right the wrongs of years of exclusion, the programs have swelled the number of women, blacks and Latinos on campuses. But affirmative action was never supposed to address broad economic inequities, just the ones that stem from specific kinds of discrimination.

That is now beginning to change. Like Virginia, a handful of other colleges are not only increasing financial aid but also promising to give weight to economic class in granting admissions. They say they want to make an effort to admit more low-income students, just as they now do for minorities and children of alumni.

"The great colleges and universities were designed to provide for mobility, to seek out talent," said Anthony W. Marx, president of Amherst College. "If we are blind to the educational disadvantages associated with need, we will simply replicate these disadvantages while appearing to make decisions based on merit."

With several populous states having already banned race-based preferences and the United States Supreme Court suggesting that it may outlaw such programs in a couple of decades, the future of affirmative action may well revolve around economics. Polls consistently show that programs based on class backgrounds have wider support than those based on race.

The explosion in the number of nongraduates has also begun to get the attention of policy makers. This year, New York became one of a small group of states to tie college financing more closely to graduation rates, rewarding colleges more for moving students along than for simply admitting them. Nowhere is the stratification of education more vivid than here in Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson once tried, and failed, to set up the nation's first public high schools. At a modest high school in the Tidewater city of Portsmouth, not far from Mr. Casteen's boyhood home, a guidance office wall filled with college pennants does not include one from rarefied Virginia. The colleges whose pennants are up - Old Dominion University and others that seem in the realm of the possible - have far lower graduation rates.

Across the country, the upper middle class so dominates elite universities that high-income students, on average, actually get slightly more financial aid from colleges than low-income students do. These elite colleges are so expensive that even many high-income students receive large grants. In the early 1990's, by contrast, poorer students got 50 percent more aid on average than the wealthier ones, according to the College Board, the organization that runs the SAT entrance exams.

At the other end of the spectrum are community colleges, the two-year institutions that are intended to be feeders for four-year colleges. In nearly every one are tales of academic success against tremendous odds: a battered wife or a combat veteran or a laid-off worker on the way to a better life. But over all, community colleges tend to be places where dreams are put on hold.

Most people who enroll say they plan to get a four-year degree eventually; few actually do. Full-time jobs, commutes and children or parents who need care often get in the way. One recent national survey found that about 75 percent of students enrolling in community colleges said they hoped to transfer to a four-year institution. But only 17 percent of those who had entered in the mid-1990's made the switch within five years, according to a separate study. The rest were out working or still studying toward the two-year degree.

"We here in Virginia do a good job of getting them in," said Glenn Dubois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System and himself a community college graduate. "We have to get better in getting them out."

'I Wear a Tie Every Day'

College degree or not, Mr. Blevins has the kind of life that many Americans say they aspire to. He fills it with family, friends, church and a five-handicap golf game. He does not sit in traffic commuting to an office park. He does not talk wistfully of a relocated brother or best friend he sees only twice a year. He does not worry about who will care for his son while he works and his wife attends community college to become a physical therapist. His grandparents down the street watch Lucas, just as they took care of Andy and his two sisters when they were children. When Mr. Blevins comes home from work, it is his turn to play with Lucas, tossing him into the air and rolling around on the floor with him and a stuffed elephant.

Mr. Blevins also sings in a quartet called the Gospel Gentlemen. One member is his brother-in-law; another lives on Mr. Blevins's street. In the long white van the group owns, they wend their way along mountain roads on their way to singing dates at local church functions, sometimes harmonizing, sometimes ribbing one another or talking about where to buy golf equipment.

Inside the churches, the other singers often talk to the audience between songs, about God or a grandmother or what a song means to them. Mr. Blevins rarely does, but his shyness fades once he is back in the van with his friends.

At the warehouse, he is usually the first to arrive, around 6:30 in the morning. The grandson of a coal miner, he takes pride, he says, in having moved up to become a supermarket buyer. He decides which bananas, grapes, onions and potatoes the company will sell and makes sure that there are always enough. Most people with his job have graduated from college.

