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'Help me, I'm poor!': The limits of being 'Duke poor'

Just a few weeks ago, world leaders, activists and wealthy entrepreneurs gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Against the backdrop of an extravagant ski resort nestled in the mountains of arguably the wealthiest country on earth, the forum opened with the goal of “foster[ing] systems of leadership and global stewardship... to build the future in a constructive, collaborative way.”

The enduring headline from the three-day event has come not from any of the powerful or glamourous attendees, but from a speech by the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman which challenged the wealthy to examine their own complicity in growing economic inequality. Bregman began by observing that, though climate change was a central theme of the forum, the majority of attendees flew to Switzerland on private jets. He went further, arguing that the key to alleviating inequality is to address tax avoidance by the wealthy—a suggestion that has garnered Bregman viral fame and has reignited debates about the limits of neoliberal capitalism. 

At the same time, this week, the opinion page of the Chronicle has played host to a forum on inequality of its own, beginning with a column by Duke sophomore Ali Thursland, provocatively titled, “The social toll of being financially underprivileged at Duke.” In identifying herself as being ‘financially underprivileged,’ the author sought to call attention to the particular economic burden of participating in the social scene at an elite private university. The author cited living-group dues, cover charges, alcohol and other expenses as examples of the costs associated with Duke’s cost-prohibitive social culture. Moreover, Thursland asked that wealthier students try to broaden their own awareness of these costs when interacting with students who identify as “low income.” 

While not a seemingly radical assertion on its face, the column has since sparked a variety of responses in the form of letters and yet other columns. One author took issue with the initial column’s “Let them eat cake” focus on the affordability of Duke’s social culture, arguing that low-income students face more significant challenges than simply affording Hawaiian-themed darty get-ups and Juul pods. Other voices called for validation and support within the low-income student community rather than arguments over petty differences, while another repeated the oft-cited neoliberal refrain that low-income students are simply failing to work hard enough and budget appropriately. 

These pieces for the most part all cite the same statistics. The median household income at Duke tops out at almost $200,000. 20 percent of students here come from families that make $630,000 or more. What is most important to note about wealth stratification at Duke is how differently each of these authors interpret these statistics. For students whose wealth is not reflective of the moneyed majority on this campus who belong to the proverbial “one percent,” there is certainly a sense of relative deprivation. In validating those experiences though, we cannot forget their relativity. A student considered “low income” at Duke—someone whose family income is around $80,000 a year and would be eligible for almost full financial aid coverage—would be categorized as existing solidly within the American middle class outside the Gothic Wonderland. Much like how, as Bregman pointed out, the lavish chalets and glistening conference centers that populate Davos obscure the realities of inequality, our campus environment has entirely skewed our understanding of wealth. Not having a car on campus, having to maintain a work-study job and not being able to afford a Canada Goose puffer are seen as symbols of being “low income” at Duke. Solidly upper-class students love to gripe about how “poor” they are, having spent their entire allowance on shots at Shooters or steaks at the Washington Duke. Meanwhile, outside of Duke, without the economic and social protections of an elite university environment, many Durham residents have to deal with issues more genuinely tied to poverty: homelessness, skyrocketing rent, minimum wage jobs, etc. 

We have not made space on campus to have conversations about inequality beyond being reminded every so often that it exists in the form of persistent social problems that we all should try to solve (in the manner of “Knowledge in the Service of Society”). Instead, from the millions of dollars that gild campus facilities to the ever-increasing price of tuition, the standard of wealth experienced by the majority of students on this campus is accepted and celebrated. If these stories from Davos and Duke have taught us anything, it is that we are greatly in need of an acknowledgement of the relationship between wealth and inequality as well as, perhaps, a deeper understanding of the relativity of our on-campus realities. 

This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 

Correction: This editorial was corrected Monday morning to show the correct name for the World Economic Forum. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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