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Money, generational wealth, and the reality of making it in the arts

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Not long ago, my wife, a composer, asked me if I would ever advise a student from a low-income family to pursue a career in the arts. I am a writer, librettist, and an arts and literature teacher. I thought the answer was obvious.

“What do you mean? Of course.”

“But they don’t have money.”

“If a student were really passionate and talented, she’d figure out a way.” That’s always been something my parents told me. “Think about what you’d do if money were no object, and then work hard. You’ll find a way to make money.”

“Your parents give you $28,000 a year. They paid for your tuition. They made it possible for you to do what you’d do if money were no object — because money was no object for you.”

I got a little defensive at this point.

“Well, my parents did it themselves. They started out with nothing. My dad worked at a bookstore and taught himself to program computers by reading books about it. He started two companies, one from his garage. My mom helped and provided additional income by teaching—”

“Right. Your dad loved technology. He loved business. He did not try to go into the arts with no money. Do you really think it would have been the same?”

“You sound like a Midwestern grandpa,” I said. “Not mine — he was the one who said the thing about ‘what if money were no object’ to my dad in the first place. But like a stereotypical conservative Midwestern grandpa. ‘It’s time ya quit that artsy-fartsy stuff and get yerself a useful degree.’”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“You would tell a low-income student to go for it? Take out the loans?”

The truth is, I’ve never actually been asked that by a student from a low-income family. despite the fact that I have taught English, drama, and opera composition in low-income communities — and a few students have even enjoyed my classes. The reason, I’m guessing, is that for the most part, they’ve already ruled that out, likely because they have never met someone who actually acts, sings, writes, or plays an instrument for a living.

For the most part, students say they want to be doctors or social workers or lawyers, sometimes professional athletes. When students tell me they want to be professional athletes, I always ask, “What’s your backup plan?” Sure, some might make it. But most of them won’t. With sports, though, it sorts itself out pretty quickly. The students get the college scholarship or they don’t. I don’t really have to discourage them. I just have to say, maybe have a backup.

But if students want to pursue the arts, they may be accepted to an arts program without a scholarship and find themselves $200,000 in debt before realizing they aren’t going to be able to get a real paycheck with their arts degree — at least in the next decade. Sure, there are exceptions. But for every exception, there are many more people who are impoverished by their arts education or by working part-time or temporary jobs as they struggle early in their careers.

“Don’t you think conservative Midwestern grandpas occasionally have a point?”

It’s not a point that I conceded lightly, but my wife, who lived with student loans, pushed me to continue thinking beyond the often unrealistic narrative that all it takes is talent and work.

We want diverse voices in the arts. But we don’t like to talk about money.

We spend a lot of time in the New York City theater scene talking about ways to create more performance opportunities for “new voices,” meaning historically underrepresented groups, such as women and people of color. We talk about ways society as a whole tends to favor straight white guys and how that manifests itself in the arts. And while these conversations are important, and while I agree that society is, often, skewed to favor those SWGs (bless their hearts), it’s amazing how little time we spend discussing the largest, most obvious barrier to new voices in the arts: money.

After college, I was expected to earn my own living. My parents had paid for tuition and room and board through my undergraduate degree in English at Yale, which, because we didn’t quite qualify for the school’s generous financial aid, meant something like $180,000 a year. I was able to graduate debt-free, unlike 71 percent of American students who graduate with student loans.

After school, I worked as a receptionist, then as a public high school teacher and coach in Baltimore making around $45,000 annually. For me, it was plenty. My rent was low. I never ate expensive meals, almost never shopped for clothes, bought my groceries from Aldi, and was able to pay off my heavily subsidized MA in writing at Johns Hopkins. Baltimore City paid 75 percent of my master’s degree cost; I covered the rest.

I was able to pursue my goal of writing in a very part-time way during the academic year and in a more serious way over summer breaks. I finished drafts of three novels and a short story collection, but I didn’t have time to think about publishing my work. I didn’t have the energy to do the submission/rejection/revision routine (an extremely time-consuming, somewhat expensive process with low returns). I didn’t have any connections to the publishing industry, and I didn’t have the time to go to conferences or do additional networking. So, aside from a couple of stories that I managed to get published in small literary magazines, most of my work sat on my hard drive, where it still is today.

