Human Well Being

We know quite a bit about human well being, broadly defined to include the physical, behavioral, social, economic, and political elements of the concept.  We seem to lack the will and the resources to pursue broadly based improvements in the well being of everyone.  Many of us feel that everyone is on their own, and that is as it should be.

My sense is that very few of us are “on our own.”  We have parents, communities, and governments that significantly help us.  In my case, we were very poor, but there were family stories of past successes that taught me that success is possible.  You may have to figure out how to fund it yourself, but success can happen.

Of course, that was long ago when you could scrape and save to put yourself through college.  There now are few summer jobs – unless you are a 16 year-old brain surgeon – where you can earn enough to pay next year’s college bills.  The economics of education have eclipsed the abilities of students and most parents.

There are two challenges.  First, can a student reasonably assume that success is possible?  Second, can a motivated and hardworking student actually do it?  The answers depend on your assumptions.  Is this student trying to economically survive at Harvard, MIT, or Stanford?  An exemplary record and story might do it, but otherwise no.

What if the student is matriculating at a top-notch state institution, perhaps in Georgia with a Hope Scholarship earned on the basis of a strong high school record?  This could work.  How does one achieve a strong high school record?  It depends on both what the public high school offers and the family circumstances.  I had to work from a young age, in part to be able to buy my own clothes.  I don’t see how that could work now.

I had the very good fortune that my extended family, for the most part, all lived in the same small Rhode Island town.  I had almost endless opportunities to make a few dollars here and there.  By the time I was a young teenager, I was maintaining the yards of 12 families.  I could buy clothes and, by the age of 14, buy a car.  This took a toll.  By my senior year in high school, I achieved the school’s highest SAT score in math while earning a C in calculus.

My sense, quite retrospectively of course, is that my well being was in good shape.  I knew who I was and where I was headed, although everything did not play out as planned.  But I had agency, was not at all a victim, and was ready to move from small town Rhode Island to big city Boston to eventual adventures in Atlanta, Boston, New York City, Washington, DC and Europe. 

I wonder how this sense of well being could be available to everyone.  I had a family and community that looked after me, as well as everyone else in our social network.  I had family stories that portrayed great success, despite quite humble current situations.  I had an economy that enabled me to strive to doing it on my own.  Yet, I knew that I was not really doing it on my own.  I was taking the cards dealt and doing my best with a lot of social support.

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