A few weeks ago, one of my Facebook friends wrote a post asking, “If you had to choose between these, which would you prioritize?
I met this Facebook friend at Champlain College, a liberal arts private college in Burlington, Vermont. My tuition and room & board when I was attending the school was around $50,000 a year. The majority of students going to the school are students whose families have the money to afford the tuition, or, if they can’t, then they can afford the loans necessary to pay off the tuition. As far as I know, many of these students have never struggled with finances because their families have had a stable income ever since these students were born. So when people replied to this post, most of their priorities, in order, were:
Regardless of how these people responded, transportation was always at the bottom of their list. As I read the comments, I took a moment to consider what I would put in my list. I was expecting to list transportation as my lowest priority as well, but then I remembered my neighborhood and what I’ve had to prioritize as I grew up.
I was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. The Mountain View neighborhood, which is the neighborhood I’ve lived in for the majority of my life, is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, but it’s also one of the poorest neighborhoods in Anchorage. Most of the people living in Mountain View are in the low-income bracket, and if they’re not, then they’re in the poverty bracket. In 2016, Anchorage saw it’s highest rates of homicides in years, and many of those happened in the Mountain View neighborhood. There aren’t any “ghettos” in Anchorage, but if there were, Mountain View, Spenard and Muldoon are the big three neighborhoods that would be considered the “ghettos” of the city.
I’ve lived a very different life from the people responding to this Facebook post, which means that I had a completely different outlook on what I would prioritize. Another difference is that while this Facebook friend wrote this post as a hypothetical question – “If you had to choose” – possibly as a project for one of her classes, and most of the people responding were answering it as a hypothetical question, this was no hypothetical scenario for me. This was the reality for me; this is the reality for me. I was living a better life while attending Champlain College, but now that I’m officially back in Anchorage, Alaska, this is no longer a hypothetical scenario. This is my reality. It’s not which I would prioritize, it’s which I do prioritize.
All of this I thought about before I responded to the question. Before I share my response with you, I also want to talk about how I feel about this Facebook post:
It took a few moments for me to realize it, but I was appalled by this post. The person posting it of course wasn’t trying to make anyone upset and probably didn’t realize that she did, but I was still appalled and offended. Instead of going out on the streets and asking the homeless or low-income population in Burlington, Vermont which they currently prioritize, she instead went online and asked her privileged – in financial status – Facebook friends which they hypothetically would choose if they were ever to lose all of their family money.
Again, this was probably for an assignment in her class, but it still made me feel disgusted. Instead of encouraging their students to go out and make a physical impact in their community, teachers in college oftentimes just tell their students to think about these hypothetical scenarios and how they would respond if they were in that situation, expecting the students to feel empathy for people that are actually living these less privileged lives. By accomplishing the parameters of the assignment and getting a good grade on it, students may feel like they’re contributing to the solution, but the truth is that if you’ve never lived the life of someone in the poverty or low-income brackets, you will never be able to empathize with us. You may be able to sympathize with us and try to understand what we go through, and you may even participate in your government by voting for programs that benefit the low-income population, and that’s highly appreciated and encouraged. But you don't “get it,” and that’s what many college students neglect to realize.
I don’t speak for every low-income person in the United States. I only speak for myself as someone who has lived in poverty but has also attended a fancy private college in a safe environment. And speaking for myself, part of the reason I didn’t feel like I belonged at Champlain College was because the teachers encouraged the students to think hypothetically instead of actually making an impact. Hypotheticals don’t improve the lives of poverty and low-income neighborhoods, realities do.
[A/N: I don’t speak on behalf of Champlain College. It has many pros, but this article is focused on one of its biggest cons. If you’re looking at attending college for the first time or transferring to Champlain College, I encourage you to get your own impression and do your own research on the school.]
Now that I’ve discussed my opinion on this Facebook post, let me share with you what I prioritize and why:
First of all, if I were making this list, I would add “Children’s Needs,” “Clothing” and “Amenities” – such as toilet paper and feminine hygiene products – as their own categories, especially if the point of all this is to focus on the basics. But let’s look at the list we currently have, and what I prioritize, in order.
If you’re fortunate enough to get a job, you can’t afford any of these other things if you can’t get to work. So regardless if you’re starving and freezing in the dead of winter in Alaska, the majority of people living in my neighborhood would put transportation as their number one priority. You can’t pay for food if you don’t have money because you couldn’t make it to work.
This may be different for people living in places around the world that aren’t so cold in the winter, but dying of hypothermia is a serious consideration in my hometown. There are countless shelters in Anchorage, but you can’t ensure that they’ll always have room for you, especially if you’re a male over the age of 12. So while this may change from person to person, my number two priority is shelter. I’d much rather have a definite roof over my head than have a full stomach but freeze to death in the harsh Alaskan winters.
While it hasn’t happened as often to me as it has to people that are even less fortunate than I am, there are some nights I go to bed hungry, and I’m fine with that. As long as I have enough food to feel energized for my 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job and have adequate transportation to work and a roof over my head, I’m satisfied. Food is a struggle, but I have enough to get by. Transportation and shelter are more important because you either have them or you don’t. You either have a way to get to work or you don’t; you either have a roof over your head or you don’t. There’s no in-between for those. For food, however, you can have enough to survive on while still going to sleep hungry. It’s not an ideal situation, but you can survive that way.
It’s sad, but it’s true that unless your injuries or illness are severely getting in your way of doing your job, no one’s going to the hospital. They may go to the free clinic, but if the doctors prescribe medicine you’re not paying for it unless these other three priorities are taken care of first. I feel like this is one of those priorities that changes from person-to-person, but in my neighborhood, no one’s going to put medical in the number one slot unless you’re one of the Native Alaskans that get free health care at the Alaska Native Medical Center. Everyone else, however, has to pay for medical, and those bills can rack up exponentially after that first visit to the doctor. So even if we know we’re ill and should do something about it, we wait until it severely interferes with us doing our jobs before we even head to the free clinic.
Everyone else answering this Facebook post thought hypothetically and ideally, no one else thought realistically. My list is my reality. The next time someone asks you which you would prioritize, I encourage you to think realistically as well. And if you are never forced to prioritize one over the other, count your blessings, be grateful for your privilege and position in life, and do your best to help others that are less fortunate than you. You can start by voting every year in your local elections for mayors and other leaders that are going to focus on the needs of those in poverty and low-income neighborhoods. Unlike in the presidential elections, every vote counts in your city elections. And this, unlike thinking hypothetically in a classroom, is a physical change that you’re making in your community, and those living in less fortunate circumstances will appreciate your vote as opposed to an A+ on a college report.
After all this, I have one final question to leave you with: Which would you prioritize?
[A/N: Because I brought this up in the article, you don't call Native people "Eskimos." You call them Alaska Natives, Native Alaskans or just Natives.]