The economics blogosphere has lit up in recent weeks with economists writing up their so-called “class autobiographies.” In the ephemeral world of blogosphere discussion topics, my following attempt seems horribly belated. I present it nonetheless.
I grew up in a lower-middle class family in Woodhaven, Queens, NY – a neighborhood roughly 250 square blocks in area containing about 40,000 residents about 7 miles from downtown Manhattan (the A, C and J trains came through my neighborhood – they were elevated). Like most static classifications of people, this tells an incomplete story. I am one of 6 children, my oldest brother was born in 1966 while my youngest in 1975 (I am the 5th child, born in 1974). Much of what I grew up in was squarely lower-middle class – however, after decades of hard work, by the time I graduated from college our family had moved to the upper reaches of the middle-class. And before continuing my story, to keep things in perspective, my growing up in modest American fashion would still have me living like royalty in many developing countries.
As best as I can gather, my entire family that is my parents’ generation and older has always been working class (it’s a term I don’t like, but will employ for conventional reasons). I know little of my paternal grandfather, his having died two years before I was born following a devastating battle with (stomach) cancer by the age of 60. What I do know is that he spent his entire adult life working as a coat maker in a Manhattan garment factory. Aside from the work being monotonous, I recall stories of the suffocating heat that built up in that factory – particularly since these were the days before air conditioning became commonplace. Neither he nor my grandmother ever attended high school. I believe that they met when my grandmother was a young girl working in that same coat factory. She quit working upon her marriage to my grandfather and she raised three children in the same house that I grew up in, and which my grandfather’s father had built upon emigrating from Italy (Sicily) at the turn of the 20th century. She lived out her life in that same apartment house with my family and the only complaint I ever recall from her is that she had to share her wedding day with a cousin (double weddings were common back then). It is not clear exactly how and when my great-grandparents made it to the United States.
My dad attended the same Catholic elementary school as all of my siblings – he graduated a year early and was bright enough to land a full-tuition scholarship to Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn (also alma mater of Mayor Guiliani) – to which he took the train every day from our home in Queens. An accomplished athlete, he never had the benefit of coaching or the abundance of leagues that today’s children enjoy – so he became a student of sports instead and focused on doing as well in school as possible. As a result, he was the first Rizzo to attend college – and were it not for the miniscule costs of tuition at CUNY-Queens College he may not have been able to. Wanting to avoid the grueling factory work of his father, he majored in accounting there. He married my mom at age 20 and completed college at night while starting a job as an apprentice accountant at Dun & Bradstreet. Through hard work and an amiable demeanor, he ended up being asked to learn the debt rating trade, and earned his way to senior management positions at Standard & Poors and Fitch before retiring in 2004.
My maternal grandparents each emigrated from Italy to the Bronx (and eventually made their way to Kew Gardens, Queens) when they were teenagers (Naples and Bari). The story of their emigration from Italy, too, is fraught with uncertainties. They were definitely old-school Italians. They spoke their version of Italian in the home and taught it to each of their children (all of whom also went to Catholic school). My grandmother used to get her chickens live from the butcher and take care of them herself in the backyard. Not one ounce of those chickens was ever wasted. I’m not sure either of them formally finished elementary school. Certainly, neither of them attended high school.My grandfather plied his masonry skills to a career carving gravestones (he apparently was as scary as his job was). I also never met him, as he succumbed to silicosis as a result of long-term exposure to the silica dust from his stone carvings. My grandmother never worked outside of the home as far as I knew.
My mother graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school and only worked outside the home briefly as a teenage girl (in the same coat factory that my paternal grandfather worked). She married at 18 and raised 6 children in lieu of a career. Once we were old enough to attend school, she started to cut hair out of our home to make a few extra bucks – I can still remember the awful smell that overwhelmed the house for hours when she would do a perm for some local Woodhavenite. Thank goodness she was never found out. We shared our home in Woodhaven with one of our grandmothers. My mother took care of all 8 of us in a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment.
Largely due to the work ethic instilled in us by our parents each and every one of my siblings has attended some college. One is still in college. One finished with a bachelors. Three have masters degrees and one has his doctorate. Until very recently, I was the only one to attend a residential college out of state. I never explicitly planned on leaving for college – I just wanted a place to play football and I followed the advice of my adult peers when they told me to attend Amherst – “it would be for my own good.” Somehow, my parents found a way to put me through Amherst – and while I want desperately to state publicly that it was worth every penny, I have serious reservations.
I was a physics major at Amherst and wanted to pursue a career in nuclear physics. However, struggling to get B’s in class and finding little encouragement from the program faculty I looked elsewhere for things I might be good at. On a lark I took up economics – and while I cannot say that I found it to be intellectually stimulating (at least not as interesting as trying to understand the inconsistencies between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics), I did find it to be intellectually satisfying. No where else in my life had I come across a formalization of the idea that that there is a link between hard-work and reward. And in studying economics I found for the first time a lens through which I could analyze what I always felt was no-think activism on my campus and the attempts at social engineering that I saw failing all around me. Rather than just being able to feel that these things were follies, I was able to identify precisely why they were follies. After enduring a stint in New York City upon graduation (I went there thinking I was chasing love and money and ended up with neither) I went on to earn my PhD in Economics. It wasn’t until I started teaching however that I actually learned anything about real economics.
