Minnehaha wealth gap

Minnehaha students must learn to navigate the muddy waters of socioeconomic differences

“From the first moment you drive into the parking lot, you can see it from the type of cars people are driving,” said sophomore Kitra Katz. “And the first moment you come inside on the first day of school everybody will hear it when they ask you what you did over the summer. It’s everywhere, and you can see it in the clothes people wear. It’s unavoidable, even if you try to ignore it.”

It is money.

You look at the person sitting to your left and you see the child of a millionaire. You look at the person to your right and you see someone struggling to scrape together gas money to get to school. You look around the rest of the classroom and you see kids who have debit cards, after school jobs, disposable income, Kate Spade sandals, Old Navy flip flops, Starbucks gold cards and financial aid forms on their kitchen counter. Walking through the halls, it’s not uncommon to hear ridiculous commentary about problems that really aren’t monumental. Welcome to the Minnehaha Academy wealth gap.

Like most schools, there is a varying range of income among Minnehaha families. Minnehaha provides a majority of these families with some form of financial aid, a potential deal-breaker when the tuition for students in grades 6-12 for the 2013-2014 school year is $16,320.00. Recently, the average grant to families receiving financial aid has been about 50 percent of tuition. But what about the students themselves? Sure, their parents have a certain income, but the issue at Minnehaha is not how much money a person’s family has, but rather the student’s attitude about their family’s finances.

Money is a taboo topic. Many Minnehaha students say that it’s awkward to talk about regardless of how wealthy an individual’s family is. And while most students don’t sit around the Campus Room discussing their parents’ incomes, it’s their attitude that often creates the awkwardness.

Often, teenagers don’t directly talk about money, but always suggest an expensive activity when hanging out with friends (or one that isn’t technically expensive, but still requires needless spending). This includes going shopping, driving long distances or going out to eat. This makes people need to spend money in order to hang out with friends, when there are plenty of less expensive things to do.

“I have to fill up my [gas] tank every week and a half and it ends up being 60 bucks, and that’s how much I would make in a weekend making pizzas,” said junior Jonah Winn. Winn pays for his own gas, though he knows many teenagers who cruise around in their cars without considering how much of their parents’ money they are spending on gas.

“The people who are given money by their parents don’t really know how much of a blessing it is and how much of a luxury it is at the time,” said senior Annie Bonello. “I’ve experienced both ends of it, so I know what it’s like to have your parents give you money and just be able to spend it, but I’ve also had parts of my life where [my parents] are like ‘No, if you want money you’re going to need to get it yourself. We’re not just going to give it to you.’”

This type of experience is prevalent throughout the true middle class; many parents give their teens limited amounts of money for expenses such as gas or school-related activities, but kids are otherwise expected to cover their own “want only” expenses.

“The money I make from one job goes towards household costs like groceries and things and the other job pays for clothes and things I’d like to do or have,” said senior Zoey Twyford, who works at both Hollister and Caribou Coffee. “However, I do feel that I’m significantly more prepared for the ‘real world’ as well as being more independent than many teens.”

In other cases teenagers with wealthy parents talk about their problems that, in the grand scheme of life, are not monumental. Often times this type of complaint isn’t well-received, which causes the complainer to backtrack and make excuses for why it was an issue in the first place, though it usually only alienates other people more.

Conversely, teenagers from low-income families sometimes talk about how “poor” they are in front of groups of people. However, all this does is make other people feel uncomfortable and guilty for being well-off (or rather having parents who are well-off). Similarly, assumptions about a person’s economic standing make all parties involved uncomfortable.

“I remember having a conversation with a group of people during lunch and someone made a comment about everyone at Minnehaha being rich and spoiled,” said Bonello. “I just thought that was really rude because I knew for a fact that people at the table worked really hard for the money that they had and that their families weren’t the most wealthy. That’s offensive because a lot of families are doing everything they can to send their kid to such a good school and that’s something to be proud of, not ashamed.”
Minnehaha’s wealth gap itself is not a problem. Varying incomes and backgrounds make for healthy amounts of diversity among students, and these differences are embraced by the students and staff.

“I’ve watched our lunchroom and I’m so proud of you guys,” said Director of Diversity Paulita Todhunter. “The fluidity of groups is just beautiful, and that’s not a typical high school experience.”

Regardless, it is vital for students to recognize that wealth is not one-dimensional.

“Wealth doesn’t just mean how much money your parents make, it means how much they have to spend, how much they’ve saved, how long they’ve been working and how often they have to spend money,” said an anonymous source. “My family makes enough money that we could be a wealthy family at public school, but not enough to be well off at a private one. People often just think your parents make “x” [amount of money], then you are “x” rich. It’s more complicated than that.”

While wealth has many tiers, Minnehaha students have a unique opportunity to discuss the aspects of economic discrepancies that exist everywhere. These discussions cannot be taken lightly, but if students ask questions and listen with the intent to understand more about different people, they can form a basis of understanding that will serve them throughout their lives.

“There’s such a richness that can happen if we’re brave enough to let our differences get mucky and be, not pretend that they aren’t there,” said Todhunter. “We’ve got a great thing going on here, and I want our students to really take advantage of the opportunities we have to go deeper. We’re on that next step where yes, we acknowledge differences, but [now] we can really have those good, true, deep conversations.”

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About Frances Hoekstra

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