Sunday, October 13, 2013

Class, parents

-So, this week's second "Ethicist" question. There are two issues, the first - and the one I wouldn't know how to address - being the ethics of applying for a scholarship for those with a disability you don't necessarily have. (Is someone who functions well in whichever area, but with extensive intervention, no longer thought to have whichever disability? I'd imagine that if you have prosthetic devices that could even out-perform regular legs in a race, you'd still be disabled on account of not having legs, even if you were relatively advantaged over someone else without legs or prosthetics.)

The second is the ethical question of whether a graduate student from a wealthy family should not accept scholarship money, or not do so if said family has offered to pay for school. I've thought about this before, in the context of law schools asking financial-aid applicants, or just those under a certain age, to provide parental income information. It seems clear why colleges must do this, but is there a cultural assumption that parents pay for their adult children? Put another way, is an adult child of rich parents necessarily "rich"?

It seems like there's a huge difference between someone who's independently wealthy in a trust-fund sense, whose money is theirs (even if there's a healthy dose of guilt at that unearned stroke of luck), and someone whose parents would pay for this but not that, and might use that capacity to control life choices. Which could be anything from an insistence on law school but no MFA, to, don't marry X, or don't be (openly) gay, or keep observing whichever religion. Structures in place that make it more difficult for the child of wealthy, controlling parents to renounce that support and live independently... on the one hand, this is a way of indirectly giving a boost to those who didn't grow up rich (with the exposure to all kinds of cultural-capital-enhancement and good schools that implies), which is a good thing. On the other, it's not exactly no-harm-done, either.

And then there's the question of whether graduate merit-based scholarships are more like scholarships - where we can have a reasonable conversation about whether there's much point directing these at kids whose parents can pay - or jobs. We generally don't ask whether it's really right to pay a 25-year-old a salary because maybe this person's parents could afford to keep them as dependents. We don't generally think it's wrong for a job to offer health insurance to people whose parents could, in theory, foot that bill. Or maybe we kind of do - thus the rise of unpaid internships and stipend-paying fellowships in lieu of full-on grown-up jobs for those at an age where maybe parents theoretically might be paying, even if most of the time, they're not.

Anyway, the Ethicist seems to buy into the idea that a young (?) but post-college adult remains an implicit dependent, or that's what this bit - "as a responsible child, you feel a responsibility to save your parents as much money as possible" - leads me to believe. I'd say this is more about being a responsible adult, which generally means someone who turns to parents for financial assistance sparingly if ever.

-I heard Lisa Miller, author of a story I still need to read, about "ethical parenting," interviewed on Leonard Lopate. Miller said something about parents getting their kids internships, and Lopate, providing the devil's-advocate position (or just disagreeing?) explained that his own interns have arrived through connections. Which... here's the thing. Yes, that's how life works, and yes, 99.99% of why this sort of thing gets to me is that not only is this a form of advantage I've never had, but one I kind of suspect many assume I do have, as if coming from New York (and being Jewish?) inherently provides media connections. Not so! Yes, the waambulence has been contacted to this effect. There's some klezmer playing on the tiniest violins, I assure.

But it seems like there's a difference between the seeming unfairness - but perhaps, ultimately, fairness - of the knowing-the-right-people that comes from networking (is it unfair that friendlier, more outgoing, more persistent people get ahead?), and the kind of knowing-people that arises from having been born to those people. It's not that I doubt that Lopate's friends' kids would be capable of internship-type work (or that, if they're not, they wouldn't be fired/not recommended for permanent employment). It's that so, too, would be a great many more college students, but if the position's never advertised... Again, word-of-mouth is one thing if there's some world of people who already have whichever achievements, and who are benefitting from "privilege" they've actually earned. It's another if we're talking people whose sole achievement thus far is having been born into the right family. Longwinded story short, Lopate generally seems a good liberal, so I was a bit surprised by his blasé attitude towards what it says about the news business and what gets covered if that's how you get a foot in the door.

14 comments:

caryatis said...

"I'd say this is more about being a responsible adult, which generally means someone who turns to parents for financial assistance sparingly if ever."

