September 18, 2005

'Class Matters': Money Changes Everything

If Horatio Alger were writing today, his heroine would be a woman named Angela Whitiker. Whitiker first came to the attention of New York Times readers in 1993, when the reporter Isabel Wilkerson wrote about her son Nicholas, then 10, and his struggle to avoid the gangs of urban Chicago. Twelve years later, Wilkerson returned to the Whitiker family as part of the paper's series on class in America, now published in book form as "Class Matters."

Nicholas, it turns out, failed to do much with his life. But his mother succeeded beyond almost anyone's dreams, including her own. Thirty-eight, with six kids and an additional stepchild, she left behind the notorious Robert Taylor Homes of her past to earn $83,000 a year as a registered nurse. Her income, impressive as it sounds, leaves little over for luxury, but she is confident that at least some of her children will have a head start in securing a position in the middle class.

Jeff Martinelli's life went in the other direction. Bypassing college for a well-paying job at Kaiser Aluminum as a 20-year-old, Martinelli stayed with the company for nearly 30 years, until the Spokane, Wash., plant where he worked closed down in 2001. Without a college credential, he did not have much chance of finding comparable work, and ended up exterminating bugs in people's homes at half the $60,000 salary he earned at Kaiser. Although he feels lucky to have a job at all, he knows that his son, Caleb, is unlikely to taste the joys of middle-class status that his father once knew.

Class (and with it, race) will always be with us; not even the most Candide-like economist could deny that your chances of surviving Hurricane Katrina depended on whether you had sufficient financial resources to own a car. True, some will always move up as others move down, although in recent years Americans, who pride themselves on their upward mobility, have experienced a considerable amount of the downward variety. "Class Matters" aims to do what novelists like Dreiser and Fitzgerald and satirists like Veblen once did: to get us thinking about the ways in which money and social status influence who we are.

So the stories told here bring the lives of actual people to bear on statistics and social science theorizing. Anthony DePalma recounts the intertwined tale of two immigrants, John Zannikos and Juan Manuel Peralta. They shared more than a first name; both arrived illegally in the United States, spoke little English and were determined to make a better life for themselves than they would have had in Greece or Mexico. But Zannikos came in 1953, at the start of the long postwar boom, while Peralta crossed the border in 1990 in a more difficult economy. Peralta worked in one of Zannikos's diners until his temper got the better of him. "To him," DePalma writes, "jobs are interchangeable - just as he is to the jobs. If he cannot find work as a grillman, he will bus tables. Or wash dishes. If not at one diner, then at another."

Karl Marx told us that society would split into two classes; today we have as many as there are yogurts. Consider the many flavors of the rich. Only in America - more properly only on "nature's ultimate gated community," as Geraldine Fabrikant describes Nantucket - can old-money aristocrats become objects of sympathy. It may not be an American tragedy to witness a tycoon buying up the six-bedroom manse you inherited from your grandparents to make space for his wine cellar, but in such ways do the ultrarich differ from the merely rich.

You cannot tell the richer class from the middle class by what its members wear, drive or eat. Godiva chocolates are available to the financially strapped secretary on her way to that naturally ungated community called Staten Island. The cruise ship, yesterday's supreme status symbol, features onboard climbing walls for children whose parents sign up to shop at the discount outlets in the Virgin Islands. The actual class markers are those you rarely see; there are 9,000 personal chefs in America these days, compared with 400 a decade ago.

Some class mobility in America is neither up nor down but sideways. Peter T. Kilborn relates the travails of Kathy Link, whom he found in Alpharetta, Ga., about to move her family to Charlotte, N. C. Alpharetta cannot escape the realities of class; its $400,000 homes are too expensive for telephone repairmen and assistant supermarket managers. But it is also classless in a particularly exurban way. Kathy, an "executive Gypsy," sits in the same traffic jams as all the other wanderers from soccer matches to tennis lessons.

The first substantive article featured in both the original New York Times series and in "Class Matters" is the most poignant: Janny Scott's story of three heart attacks. Jean Miele, a well-to-do architect, survived his relatively successfully; "time is muscle," heart surgeons say, and Miele, rushed to a world-class hospital, saved the one and preserved the other. Will Wilson, an office worker for Consolidated Edison, received angioplasty and a stent, but only after originally being taken to a hospital that offered neither. Ewa Rynczak Gora, an immigrant from Poland working as a maid, was the unluckiest of the three; after neglecting her own health, she was not well served by visits to emergency rooms and treatments forgone because medical insurance would not cover them.

Even before the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 offered stupendous breaks to the very rich, the United States was already transforming itself into a society in which merit counts - and in which merit is determined by what your parents earned and where your grandparents came from. Back when Americans still had a sense of shame, we called such morally arbitrary advantages unfair, sometimes even unjust. Now we ignore them in favor of debates about gay marriage or stem cells. "Class Matters" seeks to change that and I, for one, hope it does. If its stories of unearned breaks and unwarranted misfortune do not make your blood boil, you probably left your social conscience on the ferry to Nantucket.

Alan Wolfe, the author of "One Nation, After All," is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

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