Opinion | Op-eds

The really rich and the rest of us

Whenever someone from home asks me what Columbia is like on the weekends, I always like to tell them that “one-third of us”—myself included—“are in Butler, one-third of us are out downtown, and one-third of us are trying to figure out where the other two-thirds are.”

I am exaggerating, but from experience, it’s close to the truth. When I ask people what they did over the weekends, the answers I get seem to fall invariably into one of those three categories, of “I was in the library,” “I’m was in the Village/the Meatpacking District/Williamsburg,” or “I watched Netflix—what did you do?

Of course, of all of these, going out sounds like it would be the most fun, unless you were watching a particularly good movie on Netflix (I’ve seen them all already—there aren’t many). But I’ve found that whenever I do accept an invitation to go out, I quickly find myself in a whirl of expenses that for some reason always seems to surprise me.

I am not one to often complain that things are too expensive, namely because I am aware I can afford most things I need—food, clothing, and other living expenses. Indeed, the idea of bemoaning what one reviewer of the recent novel “The Exiles” called the “dire fate of the merely wealthy” strikes most as ludicrous. Even the tony New York Observer, which proudly tells advertisers that its readers are the “most affluent, educated and influential [New Yorkers], with an average household income of $644,000 and average net worth of $4.1 million,” felt inclined to lampoon the book

But there is a sudden and unshakable feeling of awkwardness when you find yourself having to cancel dinners with your friends because $50 dinners twice a week are not part of a sustainable lifestyle. It’s easy enough to justify it in your head as financial responsibility. What’s not as easy is coming to terms with the fact that many of your friends can afford such things.

I recall in my freshman year being asked if I’d want to join some friends for a ski trip in Vermont for a weekend. “I don’t ski,” I protested. I was told there were lessons. Interesting, but I had to ask the inevitable, “How much would it cost?” I was met with stunned silence. “I’m just curious,” I clarified. “It’s not like it’s a problem.” I was told it was $600. There again was that odd feeling, that $600 merited as much concern as a cup of coffee.

There is more to this than mere anecdote. In 2006, the New York Times noted that the upper middle class was rapidly being left behind by the abundantly wealthy in salaries, in mobility, in opportunities. 

In terms of raw numbers, Columbia does not have a breakdown of students by family income. What we do know is that, according the Office of Financial Aid and Educational Financing, “approximately half” of all students receive financial aid. Financial Aid does not, however, tell us what the income cutoff is. According to a 2010 article in the Huffington Post by professor and former provost Jonathan R. Cole, “at most of the Ivy League schools, if your parents’ family income is less than $200,000, you will receive scholarship aid and some minimal loan support.”

The implication, then, is that approximately half of Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science students have family incomes over $200,000. Going by a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, that would mean incomes above the 95th percentile for all households nationwide. Not only are we the top 7.4 percent (who get into Columbia), then, but also the top 4.2 percent—or at least half of us. Of course, not every person who falls into that category has an infinite sum of disposable income.

But it sometimes feels like it’s the case that there are some students you just don’t see outside of class—those who are permanently elsewhere. Where that somewhere else is—the parterre of the Metropolitan Opera or a downtown club with a $50 cover charge—is unknown and unimportant. What you do know is that wherever it is, you probably couldn’t afford to be there.

If there exists a prohibitive level of wealth—one that many Columbians cannot reach—which prevents Columbians from participating socially, it means that we should take a look at how we interact with one another and what we expect of each other. Very often, we focus on the barriers people face because of their races, their gender identities, their sexualities, or their ethnic backgrounds. For many of us, the disparity of financial backgrounds presents a far more substantive impediment to a united community. Maybe it’s time we started talking about it.

The author is a Columbia College sophomore with a prospective major in economics-political science. 

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com 

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Gus posted on

Work harder and try to earn money instead of being a jealous commie

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Dude posted on

Kyle is in the College Republicans

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Anonymous posted on

I think this is pretty help for understanding the piece, actually. The main takeaway is that we focus too much on gender, race, and so forth when we should be talking about socio-economic status. Which on issues like affirmative action, for example, is pretty much the conservative position. Either way he's right, wealth is really the main criteria on which society, including here at Columbia, is vectored, and when people talk about racial privilege or identity privilege the omission of socioeconomic privilege, which is by far the most pervasive, is telling. Great piece.

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another republican member posted on

he's actually on the executive board too.

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Anonymous posted on

thank you for saying this

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Anonymous posted on

Absolutely. If you can't afford stuff, get yourself a high-paying summer internship. The power to improve your economic circumstances is in your hands alone. You CHOOSE to whine about social justice and fairness instead improving your station in life. Stop complaining and do something.

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Anonymous posted on

That's all fine and dandy, but there's a difference between the long-term payoff of hard work and the immediate lack of (great amounts) of money. "Improving your station in life" is quite different from what Kyle's talking about.

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Anonymous posted on

There are plenty of ways to make money during the semester without having a high-paying, high-powered internship. If Kyle is as money-strapped as he claims to be, he should qualify for work-study jobs, which are plentiful and usually pay betwee, $12-$14 an hour. Working even 10 hours a week, you can easily make over $100 a week for spending money. If you don't qualify for work-study, tutor or babysit (I have plenty of friends who have posted ads on Craig's List and been hired). These jobs can pay as much as $40/hour and more. Everyone can make some extra spending money here and keep up as much as they want to. I've had this problem since I started--every one of my friends has a greater allowance or money-spending capacity than I do. Rather then feel bad about myself, I've just worked 20-25 hours a week every semester. It's incredibly possible to do.

