Class consciousness and social mobility

Kris and I have returned from three weeks traveling in Argentina and Chile with a group from our university alumni association.

My favorite parts of these trips are when we get to interact with the locals, not just because I can use my Spanish, but also because it’s a chance to see how they live their lives. I did get to do some of that on this trip, but not as much as I would have liked. Most of the time, we were wrapped in a protective bubble — sometimes figuratively, sometimes almost literally as we traveled Patagonia in a giant tour bus.

Standing before Torres del Paine
I opted out of the tour bus one day for a hike into the stunning Torres del Paine.

Whenever I travel, I revisit certain recurring themes, such as:

  • The amount of Stuff I own. Even after downsizing to this apartment, I come home and wonder why I have so many things.
  • The quality of the food I eat. Even in the poorer countries I travel to, there’s so much high-quality fresh food. Sure, there’s processed food and junk food, but most people seem to eat lots of whole foods at every meal.
  • The relative costs of things. Gas is so cheap in the United States, which just encourages us to drive more. Junk food is cheap too, encouraging us to eat more of that. Entertainment is also cheap. But books and clothing and many other things seem expensive.
  • The nature of wealth. What does it mean to be rich? Most of us in the U.S. have a lot of money by world standards, yet we often seem poorer when it comes to family and friends. We’ve created a society that isolates us. We’re short on social capital.

This trip, though, the theme that ran most strongly through our travels was the concept of class. I don’t often write about class at Get Rich Slowly — I’ve only touched on it a couple of times in the six years this site has existed — because it’s a complicated and sensitive subject. But during my trip to Patagonia, I thought about the subject a lot.

A Few Anecdotes

One night in Santiago, Chile, our group of fourteen split into two groups of seven. Each group went to a different local family’s home for dinner.

The hosts for our dinner were lovely. They were smart and funny and charming. Their English was excellent. (The daughter-in-law of the family had taught herself English by watching Friends and by listening to English-language rock music.) But I’m not convinced this family was typical. They lived in downtown Santiago, near the top of a gated (and secure) high-rise apartment building. Their apartment contained many rooms and fancy furniture. I got the impression that this family was wealthy.

Family Dinner in Santiago

The other people from our group went further afield. They dined on the back patio of a home in the suburbs of Santiago. Over their meal, the conversation drifted to politics. The father of the family opined that Chile and Argentina and Uruguay are superior to the countries of northern Latin America because they’re more European, there are fewer indigenous people.

I was shocked when I heard about this discussion. I loved Peru, and much of that was because the native population is prominent, the native culture is strong. I had just been complaining to Kris that one thing I didn’t like about Argentina and Chile was the lack of personality. The countries do feel European, but a very vanilla sort of European. Besides, the man’s comment seemed very classist, if not outright racist.

A few nights later, lounging under the tropical stars of Easter Island, I asked our guide, Ignacio, about the concept of class in South America. “The class system here is very strong,” he told me. “There’s certainly a wealthy class, and everyone knows it. Not just in Chile, but in other countries too, even Peru. Especially Peru.”

Tangent: Our guide was full of little insights. We were talking about how most U.S. travelers seem to be retirees, and they’re not very adventurous. Ignacio had an explanation: “When you’re young, you have strength and ideas, and you want to see the world, but you don’t have the money. When you’re old, you have money, but all you want to do is lie down and rest.” Succinctly stated.

Moai on Easter Island The next morning, our local guide, Matu’a, talked a little about class as we rode the bus to the next set of moai. Matu’a told us that, like most kids from the island, he’d been sent to school in Santiago as a boy. He didn’t like it.

“People in Santiago are rich,” he told us. “They have big houses but all they see are walls. Here on the island, you’re surrounded by people, you have small houses filled with families: uncles, aunties, lots of kids. When I lived in Santiago, I cried every night. People were afraid to go outside because they’d be robbed. Here, people go anywhere they like. They’re free.”

Matu’a’s comments prompted Florence, a retired school teacher, to talk about her experience with class in India. Her husband was from India, and she’s spent a lot of time there, and she says that although things seem to be slowly changing, the caste system is still a part of society.

By chance, on Friday (my first full day back from the trip) I listened to a Spanish-language podcast about social status in Spain.

One of the hosts noted that when people meet each other in many countries, it’s common to ask, “What do you do?” In Spain, he says, that’s not the case. Instead, people ask “How is your family?” This is partly because family is much more important in hispanic cultures, but it’s also because of questions of class. When you ask what a person does for a living, you risk touching on class differences, and that’s frowned upon.

