Very few people are able to transcend the economic circumstances of their birth: only one in every 13 children born in the United States to parents in the bottom-fifth of the income distribution will make it into the top fifth. This measure of mobility lags behind countries like the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Canada, where the rate is nearly twice as high.
Lost in such statistics is what life is actually like for those who do make it from one rung on the economic ladder to the next. They might find opportunities — but they don’t have the same safety net as those who grew up in middle class and wealthy families. They have to decide how much help they can afford to give family and friends as they try to build their own life. They can end up feeling caught between different worlds, uncertain of how to navigate competing norms. And going to college and getting a well-paying job doesn’t erase the fears that they don’t fit in to the professional and social circles that they’re now able to enter.
Jennifer Acosta came with her parents to the U.S. from Cuba in 1996 after her father, a political prisoner, was released from jail. They moved first to West New York, a New Jersey town on the Hudson River. Her mom cleaned offices and her dad worked a range of jobs, sometimes landscaping or driving a truck. The family moved again when Acosta was in middle school, finding cheaper rent in rural central Florida.
“I always had parents who were very encouraging of my education,” Acosta told me. She said that while her mom and dad encouraged her to go to college and get good grades, “there was a lot about the American educational system they weren’t privy to” — like how colleges take into account things like extracurricular activities and volunteer work in deciding who to admit.
It’s easy to not talk about money when you have it — and necessary to discuss it when you don’t.
Acosta hoped to become the first in her family to go to college. As a senior in high school, she started knocking at her school’s college and career counselor’s door with tons of questions — “when do I start worrying about college? What do I have to do?” At the high school she attended, these types of questions weren't uncommon — Acosta ended up volunteering in the counselor's office, helping other students navigate the process. She applied to the University of Florida, Florida State, and University of Miami, along with several top-tier private colleges. Acosta was admitted into five schools, and when she realized the financial aid package offered by Duke University made it cheaper than staying in Florida, her decision was made.
But heading to Duke on a full ride from a public high school where more than 60 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch, Acosta would encounter uncomfortable situations before classes even started.
At Duke, all first-year students were paired up in groups of six to eight other freshmen with an upperclassmen “advisory counselor” who helped them move in to their dorm and showed them around campus. When Acosta’s advisory counselor invited her cohort out to eat, Acosta didn’t bring any money — “I assumed it was a Duke-sponsored event, and I ended up getting caught in a very awkward situation when [the advisory counselor] was like ‘you’re paying for this.’”
One of the advisory counselor’s friends covered the meal for Acosta, but she kept finding herself in similar situations. She had to pick and choose which activities to participate in based on how much they cost, while student groups and professors were often ambiguous about which events were sponsored and which were not. Acosta quickly learned that it’s easy to not talk about money when you have it — and necessary to discuss it when you don’t.
“Even just having conversations that would be normal for other people, you realize you aren’t a part of their world,” Acosta said. Classmates would bring up their plans for summer or winter break that would often include international travel with family. Acosta recalled discussions she’d have that would start with: “‘My parents are going to Italy this summer, what are you doing?’ It’s like, I’m staying home, taking care of my little sister and helping my mom clean [offices], but I can’t say that.”
Such is a paradox that Acosta and many others like her face: she feels proud of where she comes from, but also knows that mentioning it can cast a pallor on conversations. The mobile home she lived in, her parents' jobs — such things weren’t secrets, but they weren’t easy to talk about in the company of more-privileged peers.
“Even just having conversations that would be normal for other people, you realize you aren’t a part of their world.”
One time, Acosta was sitting in a faculty member’s office with a few other students when he asked everyone what their parents did for a living. Acosta ignored the question and didn’t respond at all — “it would have been super awkward … it would have [made it] very clear that there was a huge SES [socioeconomic status] gap between the people in the room.”
The pressure to blend in with others can be intense, especially when it comes to language. Donna Beegle, who holds a Ph.D in educational leadership, was born into a migrant-labor family and got married at 15. She said that when she started community college at 26, “I knew [middle-class] people couldn’t understand me, the words I used, the examples I used” — things like saying “gone” instead of “went” or “seen” instead of “saw.” Beegle said that learning “middle-class language” was like becoming bilingual — you can fully master every word of a foreign language without it coming as naturally as your mother tongue.
Isai Garcia-Barza, whose family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina when his parents, immigrants from Mexico, found maintenance jobs at the university there, said that when he started his job as a research assistant for a non-profit, he “knew just listening to people to talk to each other, that there was a difference in vocabulary.” (Garcia-Barza graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.)
