Being Privileged

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn’s riff off of the "Being Poor" entry is out in the newspapers and online: Katrina opened eyes to poverty–and privilege. In the piece he encourages folks to add to the list on his blog here (I linked to that yesterday as well). Naturally, if you have something to add, I encourage you to head over there are make a contribution.

However, I’ll note my own "being privileged" markers here:

Being privileged is not knowing how much you make, because you know you make enough. This is my own particular situation; I’m a freelance writer so my money comes in on an irregular basis as it is, and when it does come in, I simply sign over the checks to Krissy, who deals with the bookkeeping aspects of our little endeavor (it’s where her practical and academic experience lies). I know how much I make every year when we tally up our taxes; in the interim I know I’m making enough that I don’t have to worry about.

Bear in mind this ability of mine to be oblivious of how much I make is predicated not only on making enough to not have to worry about my income, but also because I have a spouse who has an almost unearthly level of personal and professional organization. I don’t know how much I make, but I assure you Krissy does, and if she doesn’t have the exact figure on the top of her head, she can get out the information and tally it up within a few minutes. More to the point, not only does she know how much I make, she also knows how much all my various income sources owe me. And trust me, if you don’t pay up what she knows you owe me, you’ll hear from her. And you’re not really going to like it. Being privileged is being able to trust someone else to watch over your needs.

It’s also to the point to note that the ability to absorb and tolerate the variability of my income is also predicated on the fact that Krissy has a "real" job, one that provides a certain stable bedrock of income and benefits, above which my income floats. At other points in our marriage, I was the one with stable income and benefits, which allowed Krissy the freedom to go to school and do other things. And right now — as with most of time before this — me working at home allowed me to be the caretaker of our daughter, saving money on daycare, and allowing us not to worry about what happens when our kid is home sick, or has a doctor’s appointment or whatever. Being privileged is being able to have the flexibility to build your family’s security.

Between Krissy and me, we do very well for ourselves, and have done very well for ourselves for some time now. Among the many other things this allows us is the ability to help our own; when family and friends find themselves in the position of needing something, we are often able to pitch in without worrying about whether it puts us in a pinch. Given that a great deal of the reason that I am where I am today is the selflessness of people who reached out to help me over the course of my life, the fact I can return the favor is very happy one indeed. Being privileged is being able to help.

What is the upshot of all this discussion or being poor and being privileged? Having been both, for me its largely the awareness that while the perceptual differences between the two states are great, the real-world differences are razor-thin indeed. I can tell you almost to the minute when I crossed over from being poor to being privileged: It was during the interview for my first job out of college, when the interviewer told me how impressive it was that I had a philosophy degree from the University of Chicago, and I realized that yes, indeed, sometimes just where you went to school makes a difference in the jobs you can get. Going to the U of C wasn’t the deciding factor in getting that job, but I strongly suspect if I had a philosophy degree from Cal State Chico, it would have made getting that job substantially more difficult. Being privileged means knowing that sometimes life is unfair –and it’s unfair in your favor.

Having come to privilege from poverty and knowing how thin the real-world margin is between the two also makes me aware of how little it would take to go back to that state. We’re not rich, and while we’d be able to take one major hit and absorb it, two major hits in a short time would knock us on our asses like nearly everyone else. It’s entirely possible we could lose it all, and find ourselves, like those who live in poverty, facing an oncoming wave of crises, with few options to shield ourselves from them in an immediate sense. What’s different is that no matter what happens in the short term, in the long term I have faith I can do well for my family and myself. I’ve been heard to say that if it came down to it, I’d take a greeter job at Wal-Mart to provide for my family; one of the reasons I say that is because while I would, I can’t actually imagine the set of circumstances that would lead to that being the best financial option for me. Being privileged is having the skills to make opportunities — and the faith that you can as well.

Those are some of the things that remind me I am privileged. If you’ve some ideas on the subject, don’t add them in this comment thread — instead, add them here.  

Update 1:40 — Blogger Matt Barr has a somewhat snarky list about "being normal" here. Like him, I’m looking forward to the inevitable "Being Green" parody list.