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The $1 in My Pocket: Let’s Talk About Socioeconomic Diversity

4 min read

We’ve all heard the stories. Our parents came to this country with $1 in their pockets and used that to create an entire life. Have we ever stopped to think about how difficult that must have been? Probably not, because we only know that story at face value. We don’t know the vulnerabilities that came with that economic disadvantage. Why is that?

Previous generations did not want to show vulnerability. They prevailed on the mentality that strength is rooted in handling your own problems and never discussing it. “Never let them see you sweat!” as our parents and the Gillette Company would say. This is an amazing, yet detrimental, trait that our generation has certainly inherited. We don’t talk about the things that make us different. 

In my opinion, there’s one facet of diversity that is overlooked, but which reverberates across many spectrums: socioeconomic diversity. It’s not discussed enough and I truly believe that we, as South Asians, don’t do enough to support each other in coming out about our socioeconomic struggles. 

What is socioeconomic diversity? 

Let’s throw an official definition from the American Psychological Association your way before we break it down:

“Socioeconomic status (SES) encompasses not just income but also educational attainment, financial security, and subjective perceptions of social status and social class. Socioeconomic status can encompass quality of life attributes as well as the opportunities and privileges afforded to people within society. Further, SES is a consistent and reliable predictor of a vast array of outcomes across the lifespan, including physical and psychological health. Thus, SES is relevant to all realms of behavioral and social science, including research, practice, education and advocacy.”

What is at the heart of socioeconomic diversity?

It’s the differences. Taking public transit versus being driven versus the ability to drive. Living in a home versus an apartment versus the motel your parents owned. How much does a $10 Uber ride affect you versus others? Does a $60 meal hurt as much as a $20 meal? It may not seem like it, but your upbringing and status affects the way you answer these questions. It’s not black and white.  

I always work better with stories, so here are two examples of socioeconomic diversity in action: 

Let’s say there’s a boy named William. William grew up in a low-income neighborhood and went to high school in that same area. Now, William graduated as valedictorian and got accepted to an Ivy League institution with every intention of being pre-med. William arrives on campus to take his standard science and math classes.

Coming from a low-income high school, however, William may not have been properly prepared for the rigor of Ivy League math and science courses. His high school didn’t offer Advanced Placement courses and the books were a little outdated. He didn’t go to a school that used some of the latest software so it was hard plotting graphs for some of his math courses. So sadly, he fails the courses. William, along with many students who came to this Ivy League institution from disadvantageous backgrounds, is forced to change his goals. This is unfair.

This story sheds light on how William’s socioeconomic background factored into his higher education success. This story isn’t designed to say that being from a low-income background completely bars success. We know that’s not true. It is designed to highlight the importance of understanding how one’s socioeconomic background can really factor in one’s success. Discussion informs policy. Efforts to get more schools to be need-blind have helped that process. Universities are slowly becoming more diverse and higher education policies are helping with the transition of low-income and first-generation students.

When I was in undergrad, we had a program called TRIO at my school. In fact, many schools have this program. TRIO refers to the three programs: Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Service, which existed under the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and were designed to assist eligible students. (Thanks, Lyndon B. Johnson— I’m sure the musical is in the works!) TRIO is an opportunity outreach program designed to motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I learned about this program during my sophomore year of college when some student leaders from WashU reached out to tell me about a shocking survey they released. They had found that the median family income of their students was $180,000 back in 2009. Think about that. The MEDIAN income for families of students was $180,000. For reference, the real median household income of the United States was $50,221 in 2009.

This stat got the student leaders thinking about the low-income students and how they’re handling being in such an affluent environment. They wondered if those students were being properly supported. These students reached out to my campus and we did a similar survey. We found that we had a large amount of low- to moderate- income students. 

Where does TRIO come in? Well, when we found out the results and looked into what resources were available to help.

When talking to administrators at the Office of Student Support Services, we found that students didn’t utilize the services because they were embarrassed. They felt like it was a stigma to be a part of a program that recognized disadvantageous backgrounds. This mentality was a big factor in why many students were not prepared for the rigor of college academia. Pride and the inability to not talk about their issues definitely got in the way.

So, I challenge you. Talk about socioeconomic diversity. We all hear the stories of generations before us that came to this country with $1 in their pocket. Well for many of us, that was just one generation ago. Many of us are even first-generation college students struggling to navigate not only college but also, creating a financially stable life for ourselves. We, however, don’t want to talk about that because it shows weakness. We all come from different backgrounds. We have to be open about that fact.

Break the stigma. Let’s take stride in opening dialogue because it may just help someone you care about. Instead of categorizing someone as “cheap,” consider why they are that way. Remember that your differences make you, and our community, stronger.

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