"I'm pretty fortunate to not have a degree but have a job where I wear a tie every day," he said.

He worries about how long it will last, though, mindful of what happened to his father, Dwight, a decade ago. A high school graduate, Dwight Blevins was laid off from his own warehouse job and ended up with another one that paid less and offered a smaller pension.

"A lot of places, they're not looking that you're trained in something," Andy Blevins said one evening, sitting on his back porch. "They just want you to have a degree."

Figuring out how to get one is the core quandary facing the nation's college nongraduates. Many seem to want one. In a New York Times poll, 43 percent of them called it essential to success, while 42 percent of college graduates and 32 percent of high-school dropouts did. This in itself is a change from the days when "college boy" was an insult in many working-class neighborhoods. But once students take a break - the phrase that many use instead of drop out - the ideal can quickly give way to reality. Family and work can make a return to school seem even harder than finishing it in the first place.

After dropping out of Radford, Andy Blevins enrolled part-time in a community college, trying to juggle work and studies. He lasted a year. From time to time in the decade since, he has thought about giving it another try. But then he has wondered if that would be crazy. He works every third Saturday, and his phone rings on Sundays when there is a problem with the supply of potatoes or apples. "It never ends," he said. "There's a never a lull."

To spend more time with Lucas, Mr. Blevins has already cut back on his singing. If he took night classes, he said, when would he ever see his little boy? Anyway, he said, it would take years to get a degree part-time. To him, it is a tug of war between living in the present and sacrificing for the future.

Few Breaks for the Needy

The college admissions system often seems ruthlessly meritocratic. Yes, children of alumni still have an advantage. But many other pillars of the old system - the polite rejections of women or blacks, the spots reserved for graduates of Choate and Exeter - have crumbled.

This was the meritocracy Mr. Casteen described when he greeted the parents of freshman in a University of Virginia lecture hall late last summer. Hailing from all 50 states and 52 foreign countries, the students were more intelligent and better prepared than he and his classmates had been, he told the parents in his quiet, deep voice. The class included 17 students with a perfect SAT score.

If anything, children of privilege think that the system has moved so far from its old-boy history that they are now at a disadvantage when they apply, because colleges are trying to diversify their student rolls. To get into a good college, the sons and daughters of the upper middle class often talk of needing a higher SAT score than, say, an applicant who grew up on a farm, in a ghetto or in a factory town. Some state legislators from Northern Virginia's affluent suburbs have argued that this is a form of geographic discrimination and have quixotically proposed bills to outlaw it.

But the conventional wisdom is not quite right. The elite colleges have not been giving much of a break to the low-income students who apply. When William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton, looked at admissions records recently, he found that if test scores were equal a low-income student had no better chance than a high-income one of getting into a group of 19 colleges, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Williams and Virginia. Athletes, legacy applicants and minority students all got in with lower scores on average. Poorer students did not.

The findings befuddled many administrators, who insist that admissions officers have tried to give poorer applicants a leg up. To emphasize the point, Virginia announced this spring that it was changing its admissions policy from "need blind" - a term long used to assure applicants that they would not be punished for seeking financial aid - to "need conscious." Administrators at Amherst and Harvard have also recently said that they would redouble their efforts to take into account the obstacles students have overcome.

"The same score reflects more ability when you come from a less fortunate background," Mr. Summers, the president of Harvard, said. "You haven't had a chance to take the test-prep course. You went to a school that didn't do as good a job coaching you for the test. You came from a home without the same opportunities for learning."

But it is probably not a coincidence that elite colleges have not yet turned this sentiment into action. Admitting large numbers of low-income students could bring clear complications. Too many in a freshman class would probably lower the college's average SAT score, thereby damaging its ranking by U.S. News & World Report, a leading arbiter of academic prestige. Some colleges, like Emory University in Atlanta, have climbed fast in the rankings over precisely the same period in which their percentage of low-income students has tumbled. The math is simple: when a college goes looking for applicants with high SAT scores, it is far more likely to find them among well-off teenagers.

