Economic privilege is not having to *think* so much.
Economic privilege is a funny thing, in that everyone wants to be rich, but no one wants to admit that they have economic privilege. If you tell someone who is lower-middle class up through to the 1% that they have economic privilege, they will find fifteen different ways to “prove” to you that they don’t. Usually this proof consists of what they can and cannot buy. And while purchasing power is certainly an aspect of economic privilege, it is not the most important sign. Economic privilege is about the ability to avoid thinking. It takes an intense amount of mental and emotional energy to be poor.
I know this because I recently joined (or rejoined, depending on your definition) the ranks of the economically privileged. (Caveat: I am aware that as a white woman who was able to attend graduate school, has never been evicted from my housing, and has consistent access to things like clean drinking water, I have likely always enjoyed a certain level of economic privilege. That being said, without going into the entire sordid tale of my poverty bona fides, let’s just say that I’m well-acquainted with the experience of having various utilities turned off, and of sacrificing my opportunities for economic security so that family members could avoid being evicted.) It was not until I recently began making enough money to put me in the realm of what I would call “economically comfortable” that I realized exactly how much of my daily processing power I was using in order to navigate my economic situation.
It started, as many things do, with my gas tank. Rather than a luxury, a car is basically a necessity in Wyoming. Our public transportation system blows, and our large square mileage means that basically everyone decided to build out instead of up. Our largest city, Cheyenne, has about 64,000 people and a halfhearted thing that might be called a bus route if you are feeling kindly towards it, and is actually two square miles larger than the island of Manhattan, home to 1.66 million people and a large supply of buses and subways. Even the poorest in Wyoming often require a car if they want to become anything other than the poorest. Which means that many, many people in Wyoming are exquisitely aware of the gas stations in their area.
For most of my adult life, I have kept an encyclopedic knowledge of the gas stations in my surrounding town. I know which ones are liable to be 2-10 cents per gallon more expensive than some of their counterparts. I know which ones regularly overcharge by as much as 15-30 cents per gallon more expensive because they are a “last chance” gas station before you hit nothing but hundreds of miles of prairie, or because they are rare commodities in mostly-residential areas. I know which ones appear to be more expensive, but are actually a better deal because they provide discounts associated with a grocery store rewards card. I know which gas stations update their prices the fastest when oil prices go up. In short, I have devoted incalculable amounts of mental energy to the tracking of gas stations and their prices over the past two decades.
There is, in fact, a gas station only a few blocks from my house. It’s one of those “residential area markup” gas stations, and is usually at least 3-8 cents per gallon more expensive than some of my other options in town. I normally refuse to use it for that reason, though there have been a few times that I have let my “tank almost empty” light shine for an alarming amount of time and I sulkily put half a gallon of gas from that station into my car because I’m not 100% sure that it’s going to make it to the next station. I was having one of those moments a couple of months ago, and was keeping an eagle eye on the counter to make sure I could stop it at half a gallon. While I did so, I contemplated the pain in the ass that it would be to finish up there, close up my tank, exit with a left turn onto a busy street, drive to the next gas station with lower prices, force the machine to acknowledge my card as real currency, start filling my tank again, exit with a left turn onto yet another busy street, and finally make my way to work. And then I had a thought that I’d never really had before. “I don’t have to do that.” I did some quick calculations. At the very most, I’d be saving $1.50 by leaving the gas station I was at and going to another one. In days past, that had meant the difference between putting gas in the tank and not doing so. It had meant the difference between making my budget for the month and not doing so. And now it could very easily be seen as a convenience fee. It was now suddenly within my power to decide that $1.50 was a convenience fee. I could just finish filling my tank, and think no more about it.
It was revolutionary. I stopped paying as much attention to gas prices. I’d glance at them as I drove by, but more to keep a sense of gas overall, and no longer to obsessively catalog each price. When I started running low, I would just go to the nearest station, without worrying about whether or not it was one of the cheaper ones. I stopped having to devote as much brain power to saving money.