For Acosta, Beegle, Garcia-Barza, and others like them, important rites of passage like graduating college, getting a job, and finding a place to live were complicated by the lack of a safety net. After graduating college, Acosta took a job at University of Maryland and found an apartment with her partner. Although she said that she and her partner live modestly, they took on some credit-card debt to cover expenses when her partner was relocating from central Florida and waiting for his job’s first paycheck. Acosta wants to go to grad school, but doesn’t know when she would be able to attend, even if she was admitted into a program that was funded. “We need a lot of money saved up just in case,” she said. “It’s like Jenga, if one piece fell out, everything would fall apart.”
Another common dilemma faced by the upwardly mobile is how much support to give to family, even when their own economic situation feels precarious. Stacey Abrams, a Democrat running for governor of Georgia, is the child of a librarian and a shipyard worker; when she graduated from Yale Law and started working at a firm, she made three times her parents combined income. In 2006, her parents took custody of Abrams’s niece while struggling with their own medical issues. In an essay for Fortune Magazine earlier this year, Abrams wrote about how she accrued more than $200,000 of debt by supporting her parents and herself. “I suspect my situation will sound familiar to others who are the first in their families to earn real money,” she wrote. “Money dictates nearly step of social mobility from the very first moments of life.”
Acosta and her partner have similarly chipped in to help loved ones with bills. “It’s family so we have to help,” she said — and she also anticipates that she may need to support her parents down the road. “It’s been scary seeing my parents age,” she said, noting that her parents have both been doing manual labor into their 50s.
For Beegle, the dilemma over whether to support her family started while she was attending community college. The financial aid she’d received was more money than she ever had before, but it still left her with nothing extra to share — dealing with another eviction or utility cut-off would make it impossible to focus on her coursework.
“As I would get my financial aid, my brother’s baby would be out of milk,” Beegle said. “I had to violate my values — if you have extra beans someone ought to be eating them. I had to lie to my family and tell them I don’t have any money […] I cried myself to sleep [but I knew] if we all stay here there is nobody to help.” Beegle was right that getting an education would end up changing not only her own life, but her family’s as well; two of her brothers now live with her whom she believes would be homeless otherwise. “I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to leave your family behind to move out of poverty,” she said.
Beegle went on to start Communication Across Barriers, a consulting firm that advises companies, government agencies and schools on how to become “poverty informed.” Despite her successes, she sees the ways in which her life is still different from those who grew up in the middle class: “I don’t have money saved for retirement, I don’t have the same things as other people with my level of education. I use my resources to help my family,” she said. “I feel like I don’t know what I could have done if I had been born into a family where all of our fundamental needs have met.”
“I had to lie to my family and tell them I don’t have any money […] I cried myself to sleep.”
Beegle, Acosta, and Abrams’s stories speak to the crucial difference between income inequality and wealth inequality. So many advantages are passed from generation to generation, and getting a good job is just one piece of the puzzle. When you haven’t inherited privilege, things start out harder, and they typically stay that way.
Even earning more than one’s parents is no guarantee for first-generation college graduates. In that way, mobility comes in fits and starts. When you look across all the types of privilege are wrapped up in “class” — the education that lets your voice be heard in more venues, the stable employment that isn’t physically punishing, the wealth that buffers you from an occasional bump in the road, the social connections to others with more power — grasping and holding on to one of those strands within the course of a generation is a challenge, and getting a firm handle on them all is nearly impossible.
Anna Phimmasone was the first in her family to graduate from college, earning a degree in women and gender studies from University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2014. Her parents, both factory workers, had high expectations for her and her younger siblings; growing up, she said she had “the earliest curfew of all [her] friends.” She said that she assumed she would have more job opportunities than her parents because she went to college, but since graduating she has worked as a waitress and in an office to earn extra money. She’s now looking to go back to school to become a medical lab technologist. While Phimmasone said that going to college hasn’t really paid off financially, it was worth it in other ways: “going to college made me see more of the world, and realize it was much bigger than I thought […] it made me open up, and I want to continue my education,” she said.
Achieving mobility in the U.S. requires repeatedly getting the rubber stamp of approval from wealthier people — in formal moments like in applications for government benefits, schools, and jobs, and in informal moments like finding mentors and building the social connections leading to professional opportunities. Income and class are the subtle backdrops to virtually all American conversations — they’re there when we discuss what we eat, where we live, what we do for fun, and how we see the world — and in those moments, the upwardly mobile often choose between blending in and standing out, between going with the flow and challenging misconceptions about the families and communities that raised them. Those choices aren’t simple, and they are navigated daily; Acosta and Garcia-Barza both described the feeling as being caught between two different worlds.
It can be difficult to convey that feeling to others, but more often than not, it’s a necessity. Beegle was on an airplane reading a book that had a photograph in it of children living in a broken-down shed when the woman sitting next to her leaned over. “Oh those poor children, they don’t have love in their lives,” she said. Beegle responded: “I was born into poverty and we have a lot of love and lot of fun — we just don’t have any money.”