I’m sure that many of those who have been watching Showtime’s Shameless for the last six years view the show through the perspective of a certain character. Some of you may be relate to Ian, some to Fiona, some to Carl (weirdos), and others to Frank (God help you). I’ve always seen Shameless through the perspective of Lip Gallagher. He’s my focal point. He’s the central protagonist of the show, and everything else in Shameless is designed to supplement Lip’s hero’s journey out of the grips of poverty and into a stable, middle-class life. Frank will eventually die, Fiona will continue working a succession of paycheck-to-paycheck jobs for the rest of her life, Carl will wind up in prison, Debbie will find a much older man whose children she will eventually help to rear, Ian might just be able to work long enough as a paramedic to collect disability for the rest of his life after an on-the-job injury, and Kevin and Veronica might be able to keep that bar open long enough to pass it on to their children. I know, because that was basically the fate of my family members.
Lip is me, and Lip is supposed to make it out, goddamnit. He’s smart. He made it to college. Being first in your family to go to college is supposed to be your ticket out!
But it’s not for Lip — at least not yet — and it’s not for most college students from low-income backgrounds. In this week’s season premiere, we discover that Lip’s been expelled from school because of his problems with alcohol (problems that rehab clearly didn’t fix) and that — best case scenario — he might get an internship that he’ll fuck up, or he might end up transferring his credits to a lesser college that he’ll drop out of. However, in all likelihood, Lip Gallagher — or at least those in the real world in a similar situation — will end up washing dishes at his sister’s diner for the rest of his life.
It hurts to watch. In fact, it makes me kind of not want to watch Shameless anymore, because I can’t bear to watch Lip become another casualty of poverty.
But it’s also reality.
If you live in poverty, there’s a 70 percent change you’ll never attend college. If you do somehow beat those odds and are accepted into college, there’s up to a 40 percent chance you’ll never even show up. And if you do show up, there’s a 60 percent chance you’ll never graduate.
Lip Gallagher was never going to make it. Low-income students simply are not equipped to handle college. Poverty sucks, but even when given opportunities to escape, it’s challenging to climb the socioeconomic ladder. It’s hard to fit in. There’s pressure from back home, and perhaps most detrimental is the fact that we don’t know how to handle money responsibly. That’s not a small issue.
If you’re lucky enough to get into college, and if you’re lucky enough to get scholarships or financial aid to cover the cost of tuition and living expenses, college administrators will give you a lump sum of money at the beginning of the semester — most likely, a sum of money that’s more than you have ever seen in your entire life — and they will ask you to stretch it until the next semester’s payment. How many impoverished kids know how to budget? How many kids who have never held a $100 bill know how to spend $5,000?
And then you’re suddenly living in a college dorm — which is probably the nicest place you’ve ever lived in your life — and you’re eating cafeteria food, which is probably the most nutritious food you’ve ever had in your life. Alcohol and drugs are readily available, and when you don’t know how to otherwise fit in with the “rich” kids (i.e., anyone whose parents owned their own home), those are what you turn to in order to find acceptance, because at least it’s something with which you are familiar.
In other words, if you’re one of the 60 percent of the 30 percent who is accepted to college and actually manage to get over the fear of attending a place incredibly outside your comfort zone, you’ll probably end up fucking it up when you get there because you don’t know how to budget, you don’t know how to fit in, and you’ve just entered paradise, the greatest place you’ve ever been in your life. It’s like you’re a kid in a candy shop and someone gives you $5 and tells you to make it last for four months, even though everyone else has $500 and you want to fit in with them. And oh yeah, don’t forget to go to class and study.
The system is not designed for poor kids. Despite getting a full ride to college, taking out the max in student loans, working two jobs, and getting myself into thousands of dollars in credit card debt, I still barely made it out of college by the skin of my teeth, and that’s only because I had a lot of guidance from a girlfriend who was much smarter than I. If you get really lucky in college, someone might see you as their Eliza Doolittle.
Lip never had that support system. He never felt like he belonged. He spent too much time living a life he’d never experienced before, and he still only made it to his second semester because money basically dropped out of the sky to cover his tuition. Lip Gallagher, like most college students in his position, never had a chance, and that is the heartbreaking reality of Shameless.