More spots for low-income applicants might also mean fewer for the children of alumni, who make up the fund-raising base for universities. More generous financial aid policies will probably lead to higher tuition for those students who can afford the list price. Higher tuition, lower ranking, tougher admission requirements: they do not make for an easy marketing pitch to alumni clubs around the country. But Mr. Casteen and his colleagues are going ahead, saying the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

That was the mission of John Blackburn, Virginia's easy-going admissions dean, when he rented a car and took to the road recently. Mr. Blackburn thought of the trip as a reprise of the drives Mr. Casteen took 25 years earlier, when he was the admissions dean, traveling to churches and community centers to persuade black parents that the university was finally interested in their children.

One Monday night, Mr. Blackburn came to Big Stone Gap, in a mostly poor corner of the state not far from Andy Blevins's town. A community college there was holding a college fair, and Mr. Blackburn set up a table in a hallway, draping it with the University of Virginia's blue and orange flag.

As students came by, Mr. Blackburn would explain Virginia's new admissions and financial aid policies. But he soon realized that the Virginia name might have been scaring off the very people his pitch was intended for. Most of the students who did approach the table showed little interest in the financial aid and expressed little need for it. One man walked up to Mr. Blackburn and introduced his son as an aspiring doctor. The father was an ophthalmologist. Other doctors came by, too. So did some lawyers.

"You can't just raise the UVa flag," Mr. Blackburn said, packing up his materials at the end of the night, "and expect a lot of low-income kids to come out."

When the applications started arriving in his office this spring, there seemed to be no increase in those from low-income students. So Mr. Blackburn extended the deadline two weeks for everybody, and his colleagues also helped some applicants with the maze of financial aid forms. Of 3,100 incoming freshmen, it now seems that about 180 will qualify for the new financial aid program, up from 130 who would have done so last year. It is not a huge number, but Virginia administrators call it a start.

A Big Decision

On a still-dark February morning, with the winter's heaviest snowfall on the ground, Andy Blevins scraped off his Jeep and began his daily drive to the supermarket warehouse. As he passed the home of Mike Nash, his neighbor and fellow gospel singer, he noticed that the car was still in the driveway. For Mr. Nash, a school counselor and the only college graduate in the singing group, this was a snow day.

Mr. Blevins later sat down with his calendar and counted to 280: the number of days he had worked last year. Two hundred and eighty days - six days a week most of the time - without ever really knowing what the future would hold.

"I just realized I'm going to have to do something about this," he said, "because it's never going to end."

In the weeks afterward, his daydreaming about college and his conversations about it with his sister Leanna turned into serious research. He requested his transcripts from Radford and from Virginia Highlands Community College and figured out that he had about a year's worth of credits. He also talked to Leanna about how he could become an elementary school teacher. He always felt that he could relate to children, he said. The job would take up 180 days, not 280. Teachers do not usually get laid off or lose their pensions or have to take a big pay cut to find new work.

So the decision was made. On May 31, Andy Blevins says, he will return to Virginia Highlands, taking classes at night; the Gospel Gentlemen are no longer booking performances. After a year, he plans to take classes by video and on the Web that are offered at the community college but run by Old Dominion, a Norfolk, Va., university with a big group of working-class students.

"I don't like classes, but I've gotten so motivated to go back to school," Mr. Blevins said. "I don't want to, but, then again, I do."

He thinks he can get his bachelor's degree in three years. If he gets it at all, he will have defied the odds.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

