The lottery of life

Growing up, my parents sought to make sure that my brother and I were aware of how lucky we are. They didn’t want to us to live in an upper-middle-class bubble. As a result, and because we went to mid-decile schools, we ended up feeling pretty rich. Most of the kids at school had parents of a similar income level or lower, in some cases much much lower. In my second year of law school I was invited to a pre-ball function at the house of a more recent acquaintance and it was literally a mansion and I was kinda floored because I didn’t really realise that there were people in New Zealand who had that level of wealth (aside from maybe Peter Jackson).

Lots of people in this country seem to want to disclaim their good fortune. A tactic of minimising privilege to try and appear less privileged. I think it’s partly because we have a strong cultural norm against bragging, and being upfront about the extent of your own privilege can sound a bit like bragging. I got a few of scholarships at the end of high-school and through uni and as a result my student loan is much lower than it otherwise would be. Gotta be careful how I frame that statement, it can sound like I’m patting myself on the back for being a brainbox – and I don’t mean that at all; I reckon it’s largely luck and I want to acknowledge my luck. I have my doubts about the whole concept of scholarships based on grades rather than financial needs. There’s a strong argument that this gives those who already have an edge even more of an edge. But, this is perhaps kinda a nuanced message: “I have this stuff and I think that I don’t really deserve it”… Maybe easier not to draw attention to how much stuff you have.

A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a colleague whose kids were in highschool. He said that he didn’t want his kids to have any special advantages, but he was planning to pay for their university fees because after all that’s what he got from the government. It amused me, because having your fees completely paid for is definitely a “special advantage”.

There’s no such thing as a standard upbringing. It’s relative to everyone else’s upbringings. Regular family trips to the movies? Not everyone gets that. A holiday every summer? That’s not a given. Went to all your school camps? Lucky you. Parents bought you those $50 a pop study guides for all your NCEA subjects? How nice.

Lived at home for free during uni?

Parents gave you some money towards uni fees, or towards a home deposit, or towards your wedding?

Maybe you figured that was just normal, after all, you didn’t go to a private school and you didn’t have the latest flashiest gadgets all the time. When your parents offered you ten or fifteen grand towards your uni fees or your first home, maybe you compared yourself with kids you knew whose parents gave them fifty grand, and figured you weren’t getting any sort of unfair advantage.

There’s a great pencilsword comic  that’s cropped up on my facebook feed a bazillion times. It shows two babies growing up and the different levels of parental support they get – Richard’s parents pay his uni fees, get him an internship, etc. Paula has to drop out to look after her sick dad. It’s a deliberately stark contrast.

My upbringing was closer to Richard’s than Paula’s, but my parents inhabited the tension of the liberal left well-to-do, they didn’t want to give us every advantage. They wanted to give us … I dunno, like, a standard advantage? Some help through uni (but not paying our full fees). Some help getting into a first house (but nowhere near close to the full deposit). Not handing us everything on a plate, just pointing us in the direction of the buffet. Maybe another reason people aren’t quick to own up to their good fortune is because everyone wants to be able to say that they have earned their position. This is a strong cultural norm too – making it on your own. I could say that my parents wanted me to make it on my own, but also wanted me to have the resources to be able to do that, and it’s a fine line, right? I never had any jobs set up for me but my mum read over my cover letters and my CV and suggested edits, and helped me prep for interviews. Before the interview for my current job, she gave me the obvious-once-you-know-it advice that I should look at the website and have an answer ready if they asked me what of their current projects I would be interested in working on.

There’s been financial help too: I lived at home for free during uni for the first four years and they paid my rent the year I moved out, there was some money towards the house we just bought (wow we bought a house!!), and quite a bit of money towards our wedding. Some of my friends haven’t had anywhere near as much financial help, while some have had much more. I’ve always been very conscious of this direct financial assistance because there’s a part of me that feels like, wait, I’m an adult, shouldn’t I be doing this by myself? The other part of me gratefully receives the money and figures that I’ll pay it forward one day because although we’re doing fine, this is a stage of life where extra money comes in handy. Or to put it another way, the amount they gave us towards the house was a bit less than a year of childcare fees.

Also, now, being a parent, I look at the little dude – not even two years old – and I reckon that the advantages I got in the first few years (before I can even remember!) are way more important than the money I’ve gotten for uni and a house. And I don’t feel semi-guilty or self-conscious of those advantages, which is maybe a bit weird if I think it’s more important? Raising a child lays bare the nonsense of the idea that anyone ever makes it by themselves. That’s just not a thing. By the time you are old enough to have a sense of self and a memory of your previous experiences, you’re very much a product of your environment. There’s no point praising a tree for growing tall and strong in fertile soil and denigrating a seed that didn’t sprout in a desert.

At 22 months, the little dude has had more books read to him than some kids will have by the time they start school.