But, as the Ethicist points out, the situation is different when not turning to your parents for money means someone else with (possibly) worse off parents won't be able to do this graduate program. It might be a different situation if the letter writer had a lot of conflict with his parents, such that the strings attached to money would be intolerable, but he doesn't say so.

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

I'm not sure what kind of program the letter-writer is looking at, but as one of the commenters there points out, competitive, merit-based fellowships sometimes are a/the main credential at that professional stage. I've never heard of someone declining the $20k-ish per year of standard PhD funding because their parents could afford that amount, because there's a difference between how 'funded' vs. 'not funded' looks on the job market. (I have, however, heard of people forgetting to pick up their checks or enroll in direct deposit, from which one infers that they have some other source of income.)

And I guess what I'm getting at is, is there an ethical imperative for post-college students who could get money from their parents to do so, so as to leave opportunities open to those who don't have that option? Let's say a job opens up, one whose benefits include but aren't limited to a salary. Is it wrong for someone to pursue that job if they wouldn't be on the street without it? Everything's zero-sum, no? It seems weird to deny the advantages of being a financially independent adult to those who could, in theory, get the money from their parents. There are always some strings when asking for money as an adult.

Petey said...

I'd pay good money to watch a refereed contest between Klosterman and "Prudie" to see just who is the more insane advice columnist.

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"Longwinded story short, Lopate generally seems a good liberal, so I was a bit surprised by his blasé attitude towards what it says about the news business and what gets covered if that's how you get a foot in the door."

News business? Doesn't this apply to pretty much all unpaid internships in non-credentialed high-status professions?

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"as if coming from New York (and being Jewish?) inherently provides media connections. Not so!"

Aw. C'mon. Just because your overweening pride prevents you from asking Lena Dunham for a recurring role on Girls doesn't mean you couldn't do so if you really wanted...

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Finally, some important advice: given that coyotes respect 'alpha predators', should you be challenged by a pack of coyotes, just calmly explain to the lead coyote that your recent meal of branzino and kale thus makes you coyote treyf. That generally does the trick.

fourtinefork said...

Way back when I was applying for PhD programs (late 90s), I remember several schools had an option where one could decline the stipend but still receive a fellowship. If I remember correctly, it was framed as a way for students who had wealthy parents who would cover their expenses to free up funding for another student. The idea was, I believe, that you'd still get to put on your cv that you were funded or on fellowship, just silently (or maybe not?) without the money attached.

This was never even an option for me, so I'm hazy on the details. And I have no idea if this is something that is done.

On the other hand, I had a friend in grad school who occasionally (thoughtlessly) referred to her fellowship money as her "shoe money." (Shopping with her at Bergdorf's was an awesome experience.) The same money she used for shoes was what paid my rent, food, and everything else.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

"News business? Doesn't this apply to pretty much all unpaid internships in non-credentialed high-status professions?"

Yes, but no one cares if the children of the rich and well-connected have an edge at Vogue, because no one would imagine otherwise, and because no one expects Vogue to be furthering any social-justice-type cause. Public radio, on the other hand...

Fourtinefork,

That's interesting, I'd never heard of such a possibility, only of the rare grad student being on fellowship but not bothering to take whichever tiny steps are needed to actually get said check into one's bank account. But that was unusual (and I only know about it from hearsay, if fairly definitive hearsay) - most of us were passing those checks along to our landlords and, in some cases (ahem), to NJ Transit.

But the missing piece here, I think, is that if we're talking about grad students, this is a set of people at really all stages of life, and the default assumption of where outside income comes from maybe shouldn't be "parents." It seems more likely that a grad student for whom $20k a year is pin money is one who's married to someone with a higher salary, than that there are all these parents not only able but willing to shell out enough per year to their adult children for $20k to be meaningless.

There's just this odd discussion that keeps arising, where words like "student" and "child" are obscuring the fact that the individuals in question are like 35, and had maybe worked for a while before returning to school. "Rich parents" means college gets paid for, name-brand jeans purchased for a high school freshman. While it's not unheard of for that kind of support to continue indefinitely, my anecdotal impression is that that's unusual.

Petey said...

"Yes, but no one cares if the children of the rich and well-connected have an edge at Vogue, because no one would imagine otherwise, and because no one expects Vogue to be furthering any social-justice-type cause. Public radio, on the other hand..."