When I was a kid, I cannot ever remember thinking that our family was in trouble, or losing ground, or simply not wealthy. You might say it’s because my parents did an excellent job at insulating my mind from the signals that told us the opposite. But that conclusion is too simplistic. I read too much, I dreamed too much and I hoped too much to be fooled into thinking we were the next incarnation of the Rockefellers. So, I was well aware that we were not well off – however, I was utterly indifferent to that fact even as I moved into my latter teen years. What I am astonished about as I write this piece is that I can’t remember exactly when it was that my awareness of class changed or what forces were responsible for this awareness to come about … but I am sure being at Amherst had a lot to do with it.
Looking more closely at my childhood has seriously demonstrated to me what is really important in life. My most vivid memories do not include complaining about driving around in a beat-up old Buick or not having a new set of clothes to run around in, for example. Rather, my most vivid memories include playing stoop-ball with my brothers (and hoping not to hit the awning and anger my grandma), playing Ringolario with different groups of friends, riding my bike around Woodhaven like it was my pilgrimage to Sturgis, borrowing 10 books at a time from the public library and gobbling them up quickly so that I could take ten more, doing brain-teasers and filling out Mad Libs in my backyard, studying baseball history and statistics, playing basketball in 88th street park, playing stop football up at Victory field, playing wiffle ball in the street in front of my house(and hoping not to hit one into Angelo’s yard) and floor hockey in our tiny driveway (we used old couch cushions for goalie pads and set up a blanket between two chairs for a net) among other things.
We did not have a new car until my dad turned 40 (my oldest brother was 19). Why not? Because my parents refused to let their children be educated by such wonderful state institutions as P.S. 60 and Franklin K. Lane High School. That sacrifice alone was not sufficient to send us to Catholic school or to provide for our well being. My parents never tried to convince us that we were being exploited or were getting the short straw in life – they just loved us and showed us that through thrift, hard-work and perseverance good things would happen. Sure they prayed for our good fortune, but what they actually did, in addition to not buying new cars, was also refusing to buy themselves the latest, greatest stereos, or televisions, or furniture, or clothes, or extravagant vacations, or not spending money when they were on business trips, by having my mom repaint (and stucco) the house, by the kids each doing their chores, by simply not indulging in all of the things that many take for granted today. When the 8 of us finally grew out of the old Buick sedan (3 in the front and 5 in the back), dad splurged on his first new car – a swanky two toned silver Dodge Ram van – the paragon of family utility.
Did having this van embarrass us? Heck no! We simply weren’t aware that it should. So what, that van never took us to our country club. It never took us to our private tennis lessons either. It never took me to my classical guitar lessons, or took our family to the theatre, or to public lectures, or gallery hops, etc. Where that van did take us was something deeper – it took us to places as a family. We spent time at the beach. We went to each other’s sporting events. We visited family. We made weekend trips to Upstate, NY. All together. And all totally ignorant of where that van was not taking us.
So, what did it really mean to be among the lower middle class in America? It meant that if we went out on a Friday it was a shared McDonald’s dinner rather than a shared porterhouse from Ruth’s Chris; it mean upper deck tickets to a Mets Game; it meant shagging flies with my dad at Pals Oval; it means splitting a bucket of golf balls with my brother and father at the Douglaston Driving Range; it meant not meeting anyone famous; it meant we did not run with “a crowd.” What it did mean is that we focused on the simple things we needed to do to be happy and to be prepared for our uncertain futures. What it does mean is that with loving, dedicated parents, each of my siblings had the opportunity to be successful. What it does mean is that even a relative lack of material resources is no obstacle in a free and affluent country like America. We accepted no hand-outs (or hand-ups or whatever euphemism you want to call them). We sought no protection. We did not lobby or march in support of, or against some cause. We did not look to blame our condition on someone else. We did not alter the rules of the game to work in our favor. We stepped on no one and hopefully treated everyone we met with respect and kindness. We did not steal, cheat or lie. It is through these (lack of) actions that my parents have taught me to respect persons, property and ideas – even when they were not aware that these lessons were being taught.
And what would have become of me had I grown up rich? It’s obviously an unobservable counterfactual. I used to think to myself that “if I only had what Person Y had, I would be a world class insert skill or profession here …” or that at the very least I would have something that would set me apart from the billions of other people in this world. My reasoning being that I would not have had to be bored in school for 12 years while my brain slowly rotted from the slow pace of my education. Yet this thinking neatly sidesteps a couple of important facts. First, it’s not my background that has held me back from many of my auspicious dreams, it is my talent. Second, even with limited talent, this thinking underestimates the importance of lots of the little things in life that can’t be quantified or even measured – creativity, vision, alacrity, foresight, patience, honesty, to name just a few – that good relationships can nourish and that are easy to forget about if one becomes overly concerned with material resources. People always congratulate me for having received a PhD in Economics and to have gotten where I have based on where I came from. I feel like a fraud – and that feeling is derived from too much focusing on one and not enough on two.
Analyze class all you want. After doing this writing I am more convinced than ever that exercises like this are no different than exercises that try to determine why poor countries are poor. There simply is no one answer, and no one way to solve these sorts of problems. Sure resources are important, but so too are a myriad of other factors. And as Hayek smartly pointed out in many of his writings, there is simply too much information out there for any one person or group of people to understand, aggregate and appreciate. Finally, back to a point I reference above – I was not aware of my class situation until somehow I was made to be aware of it. Obsessing on class is unhealthy because it obscures how far we have come as a society since the dawn of the industrial revoluition and it totally ignores the dynamic nature of our society. Even if I were to grant you that today’s lower class people are likely to give birth to tomorrow’s lower class people, as we’ve come to understand class – it is a relative matter and therefore has little absolute significance unless interest groups force it to have some.