I saw something on facebook the other day that said “Did you know children need to [have read to them] 1000 books before they’re ready to learn to read? That’s one book every day for the first three years!” A thousand sounds like a lot, but one a day doesn’t sound like very much at all. Linked in the comments was an article about the vocabulary gap. Always makes me think of Lisa saying “doh-dec-ah-heeee-dron” to Maggie.

But it’s more like this:

Me: We’re going to move house soon, we’re going to go to a new house.

Him: house

Me: Next weekend, you’re going to stay at Nana and Grandad’s house and Mummy and Daddy will move all our things to the new house

Him: Nana house

Me: Yeah, you go to Nana’s house and Mummy and Daddy will get the new house ready for you. It’s going to be nice at the new house, there is a better garden

Him: bedda darden! Ready house!

Me: yeah! And we’ll put your swing in the garden!

Him: Yeah!

Me: what should we take to the new house?

Him: [pauses, thinks] doys!

Me: yeah we’ll take your toys, what else?

Him: Mummy daddy

Me: yeah mummy and daddy will come too. Should we take your bed?

Him: Bed doo

Me: we’ll take the bed too

And I think, gee whiskers, helping him with his homework when he’s 10 ain’t the big ticket, this sort of back and forth is the big ticket. (Also, I love that his order of priority was first toys, second parents. Thanks kid.)

Interaction of this sort is correlated with parental education levels. But unlike paying for uni fees, it’s not intrinsically linked to either wealth or education. My grandmother is great at this, really great, and she left school at 15. There are some excellent programmes like Parents as First Teachers that focus on helping parents learn how to do this sort of stuff. As with any skill, there are the specific techniques, and there is also the attitude that people with the skill inevitably display. Good lawyers are interested in the logic of an argument, and how to communicate that logic. People who are good at looking after children are interested in how their little minds are developing, and how to engage with them on their level. For parents whose own upbringing was lacking in adults who exhibited this attitude, it’s unlikely to come naturally when they have their own kids. There’s also the fact that to do this stuff, you need time and energy. If you’re busy worrying about making ends meet and keeping the house warm, you’ll have less mental space to engage.

I tend to rave about the little dude’s creche, and I have no doubt that it adds value beyond what I could provide at home. They are not all of that standard. We looked at some that were a bit awful. There have been scary stories in the news recently about how a lot of early childcare centres are understaffed, barely operating at the (shamefully low) legal minimum – basically a death knell to quality care. I saw one when I was looking for the little dude that had nice facilities, but in terms of interaction it seemed like a baby storage unit. I wouldn’t want to send him there. If I did, it would be in the hope that he survive unscathed rather than in the confidence he will enjoy it and learn things. And he probably would survive unscathed, because while his creche is great, he also gets plenty of stimulation outside it.

The combination of widespread parental education and good quality out of home care has the potential to drastically reduce the gap that exists when kids start school.

There is however the issue of ideological opposition. The idea that parents should be providing this stuff, and it’s not the role of the government or the community at large to raise people’s kids for them, etc, etc. Some people call early childcare education “outsourcing parenting”. Which is an interesting contradiction because on the one hand, it valorises up the value of a parent (read: mother) providing all the preschool care (because mothers are magic?), and on the other hand, it talks down the level of skill involved in looking after littlies because it suggests that there is no value in trained, professional providers.

So anyway, let’s say that we have better early childcare and more widespread availability of parenting classes and all the other things that would put kiddies on an evenish level at the start of school. And let’s say that the schools are all good too and so kids leave school on an evenish level. What then?

As the gap between haves and have nots increases, parents are likely to worry more about the financial future of their children. Likely to want to help them more, give them financial assistance even when they’re adults. With uni fees and house prices getting ever higher, it’s becoming normalised for parents who can afford to give their children some extra financial assistance in early adulthood to do so, because it starts to seem like a legitimate boost into independence.

The blunt fact is that the more we expect from parents, the worse it will be for the kids of parents who don’t provide all those things. There’s a sliding scale. At one extreme you have kids who’ve been abused and never even got the basics of a secure attachment and reliable caregiving, at the other extreme you have the kids discussed in this article about the rise of the super rich. In the middle, towards the upper end of the middle, you get kids whose parents read their university essays and pay for things here and there for the grandkids.

This could be framed in two ways. Either, you see everything as the role of the parents, with society stepping into the gaps when the parents don’t provide. Or you say some things are the role of the society, but parents step into the gaps when society doesn’t provide. It’s a fundamentally different view of the world. For things like affordable housing and accessible higher education, I think it makes more sense to see that as a societal failure for which some parents can compensate. In an increasingly stratified society, it becomes difficult to figure out what counts as being overly privileged and what counts as being underprivileged, because there’s an uncomfortable truth that privilege begets privilege even if you’re not trying to reinforce anything. For example, knowing that my parents and my husband’s parents are set up for retirement and we will never have to support them: that’s not a privilege I can disclaim, but it is a tangible benefit compared to some of my peers.

