Poverty Amongst the Rich

By Dulce Daniella Pedraza Gonzalez

Pedraza cover image

Image of author with brother in childhood, author's image

No quieres terminar como yo.”

My mother’s words have burned in my brain ever since I can remember. “You don’t want to end up like me.” It was harsh, but sad at the same time. She had come to the United States looking for a better life for us, but instead of the land of opportunity that she was promised, she found back-breaking labor and little pay. “Quieres romperte la espalda trabajando para un centavo? Mejor ponte a estudiar.” [“Do you want to break your back working for a cent? You better study instead.”] And so I did. I worked and worked my entire childhood and adolescence with the goal of getting into a good college. I thought that all I had to do was make it in, get a scholarship, and then everything would be okay. I was driven by the desire to help my family get out of poverty. But I was not prepared for what it would take to be successful in an elite university like Notre Dame. Even though I had been accepted, I still faced challenges I did not know I would have. From buying plane tickets to renting textbooks to simply not having the education other students had, I was at a disadvantage. I quickly realized that what I felt was completely, and utterly, out of place. Growing up in poverty had already made it difficult for me to get into college, but why was it affecting me so much while I was already here? In this article, I hope to raise awareness on how growing up in a low-income household affects students at elite universities.

According to research on intergenerational income mobility by economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues, thirty-eight elite colleges have more students from families in the top 1% than from families in the bottom 60% (that is, families that make less than $65,000) (Chetty). The poverty line in the US peaks at $44,660 for a family of eight. Because of the lack of diversity in household income levels at these elite universities, lower-income students are faced with the social dilemma of not knowing how to interact with their peers. Knowing that I walk, talk, eat and live with people who I was so different from perplexed me. I asked myself why universities were not admitting more low-income students. Well, as it turns out, they were, technically. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, the number of undergraduate college students who came from poor families increased from 12% in 1996 to 20% in 2016 (A. Smith). What these statistics fail to mention, however, is that most of these poor students end up going to less-selective colleges and are more likely to drop out.

Only a select few low-income students are actually admitted into prestigious universities. In fact, the number of poor undergraduates only rose from 10% to 13% in very selective colleges (A. Smith). Why is this? Well, according to Anthony Abraham Jack, author of The Privileged Poor and Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, pre-college education plays a much more important role than most would think. A large majority of students living in poverty grow up in poorer communities, and subsequently attend severely underfunded public schools (Jack). So, how do these kids end up in elite schools at all? The answer is: they rarely do. Only 50% of the low-income students accepted into elite universities did not previously attend prestigious private schools. To put it into perspective, out of the fraction of low-income students attending universities, an even tinier fraction has not been exposed to the social and educational background of a prestigious institution. An even tinier fraction of those students are minorities (Illing). For these doubly underprivileged students, being thrown into a private college has a major impact. Interviews with low-income students at “Little Ivy” universities conducted by psychologist Elizabeth Aries and sociologist Maynard Seider revealed the ways low-income students felt they differed from affluent students. “Little Ivy” schools are small, selective, private liberal arts colleges in the Northeastern United States. Low-income students’ answers overwhelmingly captured negative feelings based on class-based differences: inadequacy, inferiority, intimidation, exclusion, and powerlessness (Aries and Seider 426).

I have personally experienced these emotions largely due to the gap between my experiences and the experiences of more affluent students. I grew up in a small country town in Alabama and went to a tiny little high school where we did not have enough funds for art classes, a soccer team, or more than about seven AP courses. I was one of five Hispanic students in my graduating class. To make it into the University of Notre Dame was nothing short of a miracle. When I arrived, I was not at all prepared for the culture shock I experienced. I felt entirely out of place with my four-year-old shoes and my clearance-section clothes. For the first time in my life, I was unbelievably and utterly aware of my status. I was overwhelmed with the same feelings of inadequacy and inferiority as other students in my position. For the first time, I felt ashamed of my background. How could I tell my classmates that I was having trouble affording the textbooks, or that I could not afford an Uber to Walmart for groceries? My reality seemed so inconceivable compared to the people living right beside me. I remember walking into a study lounge in my hall to make some ramen noodles in the microwave only to overhear a conversation between a couple of girls. “What do you call them? I can’t remember! Those little houses?” “I don’t know, I don’t know.” They were all giggling. “OH!! Trailers, they’re called trailers!” I walked out of the room with my bowl of ramen and into my room, eyes filled with tears. I was angry. How could it be fair that my reality seemed so inconceivable to others? I had lived in a one or two-room trailer my entire life, but those girls could not even remember what they were called. I realized that I lived in a completely different universe than the people surrounding me, something that made me feel unbelievably lonely.

