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Posts Tagged ‘wealth’

Traveling between worlds can give you whiplash

In animals, behavior, culture, food, travel, world, journalism, life, domestic life, beauty on March 27, 2014 at 1:22 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The first thing I did upon my return from a working week in Nicaragua — the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti?

I took a long, deep, hot bath. In our time there, we only encountered heated water once, in the Best Western Hotel in Managua.

It was the first of multiple culture shocks…

The morning after my return to suburban New York, I got into our 12-year-old Subaru and drove; I hadn’t driven once, as we had drivers there, or took taxis in Managua.

Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader -- and our push-to-start-it van

Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader — and our push-to-start-it van

The road at home was smooth and paved. I had never thought to question, or appreciate, that.

Our old car started smoothly. That, too. Here’s a push, in 98 degree noon-time heat:

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I drove quickly and easily to my destination, with no bumps or potholes to dodge.

Here, I travel by foot, public transit or car. The bus ride from Bilwi — a 90-minute flight by Cessna — takes 24 hours.

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Here’s the dugout canoe in which we crossed the river to watch Linda work her fields.

 

 

Now that's a commute!

Now that’s a commute!

Here, I walked into a white tiled bathroom, with metal stall walls; this is the toilet at Linda’s home in the countryside.

 

Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

 

Normal work for me, and many of you, means sitting at a desk, indoors. Here’s our photographer Rodrigo Cruz working in the Wawa River:

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I got into the elevator at my destination this week to ride up five floors — I hadn’t used an escalator or elevator in a week; most Bilwi buildings were made of wood, and two storeys high at most.

Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi

Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi

 

The streets here in New York have no animals on them, unless they’re road kill; on our final morning in Bilwi, a brown horse ambled past our hotel, riderless, unaccompanied. At Linda’s house in the countryside, we were always surrounded by them: a gobbling turkey, a contented, muddy pig, a flock of cheeping chicks, the Brahmin cow who wandered over to the well at sunset and kept me company while I bathedand many piles of fresh dung!

We saw very thin dogs everywhere, but only two cats. Life without the companionship of animals feels lonely!

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Buildings and houses here in New York are black or white or gray or brown, a sea of blandness. The houses we saw, everywhere, in Bilwi and the countryside of RAAN were painted in glorious colors: turquoise, emerald green, fuchsia, brilliant yellow, often using wood cut into patterns or laid on the diagonal for visual interest on a verandah. Beauty relies on imagination, some tools and a can of paint.

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Instead of breakfast alone at my dining table, we ate together from containers on our laps. Here’s a typical lunch:

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Here are Joshua, WaterAid’s country director, Jennifer Barbour and Alanna on Linda’s porch; she has a separate building next to her sleeping quarters for the kitchen.

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Here’s Linda’s (typical) stove/oven:

 

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Because it is still winter here in New York, the landscape is dull — still brown and sterile. The morning we left Bilwi, the town on the Atlantic coast we stayed in, brilliant red hibiscus glowed in the morning sun, as did wide, green palm fronds and lilac bougainvillea. Pale yellow butterflies flitted past us.

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The tropical rain forest glows green with towering banana and coconut palms and curved, feathery bamboo. It felt like walking into a painting by Henri Rousseau.

This painting in a Managua museum captures it

This painting in a Managua museum captures it

On our final night in Bilwi, the team went out to a disco, where men and women – 80 percent of whom live with no running water in their homes — arrived in stilettos and make-up and sequined tank tops. As we stood on the sidewalk afterward, a young man, clearly high and ill, drooled and begged and dropped to the pavement to caress Joshua’s shoes. The national police, rifles slung over their shoulders, cruised past us in a black pick-up truck.

My breakfast blueberrries in New York came from (!) Chile. One afternoon our rural RAAN hosts chopped open some coconuts from their tree with a machete — fresh juice and meat!

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Our view here is of other buildings and the Hudson River. Here’s the view from Linda’s home.

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We ate lunch in Managua in an upscale cafe, its prices marked in U.S. dollars, ordering food common in the U.S. — panini and cappuccinos. After a steady diet of Nicaraguan food: rice, beans, plantains, fish, a bit of meat — no green vegetables and very little fruit — it was disorienting. There was a case filled with cupcakes and cheesecake and cookies; no restaurant we had been to, in a poor town, had ever offered dessert or sweets on the menu. I’d never considered fruit, vegetables or sweetened foods a luxury or oddity. They are, for many people.

