Life, wealth adjacent

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A program that gets low-income New York students out onto the water — into boats they built by hand

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you heard of the Gini coefficient?

It’s a measure of income inequality, invented in 1912 by Italian statistician Corrado Gini.

I pay attention to it since I live in the United States — whose income inequality is the greatest in a century — and grew up in Canada, a nation with a much greater sense of the common good, and which creates public policy accordingly.

I’m also so aware of this because, living in a wealthy county north of New York City, I see it every day.

My town, 25 miles north of New York City, has massively gentrified in the 30 years I’ve lived here, as Brooklyn hipsters, priced out, have stampeded north, bringing man buns and McLaren strollers and Mini Cooper cars with them.

The other day a black Maserati blasted past me on the road and I’ve even seen a Lamborghini in town, a place once mostly filled with dusty Saturns and Civics. Today we have a local restaurant whose owner and whose ambition we love, but we watched three separate customers look at the menu and leave, saying his prices were too high.

And yet, our town retains real diversity — with public housing projects, multi-family homes, many rentals and, recently, million-dollar riverside condos.

I drove into Manhattan the other day to my hair salon and watched a woman laden with shopping bags struggling into her West Village 1800s brownstone townhouse door — a home that today would easily sell for $5 million or more; here’s one — just down the street from my salon — for a cool $28 million.

We are OK, compared to so many Americans, in even having savings, in owning our apartment (OK, still with a damn mortgage!) and having decent health and work.

But it’s bizarre to be surrounded by people with so many more zeros to their annual income, property values and assumptions about what’s “normal” — many women casually sporting a Goyard carryall that sells for $1,150, more than our mortgage payment.

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The organ was a $250,000 donation — from one parishioner

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We attend a gorgeous little church, built in 1853 by the same architect who designed New York’s famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and some parishioners are extremely well-off. (The photos on their website are all by Jose Lopez, my husband.)

Some women live nonchalantly supported  by husbands working in corporate law or on Wall Street, in enormous houses. Annoyingly, they seem to think my  career in journalism is some cute hobby, as they chirp: “Are you still writing?” or just ignore me because I’m clearly not rich and raising a brood of ferociously ambitious children,

This is the time of year when we’re asked to pledge, i.e. make a firm monthly financial commitment, to the church. There’s a chart in the parish hall showing a small group of people — fewer than 10 — give $20,000 to $30,000 a year, which is more than I’ve earned in some freelance years.

We’re debating how much to give. I admit that we’ve never pledged, but almost always add to the collection plate.

My family of origin had plenty of money, on both sides, and I enjoyed a childhood of material privilege, attending boarding school and summer camp. So wealth doesn’t intimidate me, nor do I spend my days lusting for more stuff.

But American “success” is always predicated on highly visible signs of wealth and power — hence the need for status-signaling clothing, accessories, housing, cars, nannies (some have three), exotic vacations, etc. So if you’re not “keeping up” you must be some sort of loser.

 

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East 70th Street, Manhattan

Jose and I chose a much less lucrative career path, journalism, which is why we drive a 20-year-old Subaru and have lived for decades in a one-bedroom apartment. (We also have decent retirement savings, a less visible decision.)

And yet, you have to be wilfully very ignorant to ignore the incredible poverty that also surrounds us, poverty I finally confronted personally for 18 months when I was a Big Sister to a 13 year old girl, a formal mentoring/matching program.

Sharing a squalid house with a bunch of relatives, her mother having disappeared years before, she lived only a 20-minute drive east across the county from me, but might have lived on another planet. I had never grasped that even knowing how to use a public library was a specific and essential skill for future success in a highly competitive economy; she didn’t know.

It snapped me into a deeper awareness of how wide these divisions are.

I wish I had some smart answer to this.

I do not.

 

Do you see this kind of income divide in your area?