Then my dad received several million dollars from his shares in the sale of his second company. That’s when my parents told me they were going to give me about $2,000 a month — ultimately, this grew to $28,000 a year.

$28,000 is a dollar figure familiar to children of the wealthy. It’s the maximum amount a couple can give to an individual tax-free. Wealthy individuals are frequently advised by their accountants to do this to avoid the (quite low) inheritance tax. It results in free income for wealthy kids. I don’t even report it to the IRS — and that’s entirely legal. I could get this money every year for the rest of my life, or as long as my parents choose to give it to me, without having to lift a finger. I took the money, spent part of it helping my then-boyfriend pay off his student loans, and put the rest in the bank.

After three years of teaching, completely exhausted from my crazy schedule and the emotional toll of teaching in a broken system — and frustrated by my inability to finish or publish any major projects — I decided to move back to Missouri to see if a normal “9 to 5” job might leave me time to pursue my creative writing career. It didn’t. I still couldn’t find a foothold. I ultimately managed to scrape enough time together to self-publish a novel, but I didn’t have the extra time to market it. Despite positive reviews and feedback, the book didn’t sell many copies outside of my friends and family.

I needed to change tactics and mediums. I decided to bite the bullet and move to New York to pursue writing for theater full-time. This time, I knew I’d need regular feedback and networking connections. I started a graduate degree: an MFA in musical theater writing at New York University. My parents agreed to pay the remainder of my tuition after a small scholarship, spending another $70,000 or so for the two-year program. I was nervous, but I was driven. And I had enough money — $28,00 a year, to be exact — that taking a “risk” wasn’t exactly risky.

Of course, New York is expensive. When my boyfriend suddenly left me, I had to pay $1,450 a month, or $17,400 a year, for rent on my own, not including utilities. I quickly drained my savings and found myself dependent on the gift money from my parents. My work-study position and stint as a brunch hostess — all I could manage during my intensive program — were not enough to cover basic living expenses.

Still, when I graduated, I had a huge advantage over many of my classmates. I was debt-free, and the $28,000 kept coming.

What $28,000 a year bought me

$28,000. A person in my home state of Missouri can work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, and make only $16,328, and still have to pay tax on it. So what does this $28,000 a year mean to me as an artist? The biggest thing it buys is time. Instead of working 50 to 60 hours a week at “survival jobs,” like many of my art school friends, I was working 20 to 30 hours a week, which included reffing for an adult sports league, “matchmaking” for a dating company, typing payroll for a law firm, and coordinating for a youth tennis league.

I was able to use the remaining time to write. I was able to take fulfilling, career-enhancing teaching artist residencies, participate in a well-connected biweekly workshop, and network through an unpaid internship, all of which helped get my career started — none of which I could have done with a full-time job.

I could also cover the “little things.” When my hard drive crashed, I just went to the Apple store that day and picked up a new $1,000 MacBook Air. I had money to pay for recordings and submission fees for workshops and contests. I wasn’t living extravagantly, and I wasn’t putting away enough to retire, but I could keep pushing ahead in my career in those crucial years immediately after school.

I finally made those connections. I got my work to increasingly bigger stages. I did that without the financial anxiety that so many of my friends have — anxiety that can lead to panic attacks. I did it without having to rely on a partner for steady income. My parents always spoke of the gift as an investment, and I did my best to make it pay off.

Still, it wasn’t until I got married this year, moved to an affordable part of Connecticut, and took on a new full-time teaching position, that I felt financially stable and responsible. Shortly after we started dating, my wife began her graduate program at a music school that covers tuition and provides a stipend and teaching opportunities for all of its students. Between teaching and commissions, we now make enough in combined income that we no longer live off the gift but can pass it along to others.

We can also start planning for a family and saving for retirement while continuing to work in the fields we love, oftentimes together. We still have to put in long hours — and we certainly aren’t famous — but we don’t have to worry. Finally, at age 33, I can earn my own way and still move forward in an arts career.

All it took was a hell of a lot of work and nearly half a million dollars from my parents.

How we fix this

Of course, I don’t like to talk about money around my colleagues who are struggling. It’s uncomfortable (to say the least) to think about our financial advantage. When people asked me how I made it work, I would mumble something about my teaching artist gig paying well. (It did, but it wasn’t that many hours.) If I were feeling honest, I might have said something vague like, “Well, my parents help a little.” When the talk went to student loans, I would go silent or say something super helpful like: “Well, almost everyone has them, so they probably won’t hurt you in the long run,” or, “Yeah, it’s a crisis.”

