Poor Is the New Rich!

Poor Is the New Rich!

As waves of poverty wash over the once-affluent, it’s nice to know that you can share the pain.


A week ago, the New York Times Style section ran an article about Americans’ newfound openness in discussing their financial woes, signaling a new trend: poor is the new rich!

You might ask whether anything can be believed in a section of the paper that regularly reports on $950 Givenchy Gladiator boots or a satin jacket with a measurable wingspan, priced at just over $1,300–clothing for people who enjoy dressing like superheroes who time-travel back to CBGB, circa 1987. As it turns out, yes!

Last week, we few, we (un)happy few, we band of brothers–anxious parents of fourth- and fifth-graders–gathered for a meeting to discuss middle-school options for our budding scholars. After the Head of School tamely outlined the popular choices of private schools whose tuition is a relative bargain–at only one-half the cost of a $69,000 Mikimoto necklace–the Head announced, in a voice heavy with import, that unlike our little school, “These institutions put children whose families apply for financial aid into a smaller, far more competitive pool of applicants.” That’s when things began to heat up.

“My kid is not a genius,” one mother ventured. “Do these schools consider average intelligence as part of their diversity profile? Isn’t anyone looking to give financial aid to a kid with a congenial personality, good hair, but who’s no Einstein?” Somehow, the administrators thought she was joking and laughed it off. She then asked, “Is being an atheist considered ‘diversity’ when applying to a Catholic school?” OK, that mom was me, but I wasn’t kidding. It broke the dam and soon others were asking questions in the same vein.

The formerly flush, type-A parents, who previously prided themselves on comparing how busy they are (code for: I am an important, wealthy and powerful person) were all complaining about how strapped for cash they were. “What if we scrape together the first year’s tuition for our little Herkimer [name changed to protect his identity] to attend a vaunted and cash-draining institution of middle learning?” one parent suggested. “Is it possible that they will fall in love with Herky and find the money to give tuition assistance for him for the next few years?”

It was then that a mother whose designs I’ve seen featured in the Style section of the Times leaned over to tell me that her clothing line had just gone into Chapter 11.

For the record, this is the first year in the forty-year history of the school that parents have lobbied to have a seminar on navigating the Los Angeles public school system, a task often so fruitless it is not unlike the process of producing “clean” coal.

All of this was prelude to the annual calculation of the Kindergarten Quilt Index. OK, I made that up, there is no official KQI, but I think it’s a good economic indicator.

Each year, we auction off a quilt made by one of the kindergarten teachers. Our beloved Nancy corrals these children all day, wipes noses, dries tears, teaches them to read and write and still manages to go home and stitch together a quilt comprised of silkscreened art images produced by the little hands of our precious children. There’s always heated bidding and some family always ponies up a significant pile of cash. The year our little guy was in kindergarten, the quilt went for $1,600, and it has garnered up to $2,500 in following years.

At last week’s annual fundraiser, the quilt was trotted out. Silence. After some nervous laughter, a mom who had recently taken a job at Starbucks and I shared a giggle. We looked at the newly bankrupt clothing designer, and then over at the mom who one year had driven up the bidding, saying, “We’re loaded!” She wasn’t bidding this year. Her house has been on the market for over six months now.

“One of us! one of us!” I whispered to the designer, recalling the line from the 1932 movie Freaks.

Alas, in the end, the quilt sold for $1,500–that’s an awful lot, but less than it sold for five years ago. Are this year’s crop of kindergarteners any less loved, adorable or artistic? I don’t think so. As the economy cools, so has the kindergarten quilt.

Other years, we parents have gone out for drinks and tapas following the auction, but not this time. Everyone cleared out early–perhaps no one wanted to incur large baby-sitting fees. I didn’t have to worry because, to save money, my husband had stayed home.

So is it really any wonder that Barack Obama is now going around the country reminding people of his humble beginnings and that he pumps his own gas? Although I’ll never wear the Rodarte Cat Claw gloves described as being perfect for a “manga schoolgirl hunting vampires” at $500 a pair, this is one trend that’s turned out to have more substance than Style.

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