At the heart of this is a lack of social consensus as to the balance of what is provided for by the society, the family, and the individual. A lot of political rhetoric from the right suggests that less should be provided by the state, more by the individual; which has an ideological neatness that doesn’t take into account the reality of wealth distribution within families, except when it does, and the whole concept crumbles into incoherence. The student loan system was explicitly established on the basis that the user should pay – and yet the allowances are means-tested based on parental income; so maybe parents are expected to provide for their children’s educations? Except parental income isn’t relevant to how fees are set… but it’s common now for parents to contribute to fees where they can… so it starts to seem like people whose parents can’t or won’t contribute are missing out.

My parents didn’t have any financial assistance from their own parents after they left home as teenagers. On the back of the Auckland property market, they are much wealthier now than they ever expected to be. And mum has said repeatedly that they’re happy to give us a bit of financial support at this stage of our lives (i.e., the money towards the house), because they know how much difference it would have made to them had they had it back when they were just starting out. The way I see it, this is wealth redistribution happening on a micro level which should be happening on a macro level.

I did my oral submission on the bill to extend paid parental leave to six months this Wednesday. It went well. They even played a one minute clip of my submission in the weekly parliamentary round up on national radio, I know because my granddad heard it. I made the point, not featured in the radio clip, that it’s a very narrow period of life where all these things tumble together: student debt repayment, a need to spend more on housing because of having children and requiring more space, a limited earning capacity because of having children (scaled back hours and periods of leave), and higher outgoings because of having children (childcare costs). It would make sense to have a bit more wealth redistribution directed at this stage of life: especially subsidised childcare and extended parental leave payments.

Except there’s another element. The more that parents are expected to provide for their children, the less willing wealthy parents will be to pay high taxes that fund those same things for other people’s children. It becomes a vicious cycle of privilege becoming reinforced in some circles and disadvantage compounded in others. In theory I support a universal student allowance, but in practice paying $320 a week for childcare while still paying off my own student loan makes me not super keen to pay more tax just right now… Maybe later… Definitely later… But that’s not really any comfort to the uni students who are amassing their own student loans, and who will one day be in the same position. So yeah, I should be paying more taxes to fund that; and childcare costs should also be more heavily subsidised. Meaning we need to look at all those elements cohesively, because it’s impossible to get traction on just one issue when there are a lot of other holes in the fabric of the social welfare state.

Meanwhile, buying a house – it’s a bit like finding that first job, so so stressful looking and then once you have it you can relax and then you’re like “oh, I made it, I’m ok, I’m going to be one of those adults who has the stuff sorted”. Next year is going to be a bit tight again financially because we figured out the maximum mortgage we could afford to repay on one salary and then bit the bullet and put in our best offer, so we don’t have much wriggle room. We’ll be “rich people poor” as one of my colleagues says. This is another area where privilege exists even if not cashed in: if something happened next year and we needed money and we didn’t have it, my parents could step in. It’s not just what you receive when you need it, it’s knowing that it’s there if you need it. And knowing that the support you receive isn’t causing your parents undue financial strain. That in itself is a really important privilege.

Anyway, I think it’s important to be honest about this stuff, about how much help different people in our society get from their families. At the same time, I also think that some of the non-financial help has been more valuable than the financial help. In my second year of law school my marks weren’t as good as I expected, and I was moping about it, and mum said “yeah well you didn’t really study very hard”. I was taken aback. “I studied!”, I said. She made the point that law school has a higher standard than first year BA papers. Another example of something that is only obvious once you know it (I genuinely thought that I had studied a reasonable amount!). I studied harder. I lifted my grade average. It lead to better job opportunities. That advice, given in thirty seconds, was literally worth thousands and thousands of dollars in increased earning power. This may not sound like the best example, because “study harder” is a no brainer… except it’s not so obvious when the alternative is thinking “maybe I’m not smart enough to get the top marks in this course.” There’s a lot of evidence that kids who are the first in their family to go to uni are much more likely to get the latter message, including from faculty staff.

Studying harder is often seen as the quintessential hallmark of meritocracy, but even then, it’s not really. I could only study harder because I was living at home for free, so my hours spent in paid work could be reduced without worrying about how I was going to pay rent and eat; and because I didn’t have other unavoidable commitments like caring for family members.

None of this is to suggest that we don’t work hard. We do. I blogged just the other week about the long hours etc, the feeling of never quite having enough time. Take it as read that luck isn’t enough on it’s own. We’ve been frugal and responsible and made good decisions and so on blah blah blah. That’s not the point though – to even be in a position where your own decisions are the “make or break” factor to financial security is a giant win in the lottery of life.