But I think it’s important for us to have real numbers to think about, which is why I’m sharing mine. We should understand the reality of the situation we’re in. Or rather, the different realities of the situations we are in. My friends are out there hustling and making all kinds of sacrifices to get a foothold and, when it’s not working, feeling like failures.

Their voices are the “new voices” we are losing. Theirs and the those of the people who gave up long before. Musicians who couldn’t afford lessons to begin with. Actors who couldn’t pay rent and eat on temp work. Singers who couldn’t afford to go to unpaid young artist programs. Writers who couldn’t afford to take a risk.

There’s a romanticized view of the bohemian lifestyle — but it’s one thing for a person to go for a while subsisting on ramen and food squirreled away from work events if she knows she has family, a spouse, or people she can fall back on or a regular paycheck ahead of her. It’s quite another if she doesn’t have that support — or if she has others she needs to support. So many potential “new voices” fall into these categories.

Many of them are also the “new voices” we frequently speak about — people of color, queer people, or women. There is a significant intersection, which makes sense considering that people of color and women were not even allowed to own property for a long time. Many white men had a huge head start — similar to the head start I have now, despite being a queer woman. Historically marginalized people also have additional factors working against them, making it even harder to get by as artists — fewer roles, unacknowledged biases, societal pressure, “biological clocks” — all problems that are exacerbated if they don’t have financial support and a safety net.

We need to be advocating for more far-reaching solutions. We need to fight for free tuition for all higher education. This solution frees not only artists but all people from a major financial burden that derails those living paycheck to paycheck and prevents them from moving forward toward their goals. Artists, of course, are not the only people suffering from student loan debt and low wages. We need to find ways to make any job that requires an educational investment accessible to all in a financially responsible way.

These solutions cost money, but it’s not hard to see where the money is. Wealth inequality is mind-boggling and getting worse. At the very least, we can require the children of the wealthy, people like me, to pay a reasonable amount of taxes on their income. Employers and contract workers have to report wages of $600. Why wouldn’t we require rich kids to report gifts of $28,000 and pay taxes?

We can also lower the amount of inheritance that can be passed along tax-free upon death. The latest tax bill just increased the amount that kids can inherit tax-free from their parents from $10.98 million (per couple) to $22.4 million. (Money above that is taxed at 40 percent.) That’s $22.4 million of unearned income for the children of the rich. The wealthy, including my parents, paid taxes when they earned it, of course. And they are entitled to give it away as they please. But we adult children of the wealthy should have to report our income, regardless of the source.

If we work to reverse this income gap through public policy, we also help disrupt the feudal artist-patron problem, which, again, is a barrier to new voices. People other than a handful of wealthy donors and producers might be able to have a say in what is funded. People other than the wealthy might be able to afford tickets to performances. I know it’s incredibly difficult to “bite the hand that feeds us,” but if we don’t, we will never be able to feed ourselves. We can’t be free if we are constantly in debt.

I do not want to continue teaching in a world where I have to caution a talented but poor student against pursuing a career in the arts. I don’t want to succeed as an artist because no one else can afford to hang around. I want to be surrounded by art that I can’t even imagine. By truly new voices. By perspectives that I have no access to, or that have no access to me. It will make me a better artist and a better person. Everyone will benefit deeply and meaningfully from sharing — even those of us who stand to lose an initial competitive advantage.

This essay is adapted from a blog post.

E.J. Roller is a writer, librettist, and educator. Feel free to share this article, but be sure to cite your source. (I’m an English teacher, after all.) Find her at ejroller.com.


First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

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11 Exercises to Fix Rounded Shoulders and Sculpt Beautiful Posture

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Modern life takes its toll on our posture when we spend hours sitting and neglect the position of our spine. Poor posture leads to an imbalance in our muscles which means that they can’t support the body properly. Luckily, this can be fixed by doing a set of effective exercises. Moreover, they can help you to reduce back pain, stop headaches, increase energy, and improve circulation and digestion.

