Voices on Class: Downward Mobility

by Ellen Cooper-Davis

Cooper-Davis, aka @Rev_Mother, is a progressive minister, mother of two young daughters, and relentless voice for sanity and love in Texas. Read her other writings at http://blog.chron.com/keepthefaith.

As Melissa Harris-Perry pointed out recently on her show, America can not be truly considered the America we are familiar with when there is no class mobility. It has long been a part of the mythical and pervasive American Dream to assume that your children will be better off than you are, that you will fare better than your parents did. The past five years of economic downturn has assured us all repeatedly that there most certainly is class mobility, and unless you started out wealthy, that elevator only goes one way, baby, and that is down.

As a minister, this was not a threat to my own solid foothold in the middle class. Times of struggle and change in people’s lives actually afford me some measure of job security. The congregation generously gave me a bit of a raise this past year, recognizing the increased need for support and care among the community, and my willingness to meet it. My class status was in no jeopardy–I had a comfortable salary, a house with a 15 year mortgage, several months’ worth of savings, some investments, a retirement account, and money left over to give away.

Then I asked for a divorce. Elevator going down.

There is a lot more wrapped up in class status than just one’s discretionary income. Class also carries with it cultural assumptions. We associate dressage horses with the upper socio-economic classes not solely because it is expensive to own and care for a horse, but because it is the sort of leisure activity that belongs to the very rich, in our collective imaginations. Similarly, we might find it implausible to discover that a family that lives in a trailer park has a predilection for French films and Proust. In part, this is why everyone aspires to being middle class, whether they are or are not. It carries with it the mainstream cultural assumptions, preferences and activities. In short, if you can call yourself “middle class” then somehow, you fit in, whether you make $250,000 a year or $25,000 a year and just manage your money really well.

These assumptions are not the same for men and women. I have experienced no change in salary. No change in leadership or authority. No change in my preferences or activities–I still love French film and I still dislike a lot of the consumerist tendencies of mainstream middle class culture. My credit score has not changed.

What has changed is that I no longer have a husband, and I am now a single mother of two. Suddenly, I no longer fit in. By the virtue of the fact that I am unpartnered and a mother, I have slipped neatly out of middle class and into some sub-class of people who seem only to make life more complicated for the rest of the world.

Suddenly, I am an inconvenience to people who deal with my children because their assumption that I am a stay-at-home-mom is false. I’ve never been a stay-at-home-mom, but now I don’t have the stay-at-home-dad to refer them to, so I am Complicated. Suddenly, the woefully inadequate systems of childcare we put up with in this country are not an abstract issue that I advocate for, they are the reason why I only worked a fraction of my usual hours last week, and my working relationships are now Complicated. Suddenly, time must be structured differently and my personal life is on public display, and my standing in the culture as a respectable professional has become Complicated.

Whether or not there is an actual change in my class status (as though such a thing could be measured objectively) is not as relevant as the hundreds of ways in which I feel as though I have. I am no longer in the middle, I no longer appear to fit in. Now I have labels that middle-class people don’t need, and wealthy people don’t use. When was the last time you heard about a single mother involved in dressage? Katie Holmes certainly isn’t lacking for money, but there is no celebration of her professional life, no high-fives for a woman who left a situation that clearly wasn’t healthy for her. Instead, there is only the relentless skewering of the celebrity Single Mother, her sin clearly displayed for all the world to see, obscuring anything that might redeem her.

And isn’t that, ultimately, the crux? When I announced to people that I was leaving my marriage, the overwhelming response was pity for the fact that I could not save it. A sense that they were sorry I was being demoted. No one could see that in reality, I was choosing health and wholeness for myself and better parenting for my daughters. That was unimaginable. In the middle class, that Simply Isn’t Done.

Well, that may be. But I will politely refuse your labels, and leave them behind as I ride this elevator down. Wherever it’s headed, I’m sure I’ll find other brave women who know that nobility isn’t about who you’re born to and class is something you have or you don’t. Maybe we’ll throw a French film on and teach our kids to dance like horses.

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