Monday, March 12, 2012

    Upper Class Echo Chamber: Lesson in Bias Awareness

    While talking on the phone with my mom about the cost of living in San Francisco, she mentioned that her cousin's son was making 70K a year and finding it hard to put aside some money.  This blew my mind, because I was calculating a comfortable living while earning 40K a year in San Francisco.  I could not understand how my mom though that a single and childless twenty something year old was just breaking even at the end of the month.  Then I remembered how growing up I was always told that we were poor when my dad was making well over 100 grand a year (putting him in the top 5% of income earners in the US) and suddenly it all made sense.  My parents were stuck in the upper class echo chamber.

    By only associating with people who are in the same socioeconomic class, my parents have made themselves blind to the possibility of life outside of their own income bracket.  I have personally witnessed this blindness at dinners with family and family friends.  Just imagine, a group of senior engineers or managers reassuring themselves over $200+ bottles of wine that living off less than 100K a year in Silicon Valley is next to impossible.  Actually, San Jose's mayor Chuck Reed said relatively the same thing in 2009 claiming that “a family earning $250,000 a year can’t buy a home in Silicon Valley.” At the time, people slammed him for being out of touch, but little did the critics know that he was very much in touch with my parents and their friends, also known as the constituency that got him elected. 

    The upper class echo chamber inevitably filters down to the children.  I remember back in high school my friends and I were looking at college majors and the corresponding starting salaries, panicking at how we could possibly live off 50 grand a year once we got out of college.  I would have been indefinitely stuck in the echo chamber had I not joined Cindy Chavez's campaign for mayor my sophomore year and started interacting with different socioeconomic classes.  Especially, while working with union members, I quickly realized my position of privilege which put my feet on the ground and a few years later while in college, my anthropology studies would firmly secure them to there.   

    Later that day, after my mom's call I shared what my mom said at the bar, my perplexed friend and I did a quick thought exercise on how much we would have left each month after taking out essentials if we were making 70K a year.

    Hypothetical essential costs:
    • Taxes - Roughly $21,000 a year
    • Rent - $1200 month for a studio (information provided by my mom on how much the guy was paying)
    • Car lease - $250 a month for a Camry LE (quoted from Lease Trader)
    • Car Insurance - $150 a month (my friend's current young driver rate)
    • Gas - $260 a month (roughly $65 a tank, 1 tank per week)
    • Utilities + Internet + TV - $300 a month (Boston quote because the guy lives in the east coast from White Fence)
    • Wireless bill - 80 (Top of the line unlimited data plan from Sprint)

    Subtract all these monthly costs from his after tax income of $4083 per month and he is left with $1,843 for food and anything else that he wants.  $1,843 a month is more than my current TOTAL monthly expenditure per month. He must be eating steak dinners everyday and buying shots of Patron at the bar if he was just breaking even every month.  There is of course a lot of possible cutting back on this budget as well.

    WHAT’s the point of this whole story?
    This little anecdote highlights the danger of being unaware of your own bias.  It shows how easily it is to become disconnected from the reality on the ground just by surrounding yourself with similar people.  To me it is a reminder to keep stepping out of my usual environments and meeting people who are different as well as once in a while to take a step back and take a real critical look at myself.

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