Bright Side is ready to help our readers achieve a beautiful and healthy body, and found 11 simple exercises that can be done at home by anyone. At the end we included a small tip, as a bonus for those who enjoy massage.

1. Upper trapezius stretch

It’s better to start from your shoulders first to relax your upper muscles. An upper trapezius stretch is just perfect for this.

Initial position: For this exercise, you can stand or sit on your yoga mat, whatever you like. Keep your head straight.

What to do:

  • Slowly move your right ear toward your right shoulder. When you do this, it’s normal that your left shoulder might lift as well. If it does, bring your head back to the initial position and try to relax your left shoulder.
  • Put your right hand over your head and place it on your left cheekbone. Don’t push your head down with it, it should just lie there. This will stretch your upper trapezius muscles very gently.
  • Calmly breathe and sit in this position for 30 seconds.
  • Slowly remove your hand, come back to the initial position and repeat the same on the other side.

2. Superman

The Superman exercise engages your upper and lower back. It helps you fight lower back pain and prevents a curved spine.

Initial position: Lie face down on your stomach, on your yoga mat.

What to do:

  • Extend your arms and legs. Keep your neck neutral.
  • Keep your torso stationary and lift your arms and legs up toward the ceiling. Try forming a “U” shape with your body.
  • Hold the position for 5 seconds, lower your arms and legs, and go back to the initial position.
  • Repeat 10 times.

3. Bridge

The bridge works out glutes and strengthens the lower back, which is important for good posture.

Initial position: Lie on your yoga mat, bend your knees, and place your feet hip-width apart. Place your arms by your sides.

What to do:

  • Engage your buttocks and raise them up, creating a straight line with your body. Your shoulders should be on the floor.
  • Hold this position for 10 seconds and slowly lower your body back to the initial position.
  • Repeat 15-20 times. Give yourself a rest for 30 seconds after every 5 reps.

4. Reverse shoulder stretch

This is an effective exercise to stretch your back and shoulder muscles and remove tension and pain in them.

Initial position: Stand on a yoga mat, with your feet wider than your shoulders, place your straightened hands behind you, and lock your palms together.

What to do:

  • Bring your shoulder blades together and start putting your arms up. Try to feel the tension in your spine and shoulder muscles.
  • For more spine stretch bend forward and bring your locked hands up. Hold this position for 10-15 seconds.
  • Slowly return back to the initial position.
  • Repeat 20 times.

5. Foam roller exercise for upper back

A foam roller will help you to relieve pain in your back muscles, fix rounded shoulders, and improve your overall posture.

Initial position: Get a yoga mat and lie on it with your hips apart and your feet on the floor. Place your foam roller right under your upper middle back, in your shoulder blade area.

What to do:

  • Bring your hands behind your head, this will support it. Bring your hips into a bridge pose, and hold your balance, supporting your body with your legs.
  • Inhale, push your body from your heels, and roll on your spine. Stop when the roller reaches the top of your shoulder blades.
  • Exhale and roll back until the roller reaches the bottom if your rib cage.
  • Repeat this for 30-45 seconds.

6. Cat-cow exercise

The cat-cow exercise is perfect for stretching your back, lower spine, and core muscles.

Initial position: Stand on all fours on the yoga mat, place your hands right under your shoulders, and knees and feet hip-width apart. Keep your toes pointing toward your body. Your spine should be natural and straight, no bending or arching.

What to do:

  • Cat position: exhale and engage your abdominal muscles. Arch your spine up toward the ceiling, bringing your head to your chest, aligned with your spine. Hold this for 10 seconds.
  • Cow position: slowly start bringing your stomach toward the floor and try to feel the tension in your lower back. Bring your shoulder blades together. Hold this for 10 seconds and go back to the initial position.
  • Repeat 15 times.

7. Kneeling hip-flexor stretch

The kneeling hip flexor stretch will help to remove tension from your pelvic and lower back muscles.

Initial position: Kneel on a yoga mat, bring your right leg in front of you, and bend it at a 90 degree angle. Your foot is flat on the ground. Support yourself by standing on your left knee that is also bent at 90 degrees.

What to do:

  • Slowly start bringing your right knee forward and brace your core. Engage your glutes and keep bringing your hips forward.
  • Your left knee is already bent at more than 90 degrees. Keep your spine straight, don’t bend it forward or backward.
  • Hold this position for 10 seconds to feel the stretch in the muscles then slowly return to the initial position.
  • Repeat 10 times for both sides.

