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Voices / Counterpoint

A matter of privilege and luck

‘I believe most people want to find satisfying work, to have choices, to earn a living, and to be able to contribute to society. But many face challenges that I did not.’

Sara Glennon teaches at Landmark College in Putney, where she is an associate professor of English.

Brattleboro

RE: “We worked for it. Why should we pick up the tab?” [Viewpoint, Mar. 6]:

Dan Jeffries seems to suggest that people in our society who have the “ability to pay” due to their own hard work should not have to share their resources to pay for programs or infrastructure that benefit people who have chosen not to work hard.

In some ways, my family story is similar to Jeffries’ story. My three siblings and I have all made our ways with success in the world. We grew up in a small town, in an unpretentious middle-class setting. We have worked hard, have found satisfying jobs, and have raised our children to also try to be productive citizens.

But there is one element of my story — and possibly of Jeffries’ — that he has not named. And that is the element of luck.

* * *

I was lucky to be born and raised in a stable, loving, intelligent family. I did not experience childhood trauma; I have always felt loved and safe and confident in my own self-worth.

I had incredible freedom to choose my own path in life, and I was lucky to be smart enough and emotionally stable enough to do well.

I went to college, benefitting from scholarship aid, and since the age of 11 I have been regularly employed in work I am good at.

I am often astonished at my good fortune, at the many privileges I have, and I try to be grateful — and gracious to those who did not have my good luck.

Good luck can be linked to what is called privilege. I recommend the work of Tim Wise (White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, 2004), whose writing on white privilege opened my eyes to what is easy to take for granted.

My family is white, and I try to appreciate how much that simple fact has played a role in my ability to advance in the world as I have.

As a white person, I have not faced racial discrimination when finding a job or seeking credit from a bank. Nor did my parents or their parents. My grandparents owned their own homes; one grandfather owned a grocery store.

Their ability to create a legacy of stability and security was aided by the fact that they were white.

* * *

I believe most people want to find satisfying work, to have choices, to earn a living, and to be able to contribute to society. But many face challenges that I did not.

Many people struggle with mental illness, with histories of abuse and violence, or with unexpected health problems or emergencies.

I do not have a learning disability or ADHD to complicate my ability to get an education. Life is harder for many people than it has been for me, but these things, good and bad, are not deserved.

The vicissitudes of life give some people more things to deal with and, often, fewer resources with which to work.

Jeffries seems to understand this to a degree. He says, “I believe that while there is a small group among us who got it handed to them, there is an equally small group of people whose circumstances precluded them from achieving this kind of success.”

Jeffries also makes a distinction between those who inherit their wealth and those who work for it: “While there is certainly a very small number of people in this community who got it handed to them, I am confident in my assertion that almost all of the people with the ‘ability to pay’ worked for it,” he writes.

I am less inclined to feel this is an important distinction. Both groups of people are lucky. I am grateful that I am a person with some “ability to pay.” I don’t resent the fact that I have had to work hard.

* * *

As someone who works in higher education, I also want to comment on the good fortune that I and Dan Jeffries’ siblings had in receiving scholarships to pay for college.

Scholarship money is made available to those who need it, in part, by other people’s “ability to pay.” Those who can afford to pay full tuition at colleges subsidize those who cannot.

And that is a net good. Colleges cannot survive on full-pay students alone, nor would they offer a good educational environment if they could. Our society benefits from more people having access to higher education.

So, in response to the question posed by the headline — “Why should we pick up the tab? — I would just ask: who else will or can pay for the things our society needs: infrastructure, public education, social safety-net programs, economic stimulus initiatives, etc., if not those with the “ability to pay”?

These are not just benefits for others; we all benefit from a range of investments that help strengthen our society.

* * *

Jeffries makes another distinction that I find harder to understand. And it seems that this is the real target of his resentment.

He states that many of those who have worked hard, like himself, “are not willing to hand over what they have earned to the ‘I won’t, I’m not doing that, I’m not going into the military, I’m not moving’ crowd, who want what they want but can’t pay for it. They want people with the ‘ability to pay’ to pick up the tab.”

I am struggling to understand who exactly these people are. Are these the mythical “liberals” I have heard about who want only government handouts, who are lazy and lacking in responsibility or work ethic?

While I’ve known plenty of people in Jeffries’ other three categories, I don’t know that I’ve met many of these lazy-yet-able-bodied people who “choose” not to work or seek opportunities.

I guess if I have, my tendency is to assume that they are doing the best they can and have perhaps had more to struggle against than is apparent.

Maybe I’m more willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. And I would not refuse to pay my share for societal benefits out of spite or resentment against those who can’t or won’t make wise choices or work as hard as I do.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #501 (Wednesday, March 13, 2019). This story appeared on page D1.

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