What Does “Privilege” Mean & How Has It Changed Throughout History?

What Is Privilege?


Why is it important to learn about privilege? Privilege is what most children who have nice things and live in nice places take for granted. Do you have a cool home in the summer and a warm bed in the winter? To a child who is homeless, that is privilege.

Poor children live in unsafe neighborhoods in which every day they are exposed to violence. These children and adults are too poor to see a doctor or get medication. Good health care is a privilege. Those who have it, sometimes take it for granted.

Living with privilege is "normal" to anyone who has never been exposed to people who live under different circumstances. A young student will take for granted that the streets he walks to and from school are safe. A teacher may expect that technology in the classroom will always be current and available. A High School senior will take for granted that one of the many colleges or universities he is interested in attending will receive him with open arms.

There are places all over the world where children and adults can't read or write, because going to school is a privilege only the wealthy are entitled to have. The rest of the population lives in abject poverty, and have little to no food to eat. One such place is Haiti, in which people have resorted to eat cakes made out of mud and dirt to keep their stomachs from rumbling. They are under-privileged.

There are four things that affect the quantity and quality of privilege experienced by people:

  1. Financial Resources
  2. Location
  3. Race
  4. Gender

It is unfortunate but these four items are tied together in disproportionate amounts across the United States and third-world countries. This disparity creates two classes of people: those who have privilege and those who are under-privileged when it comes to the most basic necessities we all take for granted.

Basic Needs


Nutrition – Children who don't have the expectation of regular meals can suffer from anxiety and spend more time employing survival skills to get their next meal, rather than spend time concentrating on studying and learning. The brain needs fuel in order to function properly and when there is no food, there is no fuel or energies to sustain a developing and thinking brain. It is a privilege to have enough nutritious food to eat without having to think about it.

Education – Education is not equal across the states, or even within the same cities. Parents know which school is better for their children based on safety and finances. No parent would ever place their child in a run-down school if they had better options available. Finishing High School is a privilege many students take for granted while those who live under different circumstances may see Middle School as their last years of education.

In the United States, privilege is equated with money, because almost every aspect of our lives is in the private sector and the private sector operates on profits. Public schools in under-privileged neighborhoods receive less financial backing than schools in more affluent neighborhoods. These schools may not have enough space or textbooks for all their students. Some don't have desks or chairs to accommodate all the students.

There are children that go to schools that are completely unfit for human beings; the bathrooms have no lights, no water and have not been cleaned in years. This is happening right now in the United States.

Outside of the United States, we have 40 or 50 children in one room sitting on a dirt floor and leaning against each other attempting to pay attention to the one teacher that travels miles on foot every week to deliver a lesson to the eager-to-learn students. Malawi, Africa is a good example of what happens in poor countries.

Location – People looking to buy a home are always told that the most important feature of the home is its location. A good location means that the house will retain its value, the school system is better, the roads are maintained, crime is low and most of the neighbors have well paying jobs.

In the end, privilege in the United States revolves around financial resources that fund the quality of the most basic human needs. It is money that provides safety in neighborhoods. Good jobs provide stability to communities and help fund education and growing opportunities for future generations.

Race – We have all heard about racial inequality, and as painful as it is to understand and accept, it is a fact that neighborhoods that are primarily African-American or Hispanic suffer from having less resources available to them. This lack of resources impacts their educational opportunities in a negative manner and, in most under-privilege neighborhoods, there is no accessibility to fresh food, which is taken for granted in more affluent neighborhoods.


Gender – Women in the United States make less than men. New legislation known as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on January 29, 2009 amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that required equal pay for equal work but had a 180-day statute of limitations. While this is good news, women are still struggling to earn as much as they need to because many opportunities are still considered a male-only territory.

Women-only positions tend to pay less, but we have seen that when both genders work in the same field, doing the same job traditionally held by one gender, disparities become narrower and income increases. For instance, male nurses were unheard of 20 years ago, but now, both genders are nurses and salaries have gone up across the board. This benefits the workers, their communities and their families, which in turn benefits the school system and the government. Other countries understand this a lot better and have made sure that basic needs, such as education and health care, are treated as human right and not a privilege.

Other Industrialized Countries

In European countries, education and health care are the right of every citizen. Unlike in the United States and Third World countries were both systems are for profit and considered the dominion of the wealthier among us, children in European countries receive an equal education that does not vary by region or city. In countries like France, higher education is also considered a right and anyone wanting to get a Master's Degree or PhD can do so without incurring debt. Financially, the government allocates the tax revenue that it collects from its citizens and industry to things that benefit society immediately and in the future. Most European countries value, and pride themselves on having an educated population.


The effects of poverty affects mobility and those who are poor are forced to live in under-privilege districts. Poor citizens have a difficult time attaining transportation to do basic things, such as getting school supplies, or purchasing nutritious food. Public libraries may be too far from where they live and are cut off from technology that makes learning and communication faster and easier.

Privilege is tied to income in the United States and the less resources available to people, the harder it is to break generational cycles of poverty. A high-quality education that does not discriminate by location, racial or gender lines must be coupled with a demand for jobs that pay living wages to all its citizens. Being proactive in removing the hurdles will ensure poverty will become a bad memory for under-privilege children and adults.