I was staying at a mountain lodge last weekend while part-taking in one of the most privileged sports there is, skiing. The lodge provides family-style dining and a conversation at the breakfast table reminded me that we live in a country with deep divisions between the “haves” and the “have-nots” which, I believe, are largely due to a lack of empathy and understanding from those of us who are privileged. One of the guests works in finance, the other guests at the table were all wealthy, mid-west women in their early 60’s. After introductions and niceties were exchanged, the conversation turned to the mortgage crisis and bank bailouts of recent years. The conversation went something like this:
Financier: “I have to be careful saying this, but I think there really ought to be a level of personal accountability; they (people who defaulted on their loans) should know what they can afford”
Woman #1 (who, by the way, had just returned from a Caribbean cruise and was now skiing the Rockies for a week): “Yes, I wisely invested my $10K bonus every year and did quite well. I never buy anything if I can’t pay for it with cash.”
The conversation continued along this vein for a while longer with other guests chiming in with stories about what a great job they had all done with investing and being financially responsible. This extremely privileged group were all feeling pretty good about themselves, as evidenced by smug looks and boastful stories. It was such a great bonding experience for them and I hated to cast a shadow over their exclusive glow, but I just couldn’t stay silent.
I pointed out that many people do not have the privileges necessary to succeed financially (or otherwise). I explained that it is a privilege to have parents who teach you about personal finance, indeed it’s a privilege to have two parents. It’s a privilege to live free from abuse and oppression. I pointed out that many people in America are living in survival mode; their energy and resources are geared towards basic survival (food, shelter, safety); financial security and investments are about as foreign and mysterious to them as a trip to Mars! I shared that while I live in Fort Collins, a city that is consistently rated “#1 place to live,” there is a dark and largely hidden underside to this beautiful college town. I shared that I myself was largely oblivious to this oppressed portion of my community until I went to graduate school for counseling and then worked in community mental health (which largely serves the Medicaid population, the underprivileged, the oppressed). I shared that I worked in a school where 26 families were homeless. I asked if they thought these children were focusing on learning in school? I pointed out that many people live in survival mode and that higher-level thinking and learning is unavailable to them.
I left this group with a thought that I hope they will take with them. I hope they will take it with them because they have the money and the power to make the systemic changes we need to close the vast gap that exists in the country between the haves and have-nots. I shared with them that I believe that until we start caring about those less privileged, until we work to bring those who live from paycheck-to-paycheck (or worse, are dependent on America’s meager social welfare system) to a higher level of functioning, we will be unable to advance as a society.
I am certain these lovely ladies were not expecting to hear such opposition to their ingrained belief systems at the breakfast table of a ski lodge. However, I am deeply grateful for any opportunity I am given to present a minority opinion and be heard amongst my privileged peers.