The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows

Friday, February 9th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonKay S. Hymowitz reviews Rob Henderson’s Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class:

In Rob Henderson’s first recounted memory in his new memoir, Troubled, he is three years old, screaming in terror and clinging to his mother as two policemen wrestle handcuffs onto her wrists. He had no idea why this was happening, of course; the scuffle likely had something to do with his mother’s incorrigible drug addiction. A Korean-born college dropout, she relied on prostitution to support her habit. When she and Rob weren’t living in a car, she would tie him to a chair in the apartment to attend to her customers. Her other two boys, Rob’s brothers, had different fathers; Rob would never know them or learn what became of them.


His life took a turn for the better when, lacking alternatives, he enlisted in the Air Force. Conventional wisdom has it that boys like Rob learn self-discipline and responsibility from military life, but Henderson has a different take. The military didn’t “transform” him, he argued — it merely stopped him from becoming a self-destructive basket case. Most kids with his background are not so lucky.


Later, he was accepted at Yale University. For all elite universities’ problems — Henderson spotted them quickly — Yale was rocket fuel for his under-exercised brain. Henderson sounded like the kind of student that professors pray for but rarely see: mature, mindful, and hungry for knowledge. He didn’t just “do the reading;” he tested the ideas he encountered against own experiences and observations.

Class by Paul Fussell

Henderson’s restless mind had been particularly stimulated by a 1983 book called Class: A Guide Through America’s Status System by the iconoclastic historian-critic Paul Fussell. Class opens Henderson’s eyes to the distance between forlorn places like Red Bluff and the towns of his Yale classmates’ upper middle-class upbringings. He noticed more than the obvious markers of privilege, like the students in $900 Canadian Goose jackets who strode around campus; he discovered the more subtle ways people like him were kept from moving up. Voguish words like “heteronormative” and “cisgender,” for instance, signaled that the speaker was a member of the educated class. Fussell had remarked that upper-class people often name their pets after literary or historical figures to flaunt their education. Sure enough, one of the first Yalies Henderson met had a pet cat named “Learned Claw,” a play on the name of jurist Learned Hand.

Henderson became fascinated by “class divides and social hierarchies,” adding Pierre Bourdeau, Emile Durkheim, and Thorstein Veblen to his reading list. His primary source, however, was Yale itself. In Red Bluff, hardly anyone went to college or even aspired to go; at Yale, he watched The Sopranos and was struck by Carmella’s dedication to getting daughter Meadow into Columbia. College, he realized, was the most powerful class signifier of all.

Troubled’s penultimate chapter, which might be subtitled “What I Learned at Yale,” is a tour de force that in a more rational world would be required reading for all incoming college students at elite schools. In it, Henderson developed his now widely cited concept of “luxury beliefs.” Yale students, appearing aware of their own advantages and compassionate to the downtrodden, would proudly repeat ideas that the boy from Red Bluff knew would harm the marginalized. Many of the parents of his childhood friends were drug addicts, yet his college peers cheered on drug liberalization, for example. And why not? It seemed enlightened and cost people like them nothing.

For Henderson, the most painful luxury beliefs were those that undermined families and the childhood stability he had so desperately craved. “Monogamy is kind of outdated,” a Yale graduate announced. She admitted that she had grown up with both parents and hoped someday to marry — monogamously, of course. In such people’s minds, to acknowledge the benefits of two-parent families and the stability that they are more likely to confer is to be insensitive to less fortunate families with different family structures. This attitude gets things backward, Henderson writes: “It’s cruel to validate decisions that inflict harm, especially on those who had no hand in the decision—like young children.” Luxury believers pay no price for ignoring the harms they endorse. In fact, it’s the opposite — they gain social currency at places like Yale. “The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows,” Henderson said.


  1. bruce says:

    She was poor but she was honest; victim of a rich man’s whim. First he pumped her, then he dumped her; hers the sorrow, his the sin. It’s the same the whole world over . . .

  2. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    Opiate addiction in rats is easily cured if the addicted rats are put in a “Rat Park” where they have ample food, entertainment, and mates. Similarly, when opiates were first abused recreationally by upper-class British people, those upper-class people had a relatively easy time kicking the habit when necessary because their entire society was designed to give them every possible luxury and need. Many upper-class Brits soon decided opiates were just another form of luxury consumer good to entertain one and all.

    Opiate addiction is hard to cure CHEAPLY. Lower-class people who get addicted to opiates do not have the option of surrounding themselves with luxuries in order to quit. The lower-class opiate addicts paid for the upper-class opiate addicts’ stupidity.

  3. Jim says:

    Rob admits things about himself that I couldn’t be induced to admit under CIA waterboarding, but I respect his valiant assault of the great establishmentarian hypocrisy.

  4. Phileas Frogg says:

    There’s a long history of such derelicts as those he encountered and their less-than-flattering descriptions, which I’m sure Rob is aware of. Nietzsche’s Tarantula, Sowell’s Intellectuals, Rand’s Ellsworth Toohey, or more simply, “The Fatal Conceit.”

    Gaikokumaniakku, interesting point. Got me thinking of an inversion of that principle:

    I wonder if a publicly accepted culture of corporal punishment by Father’s and Husbands is not in a similar category: a necessary tool at lower incomes that has been wrenched from the hands of those who need them by those who can afford not to. Of course those who can afford not to avail themselves of such tools have no compunction inflicting legal sanction upon those who lack their means.

    Similar to First World countries to Third World countries regarding capital punishment.

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