At home I work alone, all day every day. Here are Dixie, our translator (in the hammock) and Laxi, WaterAid’s community liaison, on Linda’s porch in the village we visited. Working with a dedicated and easy-going team is a blessing.

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As we canoed the Wawa River in a dugout, we sat on seats freshly-hacked from a piece of bamboo by Ailita’s machete. How refreshing to watch her casually, quickly — and generously! — make it herself. That sort of self-sufficiency is something so many of us now lack.

Every day, The New York Times — even as it runs front-page stories about poverty or income equality — runs ads from luxury purveyors like Chanel ($1,500 shoes) or Tiffany or Seaman Schepps, an old-money jeweler; recently offering a gold bracelet at $18,750.

The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.

The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.

That’s eighteen years’  of an average Nicaraguan’s annual income.

The head spins…

 

 

A country splintering into angry shards

In behavior, business, cities, culture, domestic life, immigration, news, politics, urban life, US on February 20, 2014 at 12:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Americans know the expression, E pluribus unum.

(Here’s a definition)

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The idea is that, with more than 300 million people sharing a sense of national identity, we’re all just American.

Not really.

Not any more.

Every day now seems to offer another horrific story of racial, economic and political division splintering the country into angry, gun-toting, vitriol-spewing shards.

Two men shot and killed two people who were behaving, they thought, disrespectfully — one, texting in a movie theater:

It started with a father sending text messages to his daughter during the previews of a movie.

It ended with the 43-year-old man shot dead amid the theater seats, and a 71-year-old retired police officer in custody.

The shooting Monday during a 1:20 p.m. showing of “Lone Survivor” at a Wesley Chapel, Florida, movie theater escalated from an objection to cell phone use, to a series of arguments, to the sudden and deadly shooting, according to police and witnesses.

the other, annoyed by music from a nearby vehicle:

It was November 23, 2012, when Michael Dunn pulled into a gas station in Jacksonville, parking next to a red Dodge Durango full of teenagers.

The teens had pulled in for gum and cigarettes; Dunn, meanwhile, had just left his son’s wedding with his fiancee, who’d gone inside the convenience store for wine and chips.

Dunn didn’t like the loud music — “rap crap,” as he called it — coming from the teens’ SUV. So he asked them to turn it down.

What followed next depends on whom you believe. Dunn claimed Davis threatened him, and he decided to take matter into his own hands upon seeing what he thought was the barrel of a gun sticking out of the Durango.

But prosecutors asserted that it was Dunn who lost control, firing three volleys of shots — 10 bullets total — at the SUV over music he didn’t like.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece on the ongoing battle to integrate poorer Americans into the wealthy precincts of Westchester County, which stretches from the Hudson River in the west to Long Island Sound.

I live in this county, in a town that has always been, and continues to be, economically and racially mixed: subsidized housing for the poor; rental apartments and houses; owned single-family houses, owned multiple-family houses, co-op apartments and condominiums.

In our town of 10,000, you can find a $10 loaf of bread at one food store while another shop sits between two projects — New York jargon for government-subsidized housing. Here’s a recent story I wrote about Tarrytown, explaining its diversity and appeal.

It’s one of several reasons I felt at home where when I arrived in 1989 and, even though the town has changed with the influx of much wealthier residents in recent years, (many fleeing Brooklyn and Manhattan’s real estate prices), I still like that diversity.

But the town of Chappaqua, a 15-minute drive north of us, is home to former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with a median income of $163,201.

From the Times story:

Few places on the planet are as enviable as this Westchester County hamlet.

Stately houses are set on spacious, hilly lots shaded by old trees; its village center has gourmet restaurants and bakeries; its schools are top notch and its 9,400 residents have a median household income of $163,201, ranking the area roughly 40th among America’s wealthiest communities.

It is no surprise that Chappaqua is the home of a past president and perhaps a future one, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as a Hollywood star or two.

But the hamlet — like many other affluent, overwhelmingly white localities across the country such as Garden City on Long Island, Wellesley in Massachusetts, Marin County in California and several neighborhoods in New York City — has been churned up by plans to build new housing for people of much lower incomes, including black and Hispanic newcomers.

A developer is offering to build 28 units of affordable rental housing with caps on family earnings, though with no income floor; families of four earning no more than roughly $64,000 would qualify, as would poorer families, including those who receive federal vouchers.

