The illusion of affluence
Examining the financially disadvantaged perspective in a wealthy area
The conversation used to embarrass him. In elementary school, he dreaded having it. But as he grew older, he learned that it was better to address the topic; dismissing it would only prolong the awkward situation and make it worse.
Because of his family’s financial situation, this anonymous senior, who will be referred to as Roger to protect his identity, can’t afford a printer. At the beginning of every year, he talks to each of his teachers, notifying them of his situation so if he’s unable to submit an assignment on time, they know the reason. Over time, he has grown accustomed to the conversation, and is no longer as uncomfortable as he used to be. Luckily, he says teachers are generally lenient about it.
“I’m used to having those [kinds of] conversations,” Roger said. “At first [it was weird] because teachers wouldn’t think ‘there’s someone who doesn’t really have this or that’ because [this is] Cupertino.”
His father is a manual laborer and the sole source of income for the family, he shares a computer with his many siblings and his family lives in a house provided by his father’s employer. He recognizes that his family isn’t as wealthy as most living in the area but it’s something he’s grown accustomed to over time.
“[The atmosphere] is positive in a way that people aren’t really thinking about [others] based on their income,” Roger said. “But it’s also bad because people don’t really think about the problems that others have to face, because they’re just like ‘Oh yeah we’re all the same.’”
In fact, according to a survey of 369 students, 10% say they are experiencing some kind of financial hardship. Assistant Principal Mike White helps students with financial needs by covering costs for school activities and ASB functions. He explains that during his high school years, the various activities he participated in fostered a connection between him and his community, and this bond is something that he hopes every student, no matter their economic situation, has a chance to experience.
“I remember being in the marching band and doing drama, I remember being in ASB, and all the fun I had doing that, so if you want kids to feel connected to school you have to provide them with those opportunities,” White said. “That’s my belief — I want [students] to be able to do co-curricular and extracurricular activities so I remove the boundaries that are preventing [them] from doing that.
White says that every year in April he visits each senior class to explain the upcoming activities. He adds that if any student needs help paying for those fees, the school is willing to help.
“There’s no forms to fill out, it’s just coming in and saying ‘Mr. White, can I get a senior ball bid,’” White said. “I just have to know the need … I don’t care why. I don’t ask why. It doesn’t matter to me. You just tell me what you need, and [I give it to you].”
The challenge, he emphasizes, is when students aren’t comfortable coming forward to ask for that assistance. While Roger is able to communicate with his teachers about his financial situation, it isn’t always that straightforward for everyone.
“Some people unfortunately just get embarrassed, [and] they just don’t want to talk about their financial situation,” White said. “It’s not easy to come in and say ‘Hey Mr. White, I need this.’”
Jason Crutchfield, the Director of Business Services at FUHSD, explains that the district offers particular assistance towards students who are homeless or those who have insufficient housing. Under the federal legislation called the McKinney Vento Act, schools are required to provide aid towards students in these circumstances. However, Crutchfield emphasizes that many students who qualify under this act may actually be in a better situation than some students facing financial hardship.
“You can have lots of money but lose your home, you still qualify for McKinney Vento. You can have no money because you spend every dime of your family’s money on rent, you don’t qualify at all,” Crutchfield said. “So I would say there is a much larger group of students that financially are struggling everyday with basic necessities, they qualify for very little special services.”
To combat this, however, Crutchfield explains that the district added a new job position as of March 2018, someone who could provide assistance to students and families who are facing financial hardship.
Officially employed by FUHSD, Jasmine Kroner also works closely with Santa Clara County Health and Behavioral Services to strengthen their partnership with the school district. As a School Linked Specialist, Kroner’s main job is to connect students and families with the necessary financial resources.
“This is a very wealthy area, for sure, the houses here cost millions of dollars and there is definitely a lot of affluence,” Kroner said. “But there is also a huge gap between the people that have the wealth and the resources and the people that don’t.”
Kroner explains that the main issues she sees on a regular basis are based around food, housing and mental health services. She is able to provide information about different services and programs to the students and families that needed assistance.
However, she emphasizes that students run into all sorts of boundaries. For example, if a student doesn’t have the money to buy food, they can apply for food stamps. However, in order to do so, the student must have proper documentation, which may pose an issue, along with the ability to transport themselves to the service during business hours in order to sign up.
Similar to what White discussed, Kroner also finds that teenagers can be reluctant to explain their financial situation.
“If you’re concerned about a specific student as a teacher or administrator, it’s totally okay to ask them ‘how are things going outside of school?’” Kroner said. “If you continue to ask that weeks over weeks and build rapport with the student, the student might say ‘actually I have this going on and I don’t know what to do.’”
Kroner is understanding of this, and adds that the current political climate has likely made it more difficult for some financially challenged families to seek assistance.
“[There’s] a stigma like with all this stuff about immigration; I’m sure there are families who are terrified of sharing what’s going on with them, because they think ‘Oh my gosh I’m telling the school district, is this going to get back to the government,’” Kroner said.
Though Roger is more financially stable than many of Kroner’s clients and doesn’t require this level of financial assistance, his situation has still taught him to be grateful for what he has. He has learned to take advantage of every opportunity that comes his way — for example, things like playing a sport or joining a club. He relishes these opportunities, not taking them for granted.
Additionally, he has learned to value work ethic. Watching his dad perform manual labor from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. every day in order to support his entire family has instilled a sense of gratefulness and motivation in him. He and his siblings watch their father return from work, exhausted, on a daily basis, and they have learned to appreciate what they have.
“My dad works hard, and it makes us work hard also, [because] we see the things he has to do to help us,” Roger said. “It motivates us to work harder, so we’re not that much of a burden on our family.”
He emphasizes the importance of communicating, and asking for help if you need it, recalling a time he told his teacher he couldn’t afford to go to science camp in fifth grade.
“I guess my teacher told my principal, and then the principal talked to me. I think it was one day after school, I was waiting for my parents to come pick me up and he was like ‘When your parents come, tell them to come into the office, I want to talk to them about it. Because I want you to go to science camp, there’s no reason you should be missing out on an opportunity that everybody else is getting,’” Roger said.
According to a survey of 369 students, 57% of students do not know anyone who is experiencing financial hardship. The problem, Roger emphasizes, is this lack of awareness, and the false perception that everyone is ‘the same’ financially. White adds that often times it’s hard to tell if someone is struggling financially unless you know them on a personal level.
“This is a generalization, but ‘haves’ don’t know what it’s like to be a ‘have-not,’” White said. “If you’ve got the money, you don’t know what it’s like to not have the ability to get whatever you want.”
Graphic by Sarah Young