According to the interviews by Aries and Seider, the main reason poor students feel alienated is because of the difference in their possessions when compared to their peers (426). Electronics, transportation, clothing, food, furniture—all these things showed how wealthy some students were. Not only do those differences create a social gap, but they also affect the education of low-income students. Having a laptop is vital for the curriculum at universities, especially after lockdown from COVID-19. But for poor students, buying a laptop can be extremely stressful for them and their families. Electronics are expensive, and high-quality electronics even more so. I was lucky enough to have an older brother who loves technology. He saved up for a new laptop so that he could give me his old one. For most poor kids I have met at Notre Dame, it is much worse. From deleting all their work to disconnecting from the internet to completely breaking down, the technology that is accessible to us is pretty trashy. Technology is just one example of many that show how, bit by bit, students’ disadvantages become more and more highlighted at elite colleges.

Aries and Seider argue that another, lesser-known contributor to low-income students’ insecurities is their linguistics (427). The inability to articulate ideas clearly, deficiencies in standard grammar, and regional accents are all effects of growing up in a poor community. On the other hand, growing up in a wealthy community exposes students from a young age to eloquently spoken individuals. Kids like me, who grew up in small, rural, poor communities were rarely exposed to the upper class. Even more so for poor students of color, being made fun of for “ghetto” accents or slang is pretty common. These low-income students subsequently silence themselves for fear of embarrassment for sounding uneducated. In an article written by Clint Smith, a writer for The Atlantic, he attests:

These low-income students—overwhelmingly students of color—arrive on elite-college campuses and are perpetually made to feel as if they don’t deserve to be there, whether it’s while cleaning a classmate’s bathroom, stocking up on nonperishable food for spring break, or overhearing an offhand comment about how their acceptance was predicated on the color of their skin or the lower socioeconomic status of their family.

Smith came to this conclusion after studying the recent College Admissions Scandal. The point of his article is that no one questions whether wealthy students deserve to be at the colleges they have been accepted into, but poor students’ success is constantly diminished as a result of their status.

My own experience bears out Smith’s argument. I could not count how many times I have been told that I was accepted into the University of Notre Dame because I was a minority or because I was poor. I was accepted because I “fit the demographic” universities needed to look more diverse. All the hard work I did as a child and a teenager is dismissed entirely because I am a poor, Hispanic immigrant. The worst part is when students get told these things so often that they start believing they are not actually good enough for the schools they attend. These misconceptions are just another nail in the coffin for these low-income students who, for many other reasons, already feel like they do not belong.

Feeling like you do not belong can lead to isolation, which is a common trigger for mental illness, as well as a common unhealthy coping mechanism for people who already suffer from mental illnesses. The danger of isolation is one that needs to be talked about for low-income students at elite universities. A population-based study in the United States found that low levels of household income are associated with several lifetime mental disorders and suicide attempts (Sareen et al.). The data was collected using NESARC, an ongoing, nationally representative survey of the US population funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Being predisposed to mental illnesses, in combination with the negative feelings low-income students face, can create overwhelming triggers that can lead students to suffer from severe depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders. Further, another factor that affects college students’ academic performance and mental health is food insecurity. A study on the relationship between social support and mental health showed that students who are different from most other students, such as being a minority race or ethnicity, being international, and having a low socioeconomic status, are at greater risk of social isolation (Hefner and Eisenberg 492). This same study found that social support was significantly associated with mental health. The analysis concluded that 31% of students with depression had low-quality support, while only 5% of students with depression had high-quality social support. Feeling isolated because of financial differences is a real problem among students at elite universities. Not feeling comfortable speaking up or making friends isolates low-income students. That feeling of isolation and loneliness is why mental health resources are so important in universities.

Prestigious universities like Notre Dame must make more of an effort to admit students equally from all socioeconomic statuses and backgrounds. In light of the research I have done, I have realized just how unbelievably lucky I am to have ended up at Notre Dame. However, I cannot be content with attending this university and not pointing out its flaws. It is important that, as the student body, we demand more diversity. According to Don Bishop, the senior vice president of undergraduate enrollment, the class of 2025 will be Notre Dame’s most diverse class. He states, “First-generation, Pell Grant and students with family incomes under $65,000 make up 20.3% of the first-year class” (Guffey). However, 66.87% of families in the United States have a household income of less than $65,000. The disparity between those percentages is telling of how large of a problem there is with true diversity on campus. Of course it is good that the university is celebrating its most diverse year, but becoming more diverse is not the equivalent of being truly diverse. I hope that the university will continue to make efforts to create an environment that feels safe and welcoming to everyone, no matter their socioeconomic status or race.