It’s been said that Americans today have very few unifying experiences where rich and poor alike are subject to the same stresses and challenges — as they were in the Depression and WWII.

Today, with income inequality the highest since the Gilded Era, the nation feels as though it’s splintering into armed camps, whether the armaments are literal guns or a six or seven or eight-figure income.

Here’s a post from The Root:

Although economic downturns disproportionately affect black unemployment and home ownership, working-class and college-educated whites are now feeling the sting of restricted opportunity. In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel describes how these men often blame the trifecta of feminism, affirmative action and immigration for their woes.

The relative devaluing of white privilege has been interpreted as racial oppression of whites and “reverse discrimination.” Opinion polls (pdf) suggest that half of all white Americans now see themselves as the targets of racism, and that number pushes past 60 percent among self-identified Republicans and among those who watch Fox News.

It’s a frightening and depressing trend, certainly for those of us who chose to come to the United States from another country with all the idealism and hope that every immigrant brings.

(And yet, watching terrible images of Syrians fleeing their homeland, and Venezuela erupting into protests and Ukraine killing protestors there…this is not [yet] that.)

How do you feel?

Do you see this sort of class warfare or random, ugly violence playing out where you live?

What, if anything, could address it?

What do you expect? Too much — or too little?

In behavior, children, culture, domestic life, education, family, life, parenting, US, women on December 26, 2012 at 12:46 am

For those who celebrated Christmas, it’s often a time of dashed — or dazed — expectations. Some people were lucky to receive any gift at all, while others sulked at getting the “wrong” ones. (Jose, as always knocked my socks off, with a historic photo of Betty Ford, taken by photographer David Hume Kennerly, as my biggie.)

That photo was taken on January 19, 1977, when I was in my third year of university, working already as a freelance photographer and journalist, selling to national publications. I was living alone, on very little money.

At 20, I knew to expect to do a lot of stuff for myself.

What we expect is a fundamental question.

It drives how we see the world and react to it, whether we hunch instinctively in a defensive posture or spring forward with a hopeful smile and the confidence it will all work out, somehow.

Burning Money is Financial Crime and Waste in ...

(Photo credit: epSos.de)

Jose was born to a Mom who never expected his arrival when she was 49, but deeply valued her surprise baby.

So what we each grew up expecting from the world — from work, lovers, friends, family — was in some ways very different. I’ve shown him he can ask for much more than he thinks he deserves, and he’s taught me how to be happy with much less than I think I need to be happy

I like this new blog, The Broke Girl’s To-Do List, for its tart, pull-your-socks-up-ness and its attempt to lower expectations, especially those of frustrated fesh grads in a horrible job market:

I know you didn’t go to college to wait tables, serve coffee, or assist customers in a clothing store (I didn’t either). The hardest part of being a Broke Girl is learning to be humble. You need to continue making money somehow to support yourself- or at least to maintain your savings. Unfortunately, that might mean taking a job you never thought you would need after college.

I know that it might feel like a step down, especially at first. However, these are hard times, and your finances can’t afford for you to hold out for too long.

I am not saying that you need to give up and “settle,” if that’s what taking this kind of job would mean to you. I am encouraging you to remember that 1) doing nothing while continuing to search for dream jobs will look a heck of a lot worse than making productive use of your time and 2) you need to be saving money. Can you tell I’m a big fan of saving money? Maybe it’s because of the whole my-father-is-a-finance-guy thing. But seriously, long gaps of emptiness on a resume look way worse than making an effort to contribute to society, even if it’s not the task you want to be doing.

We have got to stop taking ourselves too seriously, ladies. Tons of hard-working, intelligent men and women are out of work right now as well. Who are you (and frankly, who am I?) to think that you are above anything?

This recent New York Times story really showed how much our expectations, for good or ill, can shape our lives. It follows the lives of three Hispanic girls who all went off to college with high hopes, yet none has yet graduated and some carry shocking debt.

They struggled, but were unwilling or unable to ask for help:

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.

“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”

The American narrative can really be confusing as hell — Do it yourself! Don’t ask for help! All it takes is hard work! Only losers fail! — but those who do best in this country are often those who don’t hesitate to ask for help or more money or more time to finish a paper or negotiate a higher starting salary. So you’ve got to figure out for yourself how to navigate the corridors of power and influence, even if you’ve never seen them before.

