The World We Don’t See: Being Low Income at TAMS

Being low-income in a school like TAMS is alienating. Most TAMS students don’t think about money, beyond college scholarships and financial aid. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—we’re teenagers, and we should be focusing on personal growth and academic development. But it leaves those of us who have to be cautious with spending, whose parents could never even afford room and board at TAMS without financial aid, hyper-aware of our socioeconomic status in relation to everyone around us.

I experienced a significant amount of culture shock beginning at TAMS. In the first few weeks, my friends and I discussed what was a living wage—I was thinking around $50,000 for a family of four for a base level of comfort; my friends all declared that $100,000 was the minimum needed to be comfortable as an individual. Our perceptions of wealth started out completely different—my parents used to talk about affluent households as the lucrative ‘six figures’ between both parents. I came to TAMS to find out that this golden standard I had in my mind of wealth was actually commonplace amongst my classmates. TAMS students typically describe themselves as middle class, but a combined income of $150,000, common amongst many TAMS students’ families, places a household in the top 10% of American households.

It is difficult, especially during junior year, to participate in TAMS social life if you do not come from a well-off family. Seemingly trivial trips to Chipotle or Beth Marie’s represent a real financial hardship for some students, and there is a complete lack of awareness of that amongst TAMSters. My other low-income classmates do not feel comfortable sharing that they can’t afford outings or tickets for dances and so they just don’t go. I did not volunteer with HOPE first semester because they required a shirt for that, a shirt I couldn’t justify paying for, when I was making $7.25 an hour and my parents were struggling to pay rent. Wi-Fi cutoff, while valuable, highlights the inequity between students who can afford a hotspot and those who can’t. I’ve had to constantly turn down invitations to do stuff because I work all day Saturday and all day Sunday, and other low-income students have to stay in because they know their parents are scraping together everything they have to provide them this opportunity, and they can’t afford to mess up. It’s a lot of pressure, especially when you’re worried that if you fail, you’ll be reinforcing the narrative that low-income students can’t succeed at a school like TAMS.

TAMS has a very socioeconomically homogenous population, and while that population is intelligent, driven, and compassionate, the lack of diversity means TAMS students often have no idea how different other people’s backgrounds are. Earlier this year, the TAMS RAs hosted a hunger banquet to discuss food insecurity, and in the subsequent discussion, a lot of TAMS students provided examples of poverty in far-off cities like New York and Los Angeles. Denton has a poverty rate of 20.3%, less than 1% lower than New York City’s rate of 21.2%, but the TAMS community is so insular, it’s impossible for TAMS students to see how prevalent poverty in our own community is. The DCTA Downtown Denton Transit Center has a nighttime security guard who specifically told me he was there to prevent homeless people from loitering—although the DDTC is one of the few places with reliable shelter, homeless people are not allowed to stay there. If you take the city buses, you see moms with children headed to work, digging for change to pay the bus fare. You see apartments falling apart, and a dad crowding his six kids into their two bedroom after school. You see high school dropouts, who didn’t drop out because they are lazy or unintelligent but because they had to help support their families, working two or three jobs because no one will give them the hours they need to make a living. This is Denton—this is where we live—this isn’t LA or NYC, it’s all around us.

TAMS students do a lot of community service, but it is limited to the world they choose to see. TAMS students impact the community through a lot of education-based initiatives—they tutor kids and provide access to science experiments for kids who might see education as only a speedbump to pass. They keep retired citizens company, and they organize donation drives. But TAMS students don’t do anything with the organizations addressing systemic poverty in our community—because they aren’t even aware the poverty is there. They overlook the homeless people on the square as scammers, even when all they’re asking for is the leftover food you’re carrying. TAMS students see one world, and it is very much the world of the upper middle class.

Consequently, TAMS students often believe that low-income, unskilled workers are inherently less talented or less intelligent. They buy into the mythology that someone working more than full time for $11 an hour trying to give their children a future is lazy. They think that it’s cool when they hear someone has a job, but they don’t consider how difficult it is to know that what you earn each day is what you have to buy food with and to still somehow focus on school. Knowing the prevalence of that attitude at TAMS means that I, and many other low-income students, feel constantly defensive of our backgrounds. When people claim that poor people are inferior, it feels like my identity is being attacked—my friends, my family, my coworkers, everyone I care about. I’m not even that poor—my family is lower middle class—but when I am at TAMS, I am constantly reminded how different my life has been. I have seen my parents lend others money when they have extra and beg relatives for some when we couldn’t afford groceries between pay days. I hear my coworkers talk about the shame, but also the necessity, of applying for CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) programs, which most TAMS students have never heard of. I ask my boss for a ride because otherwise, I might miss curfew walking back to the dorm, and I can’t afford to take Ubers. My background is critical to who I am, and having to wrestle with it constantly at TAMS has made me unsure of whether I belong in academia, whether I should even be pursuing higher education at all.

Somehow, in the last two years at TAMS, the message has really sunken in—being poor means I will never be good enough.

2 Comments

  • Shruthi says:

    I just wanted to say that this was a wonderfully written article and has definitely opened my eyes to the reality of the TAMS community. That being said, I am really sorry that you felt isolated here due to not being able to go out because of money or work. Furthermore, if you ever want company by simply playing a board game or hanging out in general, I’m down. 🙂

  • Marilyn McWilliams says:

    Sarah, you are not only good enough, you are better because you are aware of the differences in the lives that people must lead to survive/flourish. You have a more complete perspective of life in the USA than those unaware of others. You have the gift of empathy for people and their struggles. You will always have the knowledge that you have conquered fears that have held others back from their potential. You are a strong, thoughtful woman.

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