Before closing this section of the book, it is worth acknowledging the range of ways in which disparities have impacted our financial reality in the United States. These are by no means the only domains in which people have experienced oppression or privilege – race, gender, class, religion, sexuality, level of education, language, ability, geographic location, physical and behavioral health, etc. – but they are some of the top ones that invariably have impacted your own perception and actual experience in developing your financial capabilities and resultant levels of wealth and opportunity.
As progressive professionals, we are aware of a long history of oppression and exclusion in myriad spheres of life that have prevented whole segments of the country’s population from participating equally in, benefiting from, and contributing to the economic growth of our nation. Certainly gains have been made, institutional structures reformed, laws enacted, and hearts transformed. However, as we look around us, at individuals who have made it (we do love a good rags to riches story!), it is important to set these people in context for what they are: outliers. Amazing, inspiring, or lucky as they may be, outliers do not represent large populations still earning less, still doing more, still receiving fewer benefits and supports, still in greater debt, still living financially precarious lives.
Innumerable books, studies, articles, films, and indeed, professions have been crafted around studying inequality of financial opportunity and disparities in financial capabilities. I encourage you to seek out resources and learn more. Educate yourself to see how you’ve been impacted, positively or negatively, by the “-isms”. The better understanding you have of the issues at hand, such as the role redlining plays in housing, wealth building, and education; how relying upon the private employer to provide retirement and health benefits hinders women from accumulating the same levels of wealth as men; how the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next leads to its consolidation in the hands of a few and the exacerbation of the extremes of wealth and poverty; how lack of affordable, high-quality childcare has cascading effects on single parents’ ability to work, earn, and engage in saving and investing; how flattened wage rates, income volatility, and rises in the cost of the staples – housing, energy, childcare, healthcare, and education – lead to a hollowing out of the middle class; how car insurance companies use gender, marital status, education levels, occupation, and other non-driving related demographic factors in determining consumer cost, leading to rates that are a quarter to a third higher for women than men, etc., the better equipped you are to understand the social, legal, and professional reasons why our current situation is so in need of reform, as well as to understand what’s at stake, and to define clearly what we want in a better world. Only then will we be able to actually work towards it.
Part of your learning about this area is best achieved by exploring your own family history. Sketching out a type of family tree (called a “genogram”) and interviewing some of your elders will shed a lot of light on why you are currently where you are today. Ask a parent or grandparent or other person who knows the family history well about each member’s level of education, profession, and financial habits, going as far back as they can. (I know I’m asking you to broach the taboo topic and there may be some skeletons in the closet… but as best you can normalize it, put the blame on this book, and be openly curious – just asking questions, not judging or responding, the insights will be guaranteed to be interesting at least and revelatory at best.)
The following example can help show you where it could go:
On my father’s side, his maternal grandparents were immigrants from Poland. His grandfather was a bit of an entrepreneur and when my father married, he gave him a sum of money to buy land on which to build a home. My father’s father (my grandfather), was in WWII, got an engineering degree and low-interest mortgage through the GI bill, worked for the aforementioned tech company, and made a good salary with solid benefits (that could support a family of four boys, while his wife stayed home to manage the household). In the end, his family was able to gift us the down payment on my home.
Just in this little vignette, we see the impact of race, marital status, gender, intergenerational transfers of wealth, class, and education. My family is of Northern European decent and thereby considered white. Their opportunity to hold and grow a business, to obtain honorable discharges and utilize GI benefits, to pursue higher degrees of education, to invest in long-term growth assets (real estate), to have steady income sufficient to support a family of six, were not necessarily a given, but nor where these features of life hindered in any way by social, legal, or governmental institutions. Had my family been different in any way – the color of their skin, their religion, their levels of education, marital status – the opportunities and benefits that accrued would have looked very different. Find out how some of these details of education, profession, and wealth use played out for your family and you’ll see why your financial state looks the way it does.
So what do you do with this background and insight? For one thing, it helps to identify certain traits and patterns which you may want to learn more about in order to leverage for yourself, as well as explicitly figure out what you don’t want to pass on to the next generation. Perhaps an aunt of yours was really good at saving or made some solid decisions that resulted in some great outcomes. Talk to her more about what she did and how. Or maybe your mother, as a result of growing up in poverty, always maintained a scarcity mindset while bingeing on frivolous things, and you see how that pattern is repeated in yourself. Understanding what you’re dealing with and where it comes from helps inform what you need to work on if you’re to make a true deviation from the current trend line. This is all at the level of your self as an individual. But then there’s you as a professional.
Understanding how you’ve benefited from or been challenged by these vicissitudes of society can help you develop empathy for your clients and colleagues – who may have experienced the same or different challenges. It can help you critically analyze, and understand what’s at stake in a very real, lived way, when you talk with your employer about what benefits are offered and how they’re structured. In other words, it can help fuel your advocacy work on behalf of yourself, your colleagues, and those you serve.
And then at the societal level, what you learn about your family patterns will help set your place in historical context with the rest of the country. You will develop a greater appreciation for the work being done in your community, state, nationally, and even internationally, to bend the arc toward justice. You’ll be able to convey deeper meaning and substance when you write to your congress person, or submit that op-ed piece. Activities related to social action and contributions to the discourses going on in society will be better informed if enough of us actually know from where we’ve come and where we want to go.
Before we move on, I want to underscore one final point. On the one hand, there are huge institutionalized barriers and hindrances that are hurting our economic and financial well-being. And materialism, cloaked in the guise of freedom, distracts us from achieving our true calling and potential. Yet on the other hand, the human spirit is incredibly powerful and can achieve undreamt of heights if it learns to develop the right qualities and align itself with the right forces.
To clarify, I am NOT stating that this is a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps and you can achieve what I’ve got” premise. When we put blame on the individual for their circumstances and tell them that all they have to do is change and do this, that, or another thing, it is a convenient escape for ourselves and we relinquish responsibility for changing the systems around us. This is unacceptable.
Rather, prosperity is a spiritual quality and thereby a birthright of and achievable by all. No doubt it will require rethinking what prosperity is – from the amount of money in one’s account to the sense of contentment and fulfillment that can be achieved with material means. We as individuals, and collectively, can learn to see what’s possible in spite of the barriers, and focus on being creative with the options that do exist. As we tweak our attitudes and gradually shift our behaviors, these small steps forward can and will lead to a great distance traveled. If done in quick succession, if done systematically, results will be inevitable.
Remember, we’re doing this for all of us. For our husbands and wives and partners. For our children. For our parents and grandchildren. For our neighbors and community. For the people we serve – our clients, patients, students, and the families we accompany. And we do it for ourselves, so that we can stand humbly confident, learning always, and breathe easier, live with greater control, and with purpose, clarity, and determination, wield our resources of money, time, energy, and attention, to live prosperously.
This book is a work in progress and we’ll all benefit from your input and collaboration. In the “Leave a Reply” below, please post examples, comments, questions, and needed edits. By posting, you grant permission for inclusion of any content to become part of the book, now or in the future, in whatever form it may take. I’ll give attributions to the extent possible. I know sharing about our financial lives can be sensitive, so if you want to share anonymously, please use the contact form instead and I’ll honor your request.