Life after Duke when you're low-income

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When I was asked if I would be willing to write to the Chronicle about my experience of having been a low-income student at Duke, the first thing I thought about was that my husband and I have a savings account I don’t look at because it simultaneously makes me feel like we have not enough money and too much money. 

I seem to have difficulty comprehending how much money is “enough” the same way I would have trouble picturing how much food 1,000 children eat in a day or estimating how many nails you need to build a house. I think in part it’s because the same amount of money can mean so much more or less in different cities, different times and at different income brackets. To some people $50,000 can get you a pretty nice house. To some people $50,000 can get you a pretty nice car. I once encountered an idea known as Parkinson’s law, which, when modified to apply to money, could go something like “expenses rise to meet earnings.” But when your family income jumps by a magnitude of five in less than 10 years, the reality can feel paralyzing.

I attended Duke on a full-ride scholarship, not because of any particular skill or talent of mine, but because when I got into college I lived below the poverty line. There are many different kinds of poverty, and mine involved growing up in an expensive urban area with an educated but underemployed single mother. I went to school with kids poorer than me and kids richer than me, and I was fortunate to have an excellent and free K-12 education that included college counselors who knew how to apply for SAT fee waivers and which schools had need-blind admissions. I know that much was written last year about what it can be like to be a low-income student at Duke, and I could certainly talk about that. I could talk about the social ramifications, or about the psychological pressure of feeling like I was living off the generosity of strangers. I could talk about what it means to work 20 work-study hours each week in addition to classes and extracurriculars that you are told you need to do to get “good” jobs once you graduate. But I finished college almost six years ago, and what I think might be more useful for you to understand is what might happen after a low-income student leaves Duke.

Most of my closest friends are people that I met at Duke. Most Duke students come from families in the top income quintile, according to the New York Times. I did not major in math, but by the transitive property I think that we can assume most of my friends grew up a lot wealthier than I did. According to that same New York Times study, a poor Duke student (from the lowest income quintile) has about a 50% chance of becoming a rich adult (in the highest income quintile). I am not quite part of the "successful" 50% yet, but I am well on my way there. I owe that mobility to job opportunities that become available to you when you have a degree from a prestigious institution, to not having to repay undergraduate student loans and most of all to one person at Duke I became very close to: my husband. 

I met one of those kids from a family earning more than 80% of Americans, and eight years later I sit writing this article from the home that we own. Even writing that sentence gives me such a feeling of cultural displacement that I feel the need to remind you that technically with a mortgage, the bank owns the home, they just let us live here.

I struggle to understand the value of money, mostly because I never had enough for it to matter long term. When you have five dollars in your pocket and you need to eat, you use it to buy food. When you have five extra dollars and you already ate and you already paid all the bills and the mortgage and put some into savings, should you invest it in your retirement account? The anxiety I earned during my childhood tells me to keep it in my pocket in case I get hungry later. My husband tells me that this is not a good strategy, but the reality of many families living in poverty is that they will not be able to afford retirement anyway. He and I grew up in very different worlds. 

The difficulty is that here in the United States, most people were raised to believe that my husband's world is better than mine. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 43% of respondents said people are rich because they work harder than most other people, and that 31% of respondents said poverty is primarily due to a lack of effort. What’s more, a 2019 survey by the Cato Institute found that 84% of people surveyed agreed with the statement “there is nothing wrong with a person trying to make as much money as they honestly can.”  

I do not personally know anyone who thinks it is better to be poor than to be rich, and, having experienced—or at least been proximate to—both, I don’t think so either. But while I find myself lost as to how much money I need, my husband feels confident that he knows. 

And as much as I resent some of the claims he makes about how much money we need in savings to do X, Y or Z, I still believe him because I have internalized a class hierarchy that says that by virtue of having grown up with money, he is better qualified to manage it than I am. The shock comes in when I look at the raw numbers: his “necessary” savings goals are more than double what my mother earned raising two children in New York City. I try to tell him our children will already have enough, but if the fundamental dream of life in the United States is being able to give your kids more than you had, then I have made it and he has not. I remind myself every day that it does not mean he is right. Earning less than his parents does not mean we do not have enough, just as earning more than mine does not mean we do.

Being poor was part of my identity for most of my life, but it’s not anymore. It is the best, strangest, most isolating thing to have ever happened to me.

Lindsay He (née Samuel) graduated with the Class of 2014. She is currently a grief and trauma therapist in Washington, D.C.

This article is part of the wealth gap series. We are exploring how wealth impacts the student experience. Read about the project and explore the rest of the series.


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