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Anonymous posted on

Except when you're working 20-25 hours a week that means you have less time for school. And if your grade suffers, so do your chances at getting great internships and jobs. And when the majority of the money you're making is going toward the basic necessities you need to live, there isn't that much left for $50 club cover charges. It's basically a lose lose situation. We also don't realize that if you come from a low-income background, you may not feel very comfortable in the elite sphere that characterizes much of the NYC social sphere. So no, it is not as easy as "go earn some more money."

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Anonymous posted on

You're a total idiot. Working up to 15-20 hours a week has zero impact to your academics. None. I worked 30 hours last semester and still got a 3.93, majoring in a hard science. (And I'm not going to even go into the "work" in places like manning a library service desk.)

At some point you're going to have to stop whining about how unfair life is and how the world owes you a living because you're entitled to it, and actually do something about it. Like earn some money if you want to spend it.

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Anonymous posted on

Wow no no no. The amount of privilege in this is ridiculous. Oh, u qualify for work study and make money on your own? Well for u that money is spending money. For others it is definitely not going toward fun or $50 biweekly dinners with friends or dare I propose a spring break vacation to the Dominican. For others It's going toward groceries or gasp tuition or bigger gasp loans for tuition. And just because you can succeed and handle your schoolwork doesn't mean everyone can. Your ignorance is outstanding.

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Anonymous posted on

"And just because you can succeed and handle your schoolwork doesn't mean everyone can."

You're right. Not everyone can handle intense academic demands and stress. Those people should not be at Columbia. Maybe NYU or CUNY would be a better fit.

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Anonymous posted on

Oh, shut up and read this study: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10615800802430933#.UvAhPXk3-5c
this one: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/10/15/1308240110
this one: http://www.stanford.edu/group/scspi/_media/pdf/pathways/winter_2011/PathwaysWinter11_Evans.pdf
and a hell of a lot of others. Stress management, "perseverance," "grit," and the ability to "handle" oneself aren't necessarily about innate ability—there's a lot more circumstance at play than you might want to admit.

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Anonymous posted on

I don't have time to read your studies, but if you provide a two paragraph executive summary of each, I might be able to scan them.

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Anonymous posted on

OMG this guy got a 3.93 guys while working 30!!!! hours a week! what a beautiful story i'm going to cry now.

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Ouch posted on

sucks to be poor, plebs

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Anonymous posted on

An rather interesting assertion, that one should work for long hours in order to be able to spend money on skiing trips and club covers. This article is explicitly not about (just) the poor, it's about those of us (I'd say a majority but by those stats it seems as if most of us are the "really rich" being talked about) who can't afford those sorts of things.

The idea that it's a lack of "hard work" is laughable considering those people who can afford those almost invariably are able to because of parental largesse. I'm notionally able to afford such things but my parents don't see the merit in funding such spending. To me I don't see the article as whining about not being able to afford such things but the fact that half of us are apparently able to and half are not and this is damaging to the campus community.

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anon posted on

"“How much would it cost?” I was met with stunned silence."

Who are your fucking FRIENDS?! Who are these people?!! My parents have paid for everything in my life, my friends are mostly upper-middle-class, and we still send each other Groupon deals and openly tell each other if we don't want to go out because we don't want to spend money.

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Anonymous posted on

Frugality is not a valued attribute among many of the American youth. The feeling is that only some experiences are OK for us to talk about. The unfortunate things in life are to be concealed and not accepted. The point of the article is to just be able to get us to a place where we can be ourselves no matter what our socioeconomic background.

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Yess posted on

This piece really struck home with me-- I completely understand where you're coming from, and think your argument gets at a critical issue for many students.

Also the privileged also have the privilege of ignoring their own privilege, so --dare I say it-- ignore the ignorant commenters saying that you should "just get a job." While yes, jobs make money, it's just not that simple.

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Stuart posted on

This is about the tenth article I've seen this year that spends a lot of time arguing to the reader that some people have more money than other people. I'm not convinced. Someone write another!

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Anonymous posted on

I think everyone actually has the same amount of money.

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Andie posted on

I'm on the side of the rich people! If you don't have money, just go get a prostitution job! It's super lucrative and if you get a good pimp/agent, you even get to keep some of it!
Because social mobility is super easy! It's like a really aggressive step on a ladder - you just gotta spread your legs.

Of course, I've never actually done that... I have mummy's wallet. So, I guess take it or leave it - actually, mummy's wallet says that my opinions are more valid than your truths, so... just take it.

Sorry, it just seemed like a lot of the high income kids (who will never have to worry about money) were parodying themselves, so I thought I'd join in.

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Amy CC'06 posted on

Thanks for writing this. I graduated eight years ago, but your column still hits home for me. I feel like I wasn't all that aware of my family's lower-middle income status until I got to Columbia and felt surrounded by privilege -- and somehow out of my league. I was happy to take on work-study jobs (plus loans of course) in order to get to attend Columbia. (And, yes, I'm not ashamed to admit that was a strain for me academically - I'm not as brilliant as the charming anonymous commenter below.) But I was taken off guard by the looks of pity I sometimes got manning the dorm security desks! One 'friend' actually asked if I felt like less of a real Columbia student because I had to work to help pay tuition. It's truly a different world, and it can only help for us to discuss it more publicly.

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rOqfzB posted on

Bonuses just took 2mg xanax - where to buy xanax without rx

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