A Collections of Reader Views on Class in America

A Collections of Reader Views on Class in America
As a companion to the Class Matters series, NYTimes.com will host a new Forum discussion each day a new installment is published. Below are highlights from readers' comments in those discussions.
Day 6: Immigration
namaishi: "I noticed a lot of talk about unethical immigration, but I didn't see anyone complaining about the cost of the services these people provide. Most of us wouldn't be able to afford groceries if it weren't for some of these immigrants.
"I know this is cliche, but just a reminder to all the non-Native Americans (myself included): You are an immigrant. You might not be a first generation immigrant, but you are most certainly not indigenous. If you go back far enough in your genealogy I'm sure you'll find some unethical immigration going on." (Go to Full Post)
ethnikos3: "Practically speaking, I believe the U.S. does need to control the stem of immigration somehow, and defining legal immigration is one way of doing it. By coming here illegally, one presumably agrees to the reduced rights. But we must recognize that the legality premise rests on accident of birth, unless you believe that you were the chosen people." (Go to Full Post)
djazteca: "Allow me to tell you about the difference between what it means to assimilate and acculturate. Assimilation is in essence copying the ways of where you happen to be to fit in while maintaining your own identity. This is what most immigrants, legal or illegal, want for themselves and their families.
"However, thanks to our broken down school system, what we get is acculturation. This is do it my way, respecting me while I disrespect you, your language, your culture; because you're in 'America' and in 'America' we speak English." (Go to Full Post)
gattegno1: "When I travel to another country, I do so legally, and have no expectation that that country will provide health or education benefits to my family or myself. If I go on vacation, yes, I will look for places that I think many people speak English.
"If other countries don't want tourism, so be it. You fail to distinguish between legal tourists, spending their money in other countries, and undocumented workers, who claim ever-growing benefits from this country." (Go to Full Post)
mxb66: "Race is the most important thing that affects your success in America. As an African immigant who has lived in the United States over 5 years, I know what race means in this country. It means everything for most people; forget about education, or fluency in the English language. I'm a college graduate, and currently doing my Ph.D. in biochemistry; but all people see is another black man, who is probably a criminal, lazy and ignorant. They make their mind up about who you are, before even talking to you.
"The answer to why the Greek guy is more successful than the Mexican is simple: race. Yes, the United States has gradually accepted some minorities like Asians, but I don't think they are ready to accept Hispanic and, most especially, black immigrants." (Go to Full Post)
Day 5: Education
taleugers: "I attended a top 20 private school and have an M.A. My degrees look great, but they are completely useless.
"If I had known that what matters is not the degree but what you study, my life today would be different. Today, at the age of 30, I find myself 'doing it all over again.' I have more than eight years of university studies under my belt, and debt that will probably grip me until I die. On certain days, I think to myself that I should have become a plumber - make tons of money, set your own hours and feel indispensable.
"The moral of the story is this: a degree is only worth something if it leads to employment. The man at the center of this article has far more experience than any graduate in the humanities, including one from Harvard. I do not doubt that he is far more marketable than I am. (Go to Full Post)
jakeopher: "I come from a working class family in the Cleveland area. My grandfather started a painting business, my uncle now runs it, and I can someday take this position. We work in the wealthy parts of town on regular basis, for doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, families that made their money back in Cleveland's robber-baron days, wealthy people who generally come from a long line of wealthy people. We work for generations of the families as well. I know when one gets married the new house is bought for them, college is paid for, and the importance of college is stressed throughout their elite prep school high school lives.
"I grew up in the working class part of town, and got a glimpse of this world on an everyday basis from about the age of 16 or so. I soon realized that these people were no smarter than me, but had parents stressing the importance of education, and they were well connected and knew a lot of the same people at the big companies in town. I decided I had better get an education myself, so at 29 I eventually got my first degree, and at 31 I finished my Masters.
"With my blue collar background, I am still not 'connected.' I apply for jobs all over but it is difficult to get a good paying job, especially when employers see I was a 'project manager' for a family painting business. It is extremely difficult to break out of the working class background, even with an advanced degree. (Go to Full Post)
