Being Broke is No Joke

If there’s one thing college students can be relied upon to do on a regular basis, especially those in fraternities and sororities, it’s to periodically throw parties with mindbogglingly offensive themes. It’s strange, because it happens across the board, at progressive universities and those not exactly known for their social consciousness alike, even after seeing such parties blow up in the faces of other sororities and fraternities. You know the sorts of parties. Blackface, yellowface, or redface. Mockeries of other cultures.

And, of course, parties themed around homelessness and poverty — often driven, in part, by the mistaken belief that college students are poor. Yet what college students really are when they’re short on money is usually broke, not poor, especially if they’re in organisations like these; college in the US is increasingly for wealthy and middle class people, not low-income and poor people. (And ‘broke’ is highly subjective to people who have every advantage in life — the inability to afford fancy meals every night is not, to my eye, ‘broke.’)

To be poor, truly poor, is to have no resources, and to live in the awareness that you could become homeless or hungry — for many poor people, these things have been realities, not just conjectures. People who have lived in poverty have not had any resources to turn to. They don’t have credit, they don’t have family members with money to bail them out, they are positioned in society with their backs against the wall and no real options if sudden large expenses arise. This is being poor.

Bring broke, on the other hand, is a temporary, though irritating, shortage of money. Many college students are broke at one point or another whether through poor financial literacy, excessive spending habits, or limited financial aid and resources. (Again, we distinguish between broke college students — those who don’t have money at a given point for a particular reason — and poor college students, those who are relying on financial aid and other external supports like second and third jobs to pay for school because they aren’t getting financial support from their parents and families.)

So we see a lot of spoilt college kids throwing parties themed around homelessness and poverty, which strikes me as being as galling as all the other sorts of callous, ridiculously themed parties that college students throw, and it comes with its own bitter notes. In this economy, making fun of poverty is sending a stark, clear message to low-income people; it’s a reminder of their social status, a warning to stay away from colleges and universities, a snide dismissal of their humanity. To be low-income in this society is to be repeatedly told that you don’t matter and you should hide in a corner, but these kinds of ‘fun’ parties are a particularly stark and sinister message, especially since groups often get a slap on the wrist for them or some finger wagging, but no real consequences.

Poking fun at poverty reduces it to something entertaining that can be put on and taken off — just as parties about other minority identities suggest that they can be worn like clothing rather than being something that people live with, and within, every single day of their lives. Such parties also usually fail to make the important distinction between being broke and being poor, with some students defending them on the grounds that they’re broke, so really, they’re satirising themselves or making a commentary about the expenses of college life.

They’re right — college life is expensive, but not in the way they like to frame it with these kinds of parties. College life is expensive because the raw cost of college has risen 27% above the rate of inflation in the last five years. It’s not just that college fees look superficially more expensive when compared to five years or even a decade ago. Attending college is becoming an order of magnitude more expensive, and that’s just college fees. We’re not getting into the costs of living in college and university towns, the rising costs of food, and other incidentals that contribute to the overall costs of higher education.

Student loan commitments are wavering, with less available to students than before, while endowments are shrinking due to poor investment strategies, making grants to in-need students even lower. That means that people have fewer resources to turn to when they need help covering the costs of college — and when they graduate, their debt is likely to be higher, and the interest more of a burden, than it was for previous generations. College is no longer a public good or part of the commons, something anyone has a chance at achieving if they want to go. College is a privilege for the rich.

Rich kids seem to think that joking about college and class is all in good fun, but it’s not. And more tellingly, I suspect that most of them know that. The wealthy have long enjoyed making jokes of poor communities because it is a way of putting communities in their place, of reinforcing existing social structures that privilege some classes over others. For students holding parties like these, the party isn’t just another exhibition of cluelessness — any more than a Blackface party is an event ‘innocent of racism’ and ‘all in good fun’ — it’s a sinister, calculated, grim commentary on how the wealthy view the poor.

Making fun of someone, punching down, is one of the most effective ways to keep that person in a subservient position. When wealthy college students ‘joke around’ at parties like these, they’re reassuring themselves that they should be the ones in charge, and they’re also equipping themselves with the means to do so by demeaning poor communities.

Oddly enough, poor communities aren’t laughing at ‘go homeless!’ and ‘play broke’ parties — because they know the message that’s really being sent there. It’s not just about being frustrated that your life is a game to other people, but about the raw awareness that people are reinforcing their social status at your literal expense.

Image: The Instant Ramen Tunnel, Ivan Lian, Flickr