In the same way that you don’t notice the specifics of your own culture until you travel elsewhere, you don’t really notice your social class until you enter another one. As an undergraduate at Yale a decade ago, I came to see that my peers had experienced a totally different social reality than me. I had grown up poor, a biracial product of family dysfunction, foster care and military service. Suddenly ensconced in affluence at an elite university—more Yale students come from families in the top 1% of income than from the bottom 60%—I found myself thinking a lot about class divides and social hierarchies.

I’d thought that by entering a place like Yale, we were being given a privilege as well as a duty to improve the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves. Instead, I often found among my fellow students what I call “luxury beliefs”—ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class but often inflict real costs on the lower classes. For example, a classmate told me “monogamy is kind of outdated” and not good for society. I asked her what her background was and if she planned to marry. She said she came from an affluent, stable, two-parent home—just like most of our classmates. She added that, yes, she personally planned to have a monogamous marriage, but quickly insisted that traditional families are old-fashioned and that society should “evolve” beyond them.

My classmate’s promotion of one ideal (“monogamy is outdated”) while living by another (“I plan to get married”) was echoed by other students in different ways. Some would, for instance, tell me about the admiration they had for the military, or how trade schools were just as respectable as college, or how college was not necessary to be successful. But when I asked them if they would encourage their own children to enlist or become a plumber or an electrician rather than apply to college, they would demur or change the subject.

In the past, people displayed their membership in the upper class with their material accouterments. As the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen famously observed in his 1899 book “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” status symbols must be difficult to obtain and costly to purchase. In Veblen’s day, people exhibited their status with delicate and restrictive clothing, such as top hats and evening gowns, or by partaking in time-consuming activities, such as golf or beagling. The value of these goods and activities, argued Veblen, was in the very fact that they were so pricey and wasteful that only the wealthy could afford them.

Today, when luxury goods are more accessible to ordinary people than ever before, the elite need other ways to broadcast their social position. This helps explain why so many are now decoupling class from material goods and attaching it to beliefs.

Take vocabulary. Your typical working-class American could not tell you what “heteronormative” or “cisgender” means. When someone uses the phrase “cultural appropriation,” what they are really saying is, “I was educated at a top college.” Only the affluent can afford to learn strange vocabulary. Ordinary people have real problems to worry about.

When my classmates at Yale talked about abolishing the police or decriminalizing drugs, they seemed unaware of the attending costs because they were largely insulated from them. Reflecting on my own experiences with alcohol, if drugs had been legal and easily accessible when I was 15, you wouldn’t be reading this. My birth mother succumbed to drug addiction soon after I was born. I haven’t seen her since I was a child. All my foster siblings’ parents were addicts or had a mental health condition, often triggered by drug use.

A well-heeled student at an elite university can experiment with cocaine and will probably be just fine. A kid from a dysfunctional home with absentee parents is more likely to ride that first hit of meth to self-destruction. This may explain why a 2019 survey conducted by the Cato Institute found that more than 60% of Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree were in favor of legalizing drugs, while less than half of Americans without a college degree thought it was a good idea. Drugs may be a recreational pastime for the rich, but for the poor they are often a gateway to further pain.

Similarly, a 2020 Yahoo News/YouGov survey found that the richest Americans showed the strongest support for defunding the police, while the poorest Americans reported the lowest support. Consider that compared with Americans who earn more than $50,000 a year, the poorest Americans are three times more likely to be victims of robbery, aggravated assault and sexual assault, according to federal statistics. Yet it’s affluent people who are calling to abolish law enforcement. Perhaps the luxury belief class is simply ignorant of the realities of crime.

Most personal to me is the luxury belief that family is unimportant or that children are equally likely to thrive in all family structures. In 1960, the percentage of American children living with both biological parents was identical for affluent and working-class families—95%. By 2005, 85% of affluent families were still intact, but for working-class families the figure had plummeted to 30%. As the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam stated at a 2017 Senate hearing: “Rich kids and poor kids now grow up in separate Americas.”

In 2006, more than half of American adults without a college degree believed it was “very important” that couples with children should be married, according to Gallup. Fast-forward to 2020, and this number had plummeted to 31%. Among college graduates polled by Gallup, only 25% thought couples should be married before having kids. Their actions, though, contradict their luxury beliefs: Most American college graduates who have children are married. Despite their behavior, affluent people are the most likely to say marriage is unimportant. Their message has spread.

I noticed that many Yale students selectively concealed their opinions or facts about their lives. More than one quietly confessed to me that they were pretending to be poorer than they really were, because they didn’t want the stigma of being thought rich. Why would this stigma exist at a rich university full of rich students? It’s a class thing. For the upper class, indicating your social position by speaking about money is vulgar. Sharing your educational credentials is a classier shorthand, but broadcasting your seemingly altruistic and socially conscientious luxury beliefs is the best of all.

It is harder for wealthy people to claim the mantle of victimhood, which, among the affluent, is often a key ingredient of righteousness. Researchers at Harvard Business School and Northwestern University recently found evidence of a “virtuous victim” effect, in which victims are seen as more moral than nonvictims who behave in exactly the same way: If people think you have suffered, they will be more likely to excuse your behavior. Perhaps this is why prestigious universities encourage students to nurture their grievances. The peculiar effect is that many of the most advantaged people are the most adept at conveying their disadvantages.

Occasionally, I raised these critiques with fellow students or graduates of elite colleges. Sometimes they would reply by asking, “Well, aren’t you part of this group now?” implying that my appraisals were hollow because I moved within the same milieu. But they wouldn’t have listened to me back when I was a lowly enlisted man in the military or when I was washing dishes for minimum wage. If you ridicule the upper class as an outsider, they’ll ignore you. The requirements for the upper class to take you seriously—credentials, wealth, power—are also the grounds to brand you a hypocrite for daring to judge.

But negative social judgments often serve as guardrails to deter detrimental decisions that lead to unhappiness. To avoid misery, I believe we have to admit that certain actions and choices, including single parenthood, substance abuse and crime, are actually in and of themselves undesirable and not simply in need of normalization. Indeed, it’s cruel to validate decisions that inflict harm. And it’s a true luxury to be ignorant of these consequences.

Rob Henderson is the author of “Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class,” which will be published on Feb. 20 by Gallery Books.

2024-02-09T15:03:11Z dg43tfdfdgfd