The “Poor” Aesthetic
“You can say that you’re ‘poor’ after your shopping sprees and still [have the ability] to be a college student,” began low-income senior Maria Mo. “However, had I not received a scholarship and financial aid, I wouldn’t be sitting in the same classes at Tufts with the other 77 percent who claim to share the same struggle.” The 77 percent to which Mo referenced is the percentage of students at Tufts who come from the top 20 percent, a statistic from an article published in The New York Times earlier this year. In light of this article, income equality has been discussed more openly, but it’s time that we addressed socioeconomic class, social spaces, and how those two interact with one another on campus. At a school where 2.9 percent of students come from the bottom 20 percent, it is not surprising that poorness is a misunderstood concept at Tufts.
Some aspects of being low-income, such as struggling with financial aid, food insecurity, and long work hours, are gaining attention through dialogue and written pieces by low-income students. However, one piece of the puzzle that is often missing from the dialogue is how Tufts’ more affluent peers interact with poorness, and the discomfort that low-income students often feel around these interactions. A lot of discussions both in and out of classrooms seem to revolve around the social policies and systems that create and uphold income inequality, but there is very little analysis done by students about their own wealth and privilege.
One example is the disparity that exists between students around the meaning of the word “broke.” The definition of “brokeness” is often interpreted differently in the minds of wealthy students compared to their low-income peers. For many low-income students, “broke” is defined by a lack of financial stability. Matthew Wilson, a low-income senior, shared his thoughts on this discrepancy between definitions. He said, “If you’re not broke and know you’re not broke, don’t say you’re broke. There are people out there, people on this campus who are literally, actually broke. It’s time to start thinking about how the things we say affect other people.”
Justin Hudson, a low-income junior, added, “From my experience, when people here say they’re broke, they mean they’ve spent most of their allowance for the month and still have enough money to not have to work a job while also balancing school––that’s the difference between being Tufts broke and actually broke.”
Along with this trivialization of being “broke” come many wealthier students who may think that they relate to, or understand, the experience of being poor, but whose experiences are vastly different from those of poor students on campus. Sam*, a low-income student, said, “One time, when I was worried about not being able to pay for spring semester tuition, my friend started talking about the struggles of the middle-class and telling me how hard it was being ‘well-off,’ but not as well-off as their neighbors.”
Many low-income students also share the concern that programs intended to provide resources for them are being misused by their wealthier peers. Low-income senior Leanna Pham shared her frustration with this phenomenon, stating, “What angers me the most is when people trivialize and enjoy the struggle of scheming for free stuff. Yeah, capitalism sucks and we shouldn’t be paying the prices we do, but I hate the way people with wealth don’t hesitate around free or reduced things, like textbooks, iClickers, and more, because then the brunt of capitalism still falls on those with less money.”
Oftentimes, wealthier students will utilize programs and organizations like the Senate Textbook Exchange or Goodwill, among others, to purchase things at cheap prices. While saving money shouldn’t be a source of guilt, it is often important to understand that by using these resources, individuals with class privilege are potentially taking resources from a student who genuinely cannot afford them. While it may be enticing to get a good deal on a textbook, clothes, or food, there are students who, in return, go without.
Pham continued, “It’s really tiring to hear people talk about how they’ve saved money. I am a poor person who is so tired of having to think about money to get by. I don’t really want to listen or applaud you when you tell me about the very things I never felt like I had to vocalize. I’m uncomfortable sharing publicly how I’ve saved money because I’m worried wealthy people won’t step back and those hacks and hidden pathways [will] become congested or made unavailable.”
Explicit class discussions at Tufts are often misconstrued as an attack on wealthy students. However, these discussions don’t normally aim to depict the wealthy as villains. Instead, they are intended to facilitate conversation about the challenges and struggles low-income students face on campus and what students with class privilege can tangibly do to mitigate these obstacles. Many low-income students express frustration with having their poorness trivialized by the ‘fake poor’ aesthetic at Tufts, which is seen when higher-income students use poorness––in the form of thrift store clothing or secondhand items––as a fashion statement. Quite often, discussions of poverty in classes and readings are misunderstood as equivalent to the lived experiences of low-income individuals. Being on a limited meal plan does not equate to being unable to afford food, and not having money to go out as much as you’d like is not being “poor” or being “broke.”
There are many ways wealthier students can be more conscious of their privilege and how it may affect poor peers. A step in the right direction would be examining interactions with poor folks on campus and the potential impact of these interactions. Are there accessible social spaces being created for lower-income friends, or is time together based around spending money? Are there discussions of elaborate plans to go to Mexico for spring break in front of peers who can’t even afford to go home? Is there joking about Tufts being a “backup” or “reject” school when some students fought to even attend a college, let alone a college like Tufts? Are wealthier students using the credit cards their parents gave them to treat peers who are working multiple jobs, or are they still sending those Venmo requests?
Sam summed up their thoughts, stating, “Please stop speaking about poorness as something that you understand, and stop making students feel as if their concerns aren’t valid. Low-income students exist on this campus, and with the increase in dialogue around income inequality, it is time for our concerns to be heard.”
*Name has been changed at the student’s request.