Jose and I mentor a few young Hispanic women, students of journalism, several of whom have turned to me for guidance and advice about how to negotiate the balance of love and career, as they face significant pressure from their parents to marry and have children, career — even college — be damned. I’m honored they trust me enough to ask my advice, and I encourage them to kick professional ass as hard as possible, knowing full well this sometimes places them in direct conflict with their culture’s expectations of obedient or admirable Latinas devoted more to family than anything else.

What do you expect from your world these days?

What does it expect of you?

Has that changed in recent years?

Why or how?

Related articles

The $10.32 loaf of bread

In behavior, business, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, Money, parenting, politics, US on October 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm
2001-2006 Mini CooperS photographed in USA. Ca...

2001-2006 Mini CooperS photographed in USA. Category:BMW Mini R53 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s the price of a loaf of Eli’s Bakery walnut and raisin bread in my town.

I don’t live in some remote Arctic village where everything must be flown in, inflating prices to a crazy degree, but a suburban town 25 miles north of New York City.

$10.32.

For bread.

I asked the men who own and run the store, one they spent $600,000 to expand and renovate recently — who can afford this bread? How many are they selling each week? (Five.) Sometimes they get an order for ten at once. $100, for bread.

Then I went out for lunch with my softball team, a co-ed group I’ve known for a decade. One of them says his teen-aged son refuses to drive one of the family’s two cars, a Toyota Corolla, because it’s “a cleaning lady’s car.”

Excuse me while I shriek: What the fuck?

My town, and county — reflecting the income divide that is deepening and widening in this country at warp speed – are becoming a place I no longer recognize.

The cars in our town’s parking lots now are shiny new Mini Coopers, Range Rovers, Audis and BMWs, not the dusty econoboxes I used to see. There are three art galleries selling garish, huge paintings of dubious beauty.

The median income in my town, in 1989, was $40,000, then $60,000. It’s now, I believe, about $80,000. That sounds like a fortune depending where you live.

But it doesn’t buy you much around here.

And the sort of hyper-competitive materialism my friend despairs of in his own son is normal amongst his status-obsessed peers, in a town far wealthier than ours.

Over lunch  — wondering, as we all are, who will become the new President in two weeks and what our world will look like if uber-rich Romney wins — we had a long and impassioned discussion of the rich and the poor and the disappearing, desperate, job-seeking middle class.

Why do so many rich Americans not give a shit about those lower down the socioeconomic ladder?

“They’re losers!” said one, a retired iron-worker. He doesn’t think that, but many rich people now do — if they live in a big house and drive a shiny new Beemer and their wife wears designer clothes and their privately schooled kids are headed as legacies for an Ivy school and grad school, why, they deserve it!

And anyone who’s failed to scale the greasy pole of material success at their speed and height does not. Poor people are shiftless, lazy, poorly educated, unwilling to work hard. So goes the mythology.

It must be all their fault.

The two largest sources of new jobs in the American economy are part-time, pay minimum wage and offer no benefits. Slinging burgers at McDonald’s or folding T-shirts at the Gap will not, contrary to any Republican fantasy, help propel the hardest worker on earth into the middle class. These are working class jobs.

I know. I worked retail for 27 months, then wrote my book “Malled.” I saw firsthand the disdain the wealthy have for those who serve them.

Romney’s contemptuous remark — that 47 percent of Americans, those paying no federal income tax, are leaching off the rest of them, the productive ones — revealed a raw, vicious and useful truth. Many of this economy’s winners, gloating on third base, are convinced they hit a triple.

The rest of us can go to hell.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece about minority kids who get into top prep schools but can’t relate in any way to the privilege therein:

WHEN Ayinde Alleyne arrived at the Trinity School, an elite independent school on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, he was eager to make new friends. A brainy 14-year-old, he was the son of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago, a teacher and an auto-body repairman, in the South Bronx. He was soon overwhelmed by the privilege he saw. Talk of fancy vacations and weekends in the Hamptons rankled — “I couldn’t handle that at that stage of my life,” said Mr. Alleyne, now a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania — and he eventually found comfort in the school’s “minority corner,” where other minority students, of lesser means, hung out.

In 2011, when Mr. Alleyne was preparing to graduate, seniors were buzzing about the $1,300-per-student class trip to the Bahamas.

He recalls feeling stunned when some of his classmates, with whom he had spent the last four years at the school, asked him if he planned to go along.

