Together but Unequal: Why We Don’t Talk about Wealth

As prom approached, people talked about what they would be wearing, eating, how they would be getting places–and what it would all cost. What are students willing to pay to make a single night of high school “special?” And more to the point, what can students (or their parents) realistically afford? Of course, limitations for each student are different, but this is often overlooked. A $70 dinner is proposed on the assumption that everyone will be able to pay. Expectations that everyone pitch in for a $500 limo are made without a thought about how hard it might be for some to make that payment.

Financial aid is offered for the $55 prom tickets (and for the $10 after-prom tickets).  But that’s the least of it. It’s usually the outfits, hairdos, and pre-prom traditions that cost the most. In fact, all of this often adds up to several hundred dollars. For many families, spending this much money involves tradeoffs, prioritizing, and credit card debt that may not be worth one night of lavish fun. A 2013 survey done by the Federal Reserve Board found that 47% of American consumers could not even come up with $400 for an emergency. If this is the case, how can we expect every family with a child attending prom to spend this much?

There are many ways to make prom more affordable. Instead of eating out at a fancy restuarant, consider having a potluck at someone’s house. Artfully employing decorations, candles, a tablecloth and three different forks could make it feel just like that $70 dinner. Get together with friends to do hair and makeup instead of going to “Drybar.” Skip the limo and order an Uber (or, if you are really looking to save, take the Metro). Of course, it’s okay to spend money on your prom night but it’s also important to think about the stress the night might cause others.

Of course, concerns about financial disparities beyond tuition and sponsored extracurricular activities arise each year long before prom season.  From going out to eat to vacations to tutoring to extra team gear, students and their families face unexpected costs.. At GDS we often assume that everyone around us has whatever we have. We may have been taught in seminar that socio-economic class is one of the “Big Eight.” We know that in a capitalist society there are large gaps in wealth, and that they are wider today than they have been for a hundred years. We know about the 99% and the 1%. And we know that many of us are in, or close to, the 1%. But what we too often disregard is social class within the school community.

We rarely talk about wealth disparities at GDS. Often, this is because it can be uncomfortable and, for some, embarrassing to talk about the money that one’s parents do or do not have. Often, we are born into our economic situations and they have little to do with merit or justice. This is not to say that no one in the 1% has worked for what they have, but it provides a possible answer to why we are so uncomfortable when it comes to discussing wealth. Economic imbalance is unfair and widespread, so wealth has become a deeply personal and private matter. But being mindful about class doesn’t necessarily mean talking about personal economic situations, or knowing the income of all your friends’ parents.

GDS is an expensive, exclusive private school and we don’t have nearly as much economic diversity as any DC public school. We can and should make the school more accessible through financial aid. (The goal of the Tenleytown campus is, in part, to create another source of income to relieve upward pressure on tuition and help support financial aid). But this doesn’t mean that we can ignore the economic diversity that does exist at this school. It’s easy to say “well, we all go to GDS so…” implying that GDS students all have endless amounts of wealth. Coming from a public school where some of my friends shared bedrooms with their whole families, I used to think that GDS students wouldn’t have economic difficulties. I have made and heard blanket statements about wealth so many times at this school. Usually these uninformed remarks go unconfronted because money is an awkward topic. While this may not be completely at the hands of students–faculty should be engaging students in discussions about economic inequality at GDS more often–the responsibility to be aware of class falls upon the student body.

In the end it’s really just about being mindful of others. We shouldn’t assume that everyone is equally situated when it comes to financial resources, just as we can’t assume everyone has had the same experiences or privileges. Socio-economic class is too often overlooked in our community. Just remember that not everyone can easily afford that $70 dinner.