 

 

10 thoughts on “Life, wealth adjacent

  1. carolyn

    We’ve just moved from a community where there were definite haves and have nots to one that is quite different. We’ve downsized to a two bedroom bungalow from a five bedroom colonial that sucked the time, money and life out of us. The town was definitely one where people prided themselves on showing all that they had and could afford, although I’m sure that many residents had enormous debt they were dealing with behind closed doors. We had some debt and that figured into our decision to downsize to a home that cut our mortgage in half, reduced most of our other payments and put us in a place where we could walk to a theater for a play, restaurants, a coffee shop, small shops and other entertainment. Our children are close…we ran into our son and his wife on a walk downtown Friday night and wound up having dinner with them at the Thai restaurant in town. This move has changed our lives for the better…we don’t miss a thing from our previous home and it’s only been two weeks!

    1. Thanks for sharing this — and congrats!

      I agree that for some people, it’s a lot of public show and private debt. I always prefer to live below our means (now blasted to hell by health insurance costs) and be able to save, travel, enjoy culture.

  2. I’ve always thought that it must be exhausting to continually “keep up appearances.” And for whom? The neighbors? Others? Who cares? Like you, I prefer to live below my means so that I can save, travel and enjoy culture too. I do not own a car, nor do any of my friends who live in the center of the city. Nor a smartphone. I paid 39 euros for a simple flip phone. (But I understand that many people, including yourself, need to have all the latest technical devices for their work.)

    The French are wisely discreet about their wealth. They don’t flaunt it. It’s considered bad taste, even vulgar, to display exterior signs of richness. One doesn’t talk openly about money here, I think that’s wise. It’s nobody’s business.

    Sure, there’s income divide here, but certainly not like you see in the States which, frankly, is quite shocking. We pay A LOT of taxes here and salary contributions sort of ‘spreads the wealth’. Most Americans would resent that. But that’s one of the tenets of social egalitarianism here (liberté, égalité, fraternité). France is a capitalistic country with social programs, tax policy and laws that maintain social equity among the social classes.

    1. I also think it’s much more Canadian (at least WASPy Canadian) to keep it quiet. I find this American obsession sort of sad and weird. Discretion is elegant.

      We did treat ourselves in fall 2017 to leasing a new Mercedes — the first brand new car in my life and first ever luxury car. It is worth every damn penny: quiet, smooth, safe and makes our 18+ hour drives to northern Ontario from NY not only bearable but pleasant. I don’t regret it at all. I couldn’t care less if people see me in it. I just love driving it.

      Yeah, I wouldn’t have a sexy cellphone but I do need it for work, and am using the camera a lot, potentially for a new business venture as well.

      American resentment of equality is something I dislike more and more and more. It really sickens me.

  3. I grew up in a community like that, and it never occurred to me until I was late into middle school for some reason. I’ve found that those who are the wealthiest, don’t generally feel the need to flaunt it, but it has always been clear that they are able to do or not do more of what they please. it’s such an interesting juxtaposition

  4. As an artist and generally visual person, I just wanted to let you know, once again, how in awe I am of your photography. I found your photo of the church windows to be exquisitely beautiful.

  5. I volunteer at an inner city library. I do see families trying to get help for their kids at the library (homework help / reading help). One mother told me she spends a couple of hundred dollars a month at an after school program but her son is not making progress. I see that part of the neighbourhood under pressure from govt cutbacks and gentrification. In my condo less than a 20 minute walk, my car is surrounded by imported German sports cars and SUVs. My 20 yr old Civic still runs well so I hang on to it.

    I’m not sure what the answer is. I think maybe people should expose themselves to how others live.

    1. Agreed.

      I attend a church I like in some ways in a neighboring town, but I struggle with how wealthy and oblivious some of its members are.

      One of the values of journalism is that, unless you cover fashion and beauty — and certainly when you cover any kind of hard/breaking news — you are going to flee those privileged bubbles and see a lot more of how millions of people struggle to get by every day.

      The “news” so often focuses on the wealthy and powerful and fawns over their “success” and ignores poverty because it’s not sexy or aspirational or sells ads. NONE of which is an excuse.

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