“How do I get you to understand that going to the Bahamas is unimaginable for my family?” he said in a recent interview. “My family has never taken a vacation.”

It was a moment of disconnection, a common theme in conversations with minority students who have attended the city’s top-drawer private schools.

There was once a very clear understanding of noblesse oblige — that the privileged owe a responsibility to help those less well-off. No longer.

Increasingly, Americans have a servant class and a class that ignores them, until it needs their kids cared for or their doddering mother attended or their cars washed or their groceries delivered. They live in different neighborhoods, attend different schools, shop in different stores. They do not attend the same churches or share a bus, train or subway car. Rich kids think being “poor” means driving a car costing less than $75,000.

I watch it in dismay and wonder where, truly, the United States is headed as a nation, a polity, an identity in which to take pride. Social mobility is now at its lowest in decades.

From Foreign Policy Journal:

During the second half of the 20th century, the United States was an opportunity society. The ladders of upward mobility were plentiful, and the middle class expanded. Incomes rose, and ordinary people were able to achieve old-age security.

In the 21st century, the opportunity society has disappeared. Middle class jobs are scarce. Indeed, jobs of any kind are scarce.

Are you seeing this growing divide in your own schools, neighborhood, life or work?

How — if at all — is it affecting you and your kids?

The View From One PercentLand

In behavior, cities, life, urban life on November 11, 2011 at 4:23 am
View of the Upper East Side, New York, from 96...

The Upper East Side of Manhattan. Image via Wikipedia

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan — an enclave of almost unimaginable wealth — it’s One Percent Central. The streets are clean, swept, silent, the wrought-iron-covered apartment doors — owned, not rented — always guarded by wary, watchful doormen.

Elegant townhouses with silk balloon shades, Met-worthy art and exterior security cameras sell at the price of some small nations’ GDP — this one is offered at $23 million — often in  all-cash deals.

Local hotels include the Carlyle, The Plaza Athenee and the Mark; room rates start about $700 a night. (New York State’s highest unemployment benefit, taxable of course, is $405 a week.)

Discreet private art galleries dot the side streets, $50,000 drawings locked behind elegant double doors. Shoppers, if they carry any bags, tote those marked Chanel, Ferragamo, Prada. They sleep on monogrammed linens from Leron, Frette and Pratesi.

Gleaming, spotless black Escalades, chauffeurs at the wheel, glide through the streets. Thin blond women skitter by in Louboutins. Private school boys, shouting, run down Fifth Avenue, their ties flying.

One building even has its own book, 740 Park Avenue, home to some of the world’s wealthiest people. One of its residents, a journalist married to a billionaire, allows peeks into her gilded world from time to time. But many One Percenters only appear in print on the Forbes or Fortune lists of the world’s wealthiest — or Bill Cunningham’s weekly round-up of society parties in The New York Times.

Summer and winter are verbs to this set — summer in the Hamptons, Nantucket, Maine, Newport, Martha’s Vineyard, winter in Aspen, Vail or St. Bart’s.

To the people inhabiting this world, the rest of us are barely a blip on the radar.

They are all privately educated from infancy, as are their parents, grand-parents, husbands and wives, their children prepped by SAT tutors costing thousands a month beyond the $35,000+ a year it costs to educate each child.

Their world is cocooned by nannies — likely three, one for each eight hour shift — au pairs, staff, multiple homes, private jets.

This divide is perhaps more obvious when you live in a major city split neatly by zip code by race, class and wealth: New York, London, Paris, Sao Paulo, Mexico City. Living in New York, all you have to do is exchange one subway line for another to visit a wholly different world, from one filled with the exhausted working class traveling home to Queens or Brooklyn, to another snuggled deeply in triple-ply cashmere, oblivious to mundane worries like finding or keeping a job, educating one’s children or even paying the rent or mortgage.

Mortgage?

I know something of this world. My first husband was a physician, who, with his second wife, earns a combined income of $500,000. Even with a few kids to support, that’s pocket change to the real One PerCenters — if an impossible fortune to most of us.

Some of my mother’s family were also members of it.

Unless you’ve been exposed to the people living in this charming snow-globe, and their ferocious determination to acquire their fifth home or the 20th Birkin handbag or the Monet coming up at Sotheby’s, it’s a reassuring fantasy to think they care about the rest of us. They’re too busy out-ranking one another to even notice people whose annual income barely covers their shoe budget.