The other signs started piling up. Not automatically reaching for the generic brand of everything. Not studiously poring over the “per ounce” cost of every product to decide which size of something was truly the better deal. Offering to pay for friends’ lunches more. Letting myself impulse buy things on Amazon. They were all fairly small acts, but they all had something in common: I didn’t have to think as much. Every financial transaction took much less of my brain power. Purchasing was reduced to “Want—should I?—yes—buy.” When before it was “Want—should I?—can I?—really?—are there better uses?—maybe… buy?” I wasn’t going crazy. I wasn’t being absolutely foolish with my money. But I was relaxing. I was thinking less.
But the moment I knew that I had “arrived” at economic privilege was when my dog got sick. I was told she’d need emergency surgery. I was told the likely eventual price range. I was told I’d need 80% of the lowest price up front. I flashed quickly to my bank account, to my credit cards, to what I was pretty sure I had in my wallet. And with barely a thought, I said yes.
It wasn’t until after I’d said yes that I even considered that it should take more thought. It was a sum of money with three zeroes. It should worry me to pay it. But I’d been told that her chances of surviving the surgery were good. I was told that her quality of life should return to normal. I knew I had the appropriate sum in my savings. I knew it would save my dog’s life. That was all the thinking I needed to do.
A year ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. I would have been with the 40% of Americans who couldn’t cover an unexpected expense of $400 without selling or borrowing something. I’d have been on the phone with every friend I could think of, begging for help and doing my best to patchwork together the amount I needed. I would have wasted valuable hours hunting down money—hours that could have significantly affected my dog’s chances of surviving the surgery. I’d have been thinking about all kinds of things—who to call, how much money to ask for, how I could get the money to where I was in order to pay the vet up front. I’d have been thinking about whether I could afford it even with help, if it would drain my account and leave me unable to return home, or to get through the next week, or until my next paycheck.
Or I would have been having even more terrible thoughts—I would have been thinking “Would it be kinder to euthanize my dog than to admit that I don’t have enough money to save her? Can I even afford the euthanasia drugs, or do I have to let her die slowly of ‘natural’ causes?”
I knew I had economic privilege because I didn’t have to think about the question, “Can I afford to keep my dog alive?”
A lot of economically privileged people act as if poor people are stupid. As if they don’t know that that they could save money if they buy in bulk, if they give up Starbucks, if they stop using payday loans, etc. That simply isn’t true. Poor people are some of the smartest motherfuckers I know. Poor people are thinking all the time. Poor people can tell who what grocery store has the cheapest produce, and what grocery store has the cheapest meat. Poor people can tell you when the stores start marking down clothing so they can make room for new stock. Poor people can tell you what cafes or coffee shops let you stay the longest to mooch their wifi while only buying a single plain coffee. Poor people can tell you when their bills are due, and how long the grace period is for each bill. Poor people can tell you which laundromat has the best quality of machines for the lowest price. Poor people can tell you exactly how much money they have in their bank account. I doubt Trump can even tell you exactly how much money he has paid to Cohen to hush up affairs.
To have economic privilege is to have freedom from thinking. You can use the nearest gas station without thinking about it. You can tip your server 25% instead of 20% just because the math is easier. You can buy the food that tastes better, or is better for you, or is just easier to put into your cart. You can keep yourself reasonably healthy. You can keep your animals alive. You can avoid thinking about every moment of every day.
Sure, even economically privileged people still have financial worries. Wages are down, healthcare costs are up. No one seems to have enough retirement savings, and Social Security isn’t going to exist by the time I’m old enough to retire. Health problems can crop up at any moment.
But poor people have all of those worries, and then everything else. Hell, it becomes a privilege to have enough spare brain power to worry about retirement. Being able to worry about the future means being certain you’re going to survive the present. And when you’re having to devote so much of your time, your energy, and your thoughts to day-to-day existence, that isn’t a certainty that is easy to have.
Signed: Feminist Fury
Featured image is of spare change on a table, is by Flickr user frankieleon, and is used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.