I agree fully with you on the desirability and public policy aspects. However...

"Public" radio has long since ceased to be public. Government funding, which originally supported the thing, has been whittled away to where the bulk of funding comes from deep pocketed donors.

In short, I highly suspect public radio approaches internships as an integral part of donor maintenance. It's not Lopate's friends' kids who get the slots, it's big donors' kids...

Phoebe said...

Petey,

So internships are the new tote bags?

jena said...

I see a second issue with the scholarship, too, but I'm having trouble articulating it beyond a few examples.

I have friends who didn't apply for a scholarship for cancer survivors "because I was never an inpatient" and others who didn't apply for a scholarship for children of divorce "because my parents still like each other."

There's already a lot of downplaying of health and family problems as "not as bad as others" - sort of an anti-one-upmanship? - which seems counter to the point of such scholarship.

Sure, the writer doesn't have AS BAD a disadvantage as others ... but does that matter?

Phoebe said...

Jena,

Yes, so many times yes. And I have so, so many thoughts on this, but will have to same some for planned articles (maybe a book, depending how ambitious I'm feeling at any given moment).

But yes, there are certain privilege categories that people are prepared to discuss openly, and others that don't necessarily lend themselves to that. Race and class can be discussed openly (even if those who proudly discuss a scrappy past often, I've found, grew up merely upper-middle-class among rich people, or something along those lines. Or their parents drove a used car, and this was what the scrappiness consisted of. Whereas someone who actually grew up poor might not be shouting that from the rooftops). But we get - and rightly so - that having $100k in student loans without family support, or being of color, are, all things equal, obstacles.

But then there's this whole realm of unclassifiable obstacles, or ones someone might not want to announce because they're just too personal. It's really not immediately obvious upon meeting someone - or even knowing them kind of well - how much they've had to overcome. Illness that doesn't culminate in a visible disability seems the obvious one, but also family misery, abuse. Things that people are that much more likely to stay silent about, accepting others' judgments of them as privileged (assuming they are in whichever visible areas) rather than provide candid autobiographies to all who'll listen.

Which brings us to the scholarship question. It's in a way a good thing that scholarships would acknowledge that there are forms of hardship outside the usual privilege framework (white, male, cisgender, and rich or middle-class). But it may not be enough to create more categories, both because there will inevitably be unclassifiable ones, and, more importantly, because these are categories not everyone is going to want to announce on their applications or CVs.

Petey said...

"So internships are the new tote bags?"

Only for Platinum Club Members.

And if you qualify for Oligarch Club Membership, you can even cancel programming you dislike.

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Also, beware: rumors are coming in that coyotes are learning to pick door locks...

caryatis said...

"Which brings us to the scholarship question. It's in a way a good thing that scholarships would acknowledge that there are forms of hardship outside the usual privilege framework (white, male, cisgender, and rich or middle-class). But it may not be enough to create more categories, both because there will inevitably be unclassifiable ones, and, more importantly, because these are categories not everyone is going to want to announce on their applications or CVs. "

So, scholarships don't eliminate inequality? Not too surprising. You would have to be omniscient and omnipotent to do so.

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

It's less that some obstacles will inevitably get left out, and more that there's something particular about these more idiosyncratic obstacles, such that it might actually constitute harm to invite applicants to announce the obstacle in question on their resumes, as they would if they take whichever scholarship.

caryatis said...

Couldn't you just leave the Victim-of-Childhood-Sex-Abuse scholarship off the resume?

Phoebe said...

Yes, that would address one issue, assuming there's no website listing all scholarship recipients. But it wouldn't get at the deeper one, which is that the really major personal-type obstacles are the ones people are likeliest to be silent about altogether. This also hints at a larger, conceptual problem with attempts at rewarding those who've overcome obstacles: those suffering the most will be the least likely to advocate for themselves. Which isn't necessarily a huge problem when it comes to bigger/less private categories, like race and class, because even if the most assertive black or poor students make it to an elite school, there's at least representation, diversity, etc. But if the only people who get this theoretical child-abuse-victim scholarship are the people who've moved past it, what's accomplished?