Don’t ever underestimate their determination to retain their privileges and the sources of their economic and political power.

The mayor, a billionaire, lives in the nabe, in two townhouses (only a few of his residences), on East 79th. Street. His long-time live-in partner, Diana Taylor, sits on the board of Zuccotti Park, the privately-owned Manhattan park where the Occupy Wall Street crowd has pitched its tents.

Meanwhile, reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek, median household income in the U.S. has fallen to $49,445, the lowest in more than a decade, while poverty has jumped to 15. 1 percent, a 17-year high.

Read this  smart column by Times’ writer David Brooks on how the media, much of it [guilty!] based in Manhattan is still over-focusing on this obviously uber-wealthy one percent — rather than the deeply growing divide between those who are well-educated and those who are not, more visible in rural areas and smaller cities nationwide.

And yet…here’s a glimmer of hope — Resource Generation, an organization of younger Americans who have inherited or earned wealth dedicated to re-distributing it more equitably.

Do you see an economic divide where you live?

How’s it playing out?

Why Do The Wealthy So Fascinate Us?

In behavior, business, culture, domestic life, entertainment, film, life, Media, Money, movies, television on January 17, 2011 at 2:24 pm
The Breakers, the summer home of Cornelius Van...

A Newport, RI, "cottage." Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been watching, and enjoying, Downton Abbey on television the past few weeks, the story of an impossibly wealthy British family trying to protect their home and inheritance.

Why do we care?

Sure, the production values are high — the home lovely, the clothing meticulously re-creating Edwardian elegance. The servants’ intrigues and gossip mimic that of their employers, but still, what do we find so fascinating about the wealthy?

In an era today that has come to resemble the Gilded Age in its income inequality, where CEOs outearn their lowest-paid minions by 400 percent, it’s so much less…annoying…to stare in awe and envy at their gleaming motorcars, 20,000 square foot homes, billion dollar yachts, jewels and furs and nannies and neuroses than face our own frustrations and challenges.

As the U.S. recession drags into another year, now its third and with no definitive end anywhere in sight, the rest of us seem to take perverse pleasure in gawping at the rich, with television shows like “The Housewives Of...” ever-popular. Not to mention this show, in which spoiled brat daughters suddenly have to…gasp!…work for their money.

One aspect of Downtown Abbey is its timelessness — the family who own it are patrons of a local hospital that bears their name; I live a 10-minute drive from a hospital also endowed by the Rockefellers, whose enormous estate covers thousands of acres just up the road from where I live.

Their wishes have so altered this suburban New York landscape that my apartment building was re-designed — to be lower and flatter — so as not to spoil their magnificent Hudson River views. They even managed to shut down a local train line because it was…too noisy.

I worked retail from 2007-2009, the subject of my forthcoming book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio, April 2011).

My greatest challenge? The sense of entitlement the worst of the wealthy carry with them, like some separate form of life support. They slap down their AmEx black cards, snap their fingers in your face, pout and whine when you say “No” to them.

No one says no to them!

Better we should focus our energy and our attention on less amusing sights — like our own work, families and income. After the necessities are covered, our real wealth isn’t material.

One In Seven Americans Is Poor: The Frog And The Scorpion

In behavior, business, cities, Crime, History, Money, politics, work on September 18, 2010 at 4:06 pm
American Poverty
Image by Monroe’s Dragonfly via Flickr

Nice statistic that.

The Census Bureau reports that one in seven American is now living in poverty. Millions can’t find work,  are losing their homes, living in their cars, bunking — when they can — with relatives. Millions are reaching for the thin, weak strained social safety net of food stamps and homeless shelters.

The shocking part?

That this should surprise anyone.

Recall the old joke, the friendship between the frog and the scorpion; as the frog swims across a river with the scorpion on its back, stung and dying. betrayed, he asks why. “I’m a scorpion. That’s what I do.”

In a nation where CEOs now crow with glee that they earn 300 times that of their lowest-paid workers, why would anyone find the growing chasm between the happy haves and the terrified have-nots unexpected?

The U.S. is a nation of laissez-faire capitalism. It’s a system as brutal and impersonal as a combustion engine. If you can find a way to accommodate its needs, you’re set. If not, you’re toast.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. But no one, anywhere, should gasp in shock at the ruin so many people now face. They played “by the rules”.