madhatir: I turn 47 this summer and countless job opportunities have passed me by because of the lack of a degree. I get interviewed because my resume and my application say I can do the job. The bottom line always is - you don't have a degree. I get it; there has to be a dividing line somewhere in today's market where 300 people apply for one job. And I don't blame anyone but myself. I've been given the opportunity to get my degree and I've missed it.
"My children will go to college and finish. If they never use their degree, at least I gave them that opportunity. (Go to Full Post)
tyguy31820: "At the age of twenty, I had a retail management job and was making enough money to support myself. I didn't think I needed a degree to survive. Two years later, I realized that it wasn't necessarily the money associated with a degree that I wanted, but the stature. I was tired of looking at myself in the mirror and saying, 'Today you will make your living selling x product.'
"Now that I'm back in school I have a better appreciation for what a degree can do for me, financially and mentally. I've come to regard it as truly indispensable." (Go to Full Post)
Day 4: Religion
ghollyfield: "The invasion of the Northeast's most reputable educational institutes by evangelical Christian groups reassures me of the choices I made almost 20 years ago when I started studying foreign languages and cultures at a major mid-Western research and writing university and seven years ago left the United States (and higher education) for Europe." (Go to Full Post)
68701249: "From a liberal Christian perspective, it seems downright perverse that a religious practice devoted to the meek and the humble should turn to the rich and the privileged (Jesus preached primarily to the multitudes, not to the philistines). The missionaries are missing their real calling, and ultimately will fail. From a secular institutional perspective, however, the growing evangelical presence in the Ivy League will have little effect on the many constituencies of these modern research universities: the boards of trustees, the faculty, the corporations federal agencies that support research and teaching, the alumni and so on. These institutions, like the churches themselves, are too complex to be changed much by the passing waves of misdirected evangelists or their pagan (non)converts.
"Like social class distinctions, the apparent hypocrisy of the privileged, saved or damned looms larger and more important than they actually are. The subtleties of social forces arising from globalization of the economy, I dare say, are worth examining more. The next elite are not even attending the Ivy League: the new rich in India and China are being educated elsewhere." (Go to Full Post)
penny591: "As an African-American, I am the product of a spiritual people. Considering what we've had to endure as a people, we could not have survived slavery without our beliefs. They were absolutely ALL we had and our ONLY hope given the whims of the majority society. A purely secularist society would leave most of us cold." (Go to Full Post)
Forum: Religion and Class
Day 3: Marriage
sasharoseturk: "I have more education than my fiancee, as well as better health. I have supported him so he can travel while he is healthy and pursue a photography career. Both of our parents have supported us financially because of his health. I believe our relationship will last because our hearts will always be open to each other, and I will always advocate for him when my family does their little insinuation about how I could 'do better.' The experiences we've had as a couple have made me who I am, truth be told." (Go to Full Post)
elspeth222b: "I am a highly educated and privileged white woman. I married my good friend of three years, also highly educated, a political refugee from a Latin American country. My now-ex husband came to this country alone as a teenager and struggled to survive and get educated — always without any safety net. . . . Although my ex-husband looked as though he knew how to navigate my family, his new tenure-track job, etc., his internal anxiety became poisonous to us. This was coupled by the lingering effects of living on his own — since age 14 — and the difficulties of learning to share. We thought we were doing the right things, communicating, but we were not. So indeed, class is more than money, more than educational level and more than race." (Go to Full Post)
science_fiction: "The ingrained sense of unavoidable eventuality of one'a place in upper echelon provides a power base platform. Our chidlren are raised to be cosmopolitan citizens with trips to all corners of this world from early on and well-established relatives in three different continents. It will probably never occur to them that any place (both physical and otherwise) is closed to them as off limit. This, in my mind, is the true legacy of their privilege, more so than any concrete benefit such as money, school, etc." (Go to Full Post)
alankwells: "My wife came from a self-described poor family, which I more describe as middle-class. We found out early in our dating that our fathers worked at the same company. Mine a VP and hers a technician. My parents were quietly wealthy and from conservative stock and graduate education. Economically, savers, not spenders overall, same as their parents. But we never wanted. My college expenses would have been covered had I then the presence of mind to accept the offer. I met my wife working her way through nursing school as a waitress. Her family provided her no assistance; they didn't have the money. . . .