Also on Friday, I asked my Spanish tutor a little about this subject. (But only a little — I hope to talk about it more with her tonight.) She confirmed that, in Peru at least, these class differences do exist, and that everyone is well aware to which class they belong. And often it’s possible to tell to which class others belong.

“But, J.D., it’s the same here in the U.S.,” she said, which I found interesting. I think many of us — including me — like to believe that there aren’t huge class differences in the U.S. (despite the whole 99% vs. 1% thing). But deep down, I realize that’s not the case, and my own experience is an example.

I grew up in a family that had always been poor, a family that had lived for nearly 100 years in rural Oregon, barely getting by. The things we had and said and did were “lower class”, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

I grew up in this trailer house.

Even today, many of things I say and do are uncouth. And there are absolutely moments in my life where I feel out of place because I know I’m in a situation where class matters, that I’m out of my element. I might be with a friend, for instance, meeting his parents at their luxurious home, and suddenly become aware that there are tacit rules of engagement that I’m not following because I don’t have the same class background. When these moments occur, I try to escape as soon as possible.

Example: One very clear example of class consciousness occurred on our trip to Peru last autumn. One night, Kris and I dined at Brujas de Cachiche, one of Lima’s top restaurants. There was a huge celebration that evening, with all sorts of local celebrities in fancy dinner jackets and flowing dresses. Kris and I were wearing zip-off travel pants and t-shirts. I felt like a fool. We ate quickly and got out of there.

The Economic Mobility Project

Four years ago, I shared some info from the Economic Mobility Project, a nonpartisan group exploring “the ability to move up or down the income ladder within a lifetime, or from one generation to the next.”

Among the findings from the Economic Mobility Project’s research are these:

  • “Across every income group, Americans are more likely to surpass their parents’ income in absolute terms if they earn a college degree, reinforcing the conventional wisdom that higher education provides a means for opportunity.” You are four times more likely to move from poverty to wealth if you earn a college degree than if you do not.
  • “Family background plays an equally, if not more important, role than education.” If you are born into wealth, you have a 23% chance of remaining wealthy if you don’t obtain an education. Yet if you’re born into poverty, you only have an 19% chance of moving to the top, and that’s if you earn a college degree. (There’s only a 5% chance if you don’t get an education.)
  • “Data show that…there is ‘stickiness’ at the ends of the wealth distribution.” About one-third of those born into poverty remain in poverty. About one-third of those born into wealth remain wealthy. (There’s a lot of movement up and down among the middle-class, however.)

I’m one of the fortunate few who’s been able to move from poverty to wealth. I did this through education, hard work, and luck. (Yes, luck plays a role. No question.) But though I’ve made the switch on paper, mentally I’m still the same person I always was. I have the same habits and attitudes that I developed 30 or 35 years ago, growing up poor in a rural farming community. That’s why I get uncomfortable when faced head-on with a situation that contains an element of class distinction.

Note: As I always do in these discussions, I’ll point out that if you’re reading this from the U.S., it’s very likely that while you may be part of the 99% here, on a worldwide scale you’re probably one of the 1%. Check out the Global Rich List for more info.


This is an article where I don’t really have a thesis. I’m not trying to drive home any point, and there are no takeaways that you can put to use in your life. Instead, it’s a sort of meditation. I don’t often think about class differences, and yet there’s no question they play a role in our lives.

I wonder if class generally seems invisible to me because of where I live. Portland is a unique city. For better or worse, people are, well, casual here. I don’t think you can tell who is doing well and who is not. People dress and act casually, so that there’s a subtle blending of classes. I think this frustrates many folks who move here from other parts of the country. I know a woman who moved here from Philadelphia. She gets dressed up to go out for fast food. Portlanders don’t get dressed up even for a nice restaurant. And I know a fellow who grew up in a wealthy family in Houston, Texas. He seems amused by Portland’s pathological casualness. When everyone dresses and acts the same, it’s tough to play your class roles.

I’m curious: Does the concept of class play a role in your life? When are you aware of class differences? All the time? Never? How do you feel when you become aware of these differences in any given situation? Also, I’m curious to hear from readers who identify themselves as upper class and readers who identify themselves as lower class. What makes you think of yourself in this way? (I believe most of us think of ourselves as middle class, so I’m curious about those who define themselves otherwise.)

Is class defined by your income? Is it defined by how much money you have? Both? Or is it something else entirely? Is it an attitude? A way of life? Or do you think that social status in the U.S. has vanished? (Also: How is class different than wealth? Or are they the same?)

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