There weren’t any.

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Rockefeller's helicopter, $1400/month tutors and my little sister: What income inequality looks like

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2010 at 9:17 am
Flag of Westchester County, New York

Image via Wikipedia

I took a wrong road last week and, seeing a particular corner I used to turn left at for 18 months 10 years ago, my heart hurt.

It was the street that once took me to a battered, crowded house whose tiny front yard was always bare dirt. Sometimes there was a bike lying in the dirt, usually broken. It was a small house filled with people who yelled at one another as normal behavior.

A house jammed with an ill grand-mother, a morbidly obese daughter and her live-in boyfriend, a nine-year-old boy and his 13-year-old sister — a girl who was, for a while, my “little sister”, paired with me through the Big Sister program. Her mother, ten years younger than I, had simply disappeared years earlier. She showed up, out of the blue, a month after her daughter and I were matched. But we rarely spoke. She was usually in the basement, playing video games and watching television.

I had never before encountered poverty, and such family dysfunction, in the U.S. so intimately; I had lived in Mexico and traveled to many developing nations, where huge income inequality remains endemic.

Here, a 15-minute drive across 287? That was a shock. No longer.

My “little sister” would now be 23 or 24. Is she alive? Healthy? Did she — as her grandmother kept asking her in front of me, poking at her belly — become a teenage mother instead? Dare I drive back to their house and knock on the door and ask to see her again?

Our relationship, initially warm and mutually enjoyable and something we both deeply valued, ended abruptly, with deception on her part and deep disappointment on mine. It was an instructive experience. I had brought to it absurdly idealistic notions of what was possible, of what she might achieve, of what I might be able to give to her to help even the score between her world and mine, to help her level a playing field so tilted it’s a wonder any one of us can get up each day and walk across it.

Growing up in Canada, where the very best university, my alma mater, University of Toronto, still only costs $5,000 a year, I could not conceive of a place where she was simply, very likely, to be left behind. Without an enormous boost — from whom? how often? from her family? — it would not be a reasonable hope, no matter how desireable, that she flee a chaotic life of junk food, all-night videos and tightly curbed notions of what is possible.

College, for my little sister — and we talked about it — was some gauzy fantasy, a glimmering, glittering theme park sort of like DisneyWorld, a place she’d heard of and wanted to go to. But had no idea how to get there. I doubt she ever did. I had tried to get her into a local private school, $25k a year, on a full scholarship. Schools like that love to add a few underprivileged kids to their mix of lawyers’ daughters.

She never showed up for her appointed day and that was our last contact. Yet I still think of her, often.

I live in Westchester County, north of Manhattan — a county of 1 million people that stretches from the Hudson River to Long Island Sound on its eastern edge. Within it lies a microcosm of the U.S. in 2010, with staggering, Third World-ish income disparities. It contains elegant, manicured towns like Bedford, Scarsdale, Chappaqua, Bronxville and Armonk, where a house easily costs $5m or more, up to $20 million. This is where wealthy and powerful people like Martha Stewart and the Clintons live, on enormous estates with wooden rails and paddocks and stables for their horses.

David Rockefeller, now 90, lives a 10-minute drive from my home — and every morning I am reminded of his wealth and power as his private helicopter clatters just above my top-floor balcony on his way to Manhattan. Our apartment building, constructed in 1960, was re-designed because — in its original tall, narrow form — it would have impeded his view; it is a wide, flat, six-story version instead.

I read in this month’s issue of Westchester magazine an interview with an SAT tutor who charges $175/hour, with most of her students coming twice a week. That’s a cool $1,400 a month, $16,800 a year, to prep your kid(s) for the Ivies. The nation’s most expensive college, Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, is now $54K a year; I have a book on my desk right now borrowed from their library through our county’s great inter-library loan program. I get to keep it for a month.

I have lived in this county since 1989, when I moved to New York and bought an apartment. I was, then, married to a doctor, and assumed we’d have a Westchester life — a house, maybe a bigger house, nice car(s.) Whatever. But the marriage was brief and he remarried; he and his wife now earn $500,000 between them, an amount so staggering I can’t even picture bringing in $30,000 a month. A man in my church wrote a personal check for $250,000, which bought a beautiful new organ.

I sometimes feel like I live in a foreign country. I don’t recognize a place where such wealth exists beside such struggle.

