What "Fast Car" Taught Me About Class

What "Fast Car" Taught Me About Class

How Tracy Chapman's song helped me to understand poverty.

The first time I heard Tracy Chapman’s song “Fast Car,” the main thing to hit me was the beautiful, catchy guitar intro. With another listen it was absolutely clear why this song had become a pop classic. It took me a few more listens to really dig into the lyrics, and what I discovered startled me.

The first stanza depicts a desperate situation where there’s “nothing to lose” and that “any [other] place” would be better than. The second stanza tells of a plan to “get us out of here” by driving “just ‘cross the border and into the city,” relying on “a little bit of money” saved up by working at a convenience store.

The narrator’s closest companion is a love interest, but he isn’t her only companion. There’s her father, too, whose body is decrepit from his alcoholism. When his wife got restless and left him, the narrator had to quit school to take care of him.

My circumstances could hardly have been more different when I fell in love my freshman year of college. Neither of us ever had a parent struggle with alcoholism. My father is a successful family law attorney and family court commissioner whose income allowed my mother to stay home with my sister and me. Her parents work for a college in the Chicago suburbs, her father as an economics professor and her mother heading the business office. (They graduated from Stanford and Harvard respectively, but – good Midwestern folk that they are – they’d rather not flaunt their Ivy League degrees.)

Since we were freshmen at a four-year residential college, it felt like undergrad stretched out forever before us, even as we would’ve acknowledged that of course we’d eventually graduate. In other words, we had enough remaining time in undergrad that we didn’t have to consider what a shared life might look like afterward. Further, we had enough idea of what degrees we’d pursue and enough academic time and space to not need to promptly nail down many specifics. We had enough family financial support that we didn’t have to worry about college funds possibly drying up too soon. Our material circumstances made it easy to fall into a cozy romance, and it was hard to imagine any change of material circumstance wrenching us out of our happiness.

I later wrote a poem about that relationship, and I want to draw from it now:

When dinner at the same old Commons

was enlivened by her smile,

when my same old suit felt regally handsome,

when The Faerie Queen – well, for an opera,

it didn’t put us to sleep - and

when my dance step was graceful for once,

in no light but the lamps that

shone on the water and the wooded river-walk

and snow-coated tree-branches

in through the pane-glass window-walls,

when at the last song’s end I kissed her

I remember thinking -

But later she and I broke it off.

The poem isn’t about affluence: I just wanted to kill the idea that a truly magical evening destines a couple for happily-ever-after. (Sorry, friends; Disney lied to you.) But that evening’s enchantment drew heavily from material factors: a nice dining hall, my good-if-not-new suit (and her gorgeous dress), a charming performance to attend together, and the opportunity to dance in a stunningly-beautiful venue. Our enchantment rose from nice things purchased largely by our relatively affluent parents. And, to draw on my earlier observation, that evening was able to feel like destiny because of all the enough-ness afforded by our particular type of college circumstance.

“Fast Car” made it easy for me to recognize how materially-reliant our enchantment actually was, and how fragile it would’ve been if we weren’t both so well-off. Suppose that my father was an alcoholic and that my mother leaving would mean me dropping out to care for him. Or suppose that her tuition relied on her father’s blue-collar salary, and that him getting put out of work would mean her leaving for community college back home. We could still have fallen in love, but only with the sense that our relationship could at least be forcibly stretched to long-distance by developments beyond our control. Our romance would have felt very different if not for the enough-ness afforded by our well-off families: in other words, our experience of romance was shaped by our class standing. Without certain forms of enough-ness, perhaps we would’ve simply ruled out a romantic relationship altogether. For example, we likely wouldn’t have started dating halfway through our senior year if we knew that our post-undergrad lives would take us to very different places.

That example illustrates a basic human tendency: the less likely you are to succeed at something, the less interested you’ll generally be in trying for it. Put together the range of satisfactions that you can probably grasp with the range of those that you probably can’t, and you have what might be called the incentive-structure for your particular circumstances. I think I would’ve always agreed with that in the abstract, but “Fast Car” deepened my thinking about how far certain circumstances and incentive-structures might really be from others.

A blog post by the journalist Rod Dreher, along with many of the comments on it, helpfully reflects my thinking about how this all relates to class. Several readers point out how poor people’s circumstances tend to put short-term and long-term interests in conflict for one’s immediate resources. Keeping perfect attendance for your minimum-wage job improves your odds at promotion and better pay, but it also means flaking on your pal whose car broke down or your sister who needs you to babysit because she’s sick. Compared to wealthier social circles, refusing a small favor can seem less like a slight inconvenience than a middle finger; a reason that’s important to your aspirations – “I can’t come because I have to finish this college application today” – can seem snooty and sow bitterness. Altogether, the immediate reliability of pleasures like human companionship holds much more appeal than unlikely long-term affluence, especially since – as Matt Bruenig has noted – a reasonable fear of ending up destitute deters already-poor people from taking chances in their business lives.

Mental habits that develop within particular circumstances may not disappear even if those circumstances change. For example, we wouldn’t be surprised if military kids who move frequently while growing up have difficulty forming deep friendships outside of family, even well into adulthood. Nor should we be surprised if many people imaginatively formed by poverty find it hard to shake a mentality of persistently choosing companionship and other immediate pleasures over thrift and diligence, even if real economic opportunity becomes available.

