Several weeks ago, a cartoon ran in the New Yorker that really set me aback. You can see it, the daily cartoon of April 1, here. It seems an especially significant symbol of increasingly blitheness that the rest of the world displays about the financial burdens of graduate school—and the increasing inequality between haves and have-nots in the US.
In it, a young woman is working behind the counter in a donut shop. It’s not an elegant one—it’s called “Metro Donut,” and ever so slightly down at the heels despite the two chairs and table in front for al fresco dining. She is turned in profile to a co-worker, telling him, “From Monday to Friday, I work in an office to pay rent. This is my student-debt job.”
Having no discretionary income to pay a debt isn’t really side-splitting in real life. Having to give up leisure time to pay debts isn’t amusing at all. And realizing that this story is considered amusing for the middle to upper middle class, educated audience of the New Yorker is maybe the ultimate non har-de-har.
Yet the cartoon obviates indignation at someone having to work weekends for repayments on crushing student debt. Why? I think we are expected to read in the kind of cultural and social capital that Pierre Bourdieu talks about. She has social and cultural capital, if not (much) of the economic kind. The audience might infer social and cultural capital by the facts supplied: that she has student debt means a certain level of education. That she is working in New York implies she is sophisticated and ambitious. We might be expected to read in a typical young-woman-come-to-the-big-city narrative: boyfriends, multiple roommates, and supportive parents somewhere. The latter have an extra room in case life gets really rocky.
Added to that scenario is the style of the drawing itself. Her hair is in a bun—symbol of competence—and she looks trim and together, if somewhat tired. We are expected to see her as typical of the Millennial generation, shouldering her Saturday afternoons (and maybe Sundays, too) at the donut kiosk (cart, truck, whatever). We are expected, I think, to see her as someone with foreknowledge that she’ll get out of student debt and high rent with pluck and hard work.
We are not expected to read in economic desperation.
Except. As a young woman, I put in time in New York City. (I’m a midlife PhD, remember, so this was a couple of decades ago.) At that time, I worked a fairly low wage job. And I spent 60% of my income on rent. I can still remember the anxiety of that era vividly. Once over half goes, and you haven’t bought groceries yet, the rest evaporates on necessities as well. Every book I have from the period has columns of figures in the back, as I tallied up whether I could afford a movie, a trip, or even chocolate chip cookies to allay the anxiety.
And, the rent I paid then would be considered dirt cheap today.
So in a way, I’m calling attention to this cartoon because it illustrates a significant creep in the actual financial strain over the years. I could pay my rent and live in Manhattan, if briefly. So could young women several decades before me. Now, that’s almost an impossible dream for the young liberal arts middle class; it’s one of the reasons that “Greenpoint” has cachet as a destination for the recently graduated hip. I didn’t have significant student debt. But in this cartoon, we see someone who can’t afford much beyond rent and loan repayment. My financial life was impaired my Manhattan. So, very likely, will hers be.
More importantly, though, what of upward strivers who don’t have the cultural or social capital that this young woman putatively does? Maybe that’s the worst of this economic era. I was the first in my family to go to college, aided by not much beyond general cultural expectation, relatively low tuition, and my own desire to read everything in the library.
Making a generational leap is increasingly difficult, and it’s increasingly onerous just because of student debt and high metropolitan rents. The young with college-educated parents walk across economic strain with social capital for a tightrope. The tightrope may break for people who don’t have that social capital. It either plunges them in the gulf or puts them in a place where social mobility, long a part of the American dream, is increasingly hard to put into reality.