8. Bird dog exercise

Bird dog helps to remove back pain, strengthens the core, and promotes proper posture.

Initial position: Stand on all fours on the yoga mat, your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Your spine should be straight and neutral.

What to do:

  • Raise your right hand and your left leg at the same time, bringing them parallel to the floor.
  • As you do this, lengthen your neck and bring your chin to your chest. Look down at the floor and remain like this for 10 seconds.
  • Return to the starting position and then repeat the same exercise with your left hand and right leg.
  • Repeat 10-15 times.

9. Forearm plank

Plank is not only effective at burning fat, but it also helps to strengthen the spine muscles, it prevents back pain, and it helps to improve your posture.

Initial position: Place your forearms on the yoga mat and align your elbows below your shoulders. Your arms should be parallel to your body at about shoulder-width distance.

What to do:

  • You can clasp your hands together for more comfort. Correct your neck and spine by looking at one spot on the floor somewhere about 30 centimeters in front of your hands.
  • Pay attention, so that your head is in line with your back.
  • Hold this position for 20 seconds.

10. T-Spine windmill stretch

The t-spine windmill stretch can help you fight pain and tension in your lower back and trunk. Moreover, it works out your shoulder muscles.

Initial position: Lie on your side on a yoga mat and bend your knees and hips at 90 degrees. Extend and stack your arms together on your right side.

What to do:

  • Raise your left arm up and then place it out to the left, opening your body up. Right now, your shoulder blades should be on the floor and your legs should remain in the same position.
  • Hold it for a couple of seconds and return to your initial position.
  • Do 30 repetitions on each side.

11. Tight shoulder massage

A simple tennis ball can help you to remove pain in your shoulders in different areas and relax them. All you need here is a tennis ball and a wall.

Initial position: Stand next to the wall and face it. Place a tennis ball on the wall and lean on it. Your chest should push the ball inside your shoulder.

What to do:

  • Start making a circular movement around this muscle and try to find a trigger point.
  • Hold a ball on this point until you feel that the tension and pain are gone.
  • Keep doing this until you relax all of your trigger points.
  • Repeat on the other shoulder.

Bonus: Thai massage is amazing for your back and shoulders.

Thai massage is an ancient form of massage that uses stretching and gentle pressure on the body to relieve muscle and joint pain, and balance your body. This massage helps to make muscles more flexible and removes chronic stiffness. For better results in achieving a healthy back and good posture, you can try this type of massage, focusing on your spine muscles.

Exercises can be effective, but it’s also important to pay attention to your posture throughout the day and strive to keep your spine straight. Do you have good posture? Maybe, you have a couple of exercises that help you relieve back and shoulder pain? Let’s share in the comments!

Illustrated by Alena Tsarkova and Marat Nugumanov for BrightSide.me

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8 Top Technology Trends To Watch In China

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This is a preview of 2019 Technology Trends Report in China from Business Insider Intelligence and EqualOcean. Chinese high tech firms have been leading the way in innovation for many technologies, such as 5G. These technologies are either currently undergoing or about to undergo major phases of change.

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Why Iran is attacking oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz

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The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow waterway that lies between Iran and Oman. Dozens of tankers carry oil through the 21-mile-wide passage each day. This flow of oil represents 20 percent of the world’s supply.

Most of the tankers traveling through the Strait of Hormuz are bound for Asia. But an attack on any tanker there, regardless of its destination, can affect the price of oil everywhere. That’s because oil is a globally traded product — a drop in supply from the Persian Gulf can drive up prices from other sources around the world. After two tankers were attacked in June, the price of Brent Crude — oil sourced from the North Sea — jumped by nearly $2 per barrel.


The price of Brent crude, a global benchmark, jumped in response to the attack of two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.

Vox/Danush Parvaneh

The attacks in June weren’t the only incidents in Hormuz in recent months. Several other oil tankers have been seized, attacked, and harassed. These tankers — and this narrow water passage — have become a center of conflict between the US and Iran. It’s a conflict with the potential to escalate in one of the world’s most important oil chokepoints, sending the global economy into a tailspin.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. And if you’re interested in supporting our video journalism, you can become a member of the Vox Video Lab on YouTube.

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