And, in this county, are poor and working-class towns — Mt. Vernon, Yonkers, Ossining, Port Chester — where affordable housing is a constant battle. Anyone earning even $40,000 would find it difficult to obtain safe, clean housing, let alone afford a reliable vehicle and its insurance. You don’t know how bad a bus can be until you need it; I tried to get to my church in Irvington, NY by bus once when our car was being repaired and I did not want to pay $12 cabfare to get there. There is no bus service there on Sundays.

What an invisibly effective way to keep poor(er) people out of our parish.

From an editorial in The New York Times:

When one thinks about segregation, the suburbs of New York’s Westchester County don’t immediately come to mind. Unless, of course, you’re a minority resident searching in vain for an affordable place to live.

Westchester County has now announced an agreement to spend more than $50 million to build or acquire 750 affordable housing units — 630 in towns and villages where the black population is 3 percent or less, and the Latino population is less than 7 percent.

The agreement, which needs to be ratified by the county Board of Legislators, settles a 3-year-old federal lawsuit, filed by the Anti-Discrimination Center, accusing the county of taking tens of millions of dollars in federal housing grants while falsely certifying that it was living up to its legal requirement to provide affordable housing without reinforcing racial segregation.

At the time, the county called those accusations “garbage,” and said it was powerless to force communities to integrate. But in February, Judge Denise L. Cote ruled that between 2000 and 2006 the county had, indeed, misrepresented its actions and had made little or no effort to place affordable homes in overwhelmingly white communities where residents objected.

Those objections have been fierce. And we fear the battles are far from over. In the 1980s, Yonkers nearly bankrupted itself trying to fight a federal judge’s order to integrate public housing. There are currently 120,000 acres of land in Westchester where integration is lagging, including in Bedford, Bronxville, Eastchester, Hastings-on-Hudson, Harrison, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, New Castle, Pelham Manor and Scarsdale.

Do you see this in your life? How does it make you feel?

When $300,000 a Year Just Isn't Enough. Welcome to Westchester, NY

In culture, women on August 18, 2009 at 7:49 am
The Breakers, built 1892–1895 for Cornelius Va...

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This is what the recession looks like to some Americans in my neck of the woods — an annual income of $300,000 a year deemed insufficient in parts of Westchester, a suburban county north of New York City stretching from the Hudson River, and its small, charming rivertowns to the palatial demesnes of Rye, Mamaroneck and Larchmont facing Long Island Sound. This bizarre but widespread worldview is ruthlessly anatomized by Anne Hull of the Washington Post; (I named her a Jedi Knight of Journalism in a recent J-Day.)

Fascinating, and not the least bit surprising, that she interviewed 36 people for the story — and none would allow the use of their name or identifying details. In the land of the rich, falling even a quarter-rung on that ladder is unconscionable and embarrassing. I moved to Westchester in 1989, into an apartment where I still live, allowing me a birds-eye view of the folkways of the wealthy: their tight-cheeked, whippet-thin ropy-armed wives, their gleaming yachts and Range Rovers and charity balls. Their obsessive and unquestioned assumptions about what one must have and what one must never give up or let slip feel as exotic and unlikely to me as some jungle tribe in loincloths and feathers. I watch how rigidly their rules apply, but remain blessedly free of them. My less-conventional mom, who lived in the uber-wealthy WASP enclave of Bedford as a girl, (now home, allegedly, to Glenn Close, George Soros and Ralph Lauren, among others) fled north to Canada at the first opportunity, marrying my Canadian father to flee it all.

I once suggested to the 28-year-old son of a Westchester friend, someone who had finally graduated from Cornell to the palpable relief of his corporate attorney father and sister, that he consider journalism as a career. He’s bright, curious, loves to write and travel and try new adventures. “Writing? You can’t make a living as a writer!” sputtered someone who overheard my preposterous suggestion. It became clear to me that day just how pitiably, amusingly bohemian my career choice really was to some of these people. In some precincts here, if you’re not making a lot of money, securely married to it and making sure others know you’re doing so, you’re obviously dim or a failure. (Luckily, and thanks to my not making $$$$$$$$, I landed in a lovely town immune to this madness.)

I do attend a church like the one mentioned in Hull’s piece, many of whose members live in enormous mansions. A former minsiter once told, me, with a sigh, “They treat me like an employee.” Why was I surprised?

This story is worth a read, if only as a piece of cultural anthropology in our worst recession in decades.

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