"I really didn't understand the class differences until later as my wife's parents embarked on a business venture that made them almost as rich as my parents. But they behave very differently, spending with abandon and conserving little, showering their grandchildren with electronic junk; my parents will deliver an inheritance. Our children see those differences also in their parents; dad the tightwad and mom the spendaholic. Dad the fitness nut, and mom at 300 lbs. Dad the pristine clean, mom, the slob. . . . I was born and raised in a culture of hard work and success, she was raised in a culture of victimization and lost opportunity. I make life happen; life happens to her. That's a fundamental difference in world view. I'm not sure it can be bridged." (Go to Full Post)
Forum: Marriage and Class
Day 2: Health Care
gerrat: "While the main points of the article on socioeconomic status and health care quality are certainly disturbing, what jumped out most vibrantly to me was the use of 'upper-middle class.' Let's see, a $2 million Park Slope home, a three-home compound on Long Island, a collection of 'vintage jaguars' and leisure time spent boating and sailing. This man is nothing close to any form of middle-class. He is fabulously wealthy beyond even the aspirations of 95 percent of Americans, and 99 percent of the world. . . . [A]s a society we continue to avoid the word 'rich' at all costs because then we might have to do something socially responsible with all that money, like ensure all people have access to quality health care." (Go to Full Post)
jerpat2: "I'm totally disgusted with the rush toward socialistic medical care in this country. No one is born with the 'right' to medical care. In my opinion everyone should get the best medical care they can pay for themselves, rather than our system of forced charity. I'm a very charitable person as long as I can make the value judgments as to who and what are worthy of my charity. I do not like paying for the medical care, or any other subsidy, for the many people who simply are too irresponsible to set realistic priorities and save for their future needs." (Go to Full Post)
marykayklassen: "The ability to care about yourself, not be in denial about your health and be willing to change your bad habits will go a long way in improving your health. The government cannot do that. It is not true that one needs to be rich to eat well. A bag of oranges or apples costs less than a gallon of ice cream." (Go to Full Post)
kuehn2: "I'm a middle aged businessman and my experience tells me hard work has very little to do with moving up the class ranks in today's business environment. Class position, timing and education are far more important. The wealthy would like you to believe there is plenty of opportunity to move up to their ranks by working hard and they've continued marketing the old 'American Dream' to give you hope." (Go to Full Post)
Forum: Health Care and Class
Day 1: Overview
alphonseqpublic: "Where I went to high school was determined almost entirely by class. Families had gone there for generations and there were lots of legacies in my year. . . . These people do not dress or act in a uniform way, but you can be sure they recognize one another fairly instantly in almost any setting. For better or worse, this is my class. Hence my limited definition of class: A club one belongs to where one had no choice in joining and no outside applications are taken." (Go to Full Post)
anoncommentator: "I spend a lot of time and money trying to help people in my family who are less fortunate. These efforts frequently eat into my personal life, and this befuddles 'upper class' associates, who never have had relatives that needed help, and who believe in the meritocracy myth that everyone can take care of themselves if they simply try. . . . I have dozens of 'lower class' and 'middle class' cousins, who think that I am a possibly snobby, definitely estranged person who lives a very different life than they do, with 'a lot' more money, and they're right. I lately have come to realize that I'm not one of them anymore, even though I can identify with them. I can't be one of them, because they don't see me as one of them.
"But neither do the 'upper class' people I live with consider me one of them. And I don't consider myself part of my 'upper class' crowd either. I'm not sure where I belong. I don't feel like I belong anywhere. And I don't like the way that feels.'" (Go to Full Post)
teach42: "It's interesting that I haven't read much about how the cultural experience of our youth has evolved. In the old days, sailing, private lessons and country clubs were for upper class kids; baseball, high school plays and church socials for the middle class; pool halls, radio and amusement parks for lower class kids. With the rise of technology, and the availability of computers in most schools, all our children are instant messaging, downloading music and involved in video games or Playstations. What the end result will be, no one knows. One thing's for sure, the cultural divide has been bridged." (Go to Full Post)
shuar1: "This country is now overwhelmed by the in-your-face bad taste of the vulgar new rich who are entirely devoid of classiness. These people have plenty of dough but no imagination. They live in grotesque McMansions and drive gas-guzzling humvees and SUV's. They have bad manners which have set the tone for the society at large." (Go to Full Post)