Of course, these tendencies are not universal. “Fast Car” itself tells of the couple reaching relative bourgeois stability, though they aren’t content there either. And real-life folk heroes like Ben Carson demonstrate how talent and plucky determination can put one on the ascendant socioeconomically. But if we’re willing to recognize these cases as literally exceptional rather than a universal template, we need to think about and address poverty and economic opportunity in a way that accounts for incentive-structures and that offers truly plausible economic opportunity as widely as possible.

Cover Image Credit: Ruth Lopez

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To The Girl Struggling With Her Body Image

It's not about the size of your jeans, but the size of your heart, soul, and spirit.


To the girl struggling with her body image,

You are more than the number on the scale. You are more than the number on your jeans and dresses. You are way more than the number of pounds you've gained or lost in whatever amount of time.

Weight is defined as the quantity of matter contained by a body or object. Weight does not define your self-worth, ambition or potential.

So many girls strive for validation through the various numbers associated with body image and it's really so sad seeing such beautiful, incredible women become discouraged over a few numbers that don't measure anything of true significance.

Yes, it is important to live a healthy lifestyle. Yes, it is important to take care of yourself. However, taking care of yourself includes your mental health as well. Neglecting either your mental or physical health will inflict problems on the other. It's very easy to get caught up in the idea that you're too heavy or too thin, which results in you possibly mistreating your body in some way.

Your body is your special, beautiful temple. It harbors all of your thoughts, feelings, characteristics, and ideas. Without it, you wouldn't be you. If you so wish to change it in a healthy way, then, by all means, go ahead. With that being said, don't make changes to impress or please someone else. You are the only person who is in charge of your body. No one else has the right to tell you whether or not your body is good enough. If you don't satisfy their standards, then you don't need that sort of negative influence in your life. That sort of manipulation and control is extremely unhealthy in its own regard.

Do not hold back on things you love or want to do because of how you interpret your body. You are enough. You are more than enough. You are more than your exterior. You are your inner being, your spirit. A smile and confidence are the most beautiful things you can wear.

It's not about the size of your jeans. It's about the size of your mind and heart. Embrace your body, observe and adore every curve, bone and stretch mark. Wear what makes you feel happy and comfortable in your own skin. Do your hair and makeup (or don't do either) to your heart's desire. Wear the crop top you've been eyeing up in that store window. Want a bikini body? Put a bikini on your body, simple.

So, as hard as it may seem sometimes, understand that the number on the scale doesn't measure the amount or significance of your contributions to this world. Just because that dress doesn't fit you like you had hoped doesn't mean that you're any less of a person.

Love your body, and your body will love you right back.

Cover Image Credit: Lauren Margliotti

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Saying You "Don't Take Political Stances" IS A Political Stance

All you're doing by saying this is revealing your privilege to not care politically, and here's why that's a problem.


I'm sure all of us know at least one person who refuses to engage in political discussions - sure, you can make the argument that there is a time and a place to bring up the political happenings of our world today, but you can't possibly ignore it all the time. You bring up the last ridiculous tweet our president sent or you try to discuss your feelings on the new reproductive regulation bills that are rising throughout the states, and they find any excuse to dip out as quickly as possible. They say I don't talk about politics, or I'm apolitical. Well everyone, I'm here to tell you why that's complete bullsh*t.

Many people don't have the luxury and privilege of ignoring the political climate and sitting complacent while terrible things happen in our country. So many issues remain a constant battle for so many, be it the systematic racism that persists in nearly every aspect of our society, the fact that Flint still doesn't have clean water, the thousands of children that have been killed due to gun violence, those drowning in debt from unreasonable medical bills, kids fighting for their rights as citizens while their families are deported and separated from them... you get the point. So many people have to fight every single day because they don't have any other choice. If you have the ability to say that you just don't want to have anything to do with politics, it's because you aren't affected by any failing systems. You have a privilege and it is important to recognize it.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."

We recognize that bad people exist in this world, and we recognize that they bring forth the systems that fail so many people every single day, but what is even more important to recognize are the silent majority - the people who, by engaging in neutrality, enable and purvey the side of the oppressors by doing nothing for their brothers and sisters on the front lines.

Maybe we think being neutral and not causing conflict is supposed to be about peacekeeping and in some way benefits the political discussion if we don't try to argue. But if we don't call out those who purvey failing systems, even if it's our best friend who says something homophobic, even if it's our representatives who support bills like the abortion ban in Alabama, even if it's our president who denies the fact that climate change is killing our planet faster than we can hope to reverse it, do we not, in essence, by all accounts of technicality side with those pushing the issues forward? If we let our best friend get away with saying something homophobic, will he ever start to change his ways, or will he ever be forced to realize that what he's said isn't something that we can just brush aside? If we let our representatives get away with ratifying abortion bans, how far will the laws go until women have no safe and reasonable control over their own bodily decisions? If we let our president continue to deny climate change, will we not lose our ability to live on this planet by choosing to do nothing?

We cannot pander to people who think that being neutral in times of injustice is a reasonable stance to take. We cannot have sympathy for people who decide they don't want to care about the political climate we're in today. Your attempts at avoiding conflict only make the conflict worse - your silence in this aspect is deafening. You've given ammunition for the oppressors who take your silence and apathy and continue to carry forth their oppression. If you want to be a good person, you need to suck it up and take a stand, or else nothing is going to change. We need to raise the voices of those who struggle to be heard by giving them the support they need to succeed against the opposition.

With all this in mind, just remember for the next time someone tells you that they're apolitical: you know exactly which side they're on.


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