I recently went to lunch with my mom and one of her friends. We were looking forward to a nice, normal meal at a place my mom and I had never been. The food didn’t disappoint, but the conversation stuck with me long after we left the restaurant and went our separate ways. It underscored why I do this work and validated not just the need of it, but the obligation of doing it if you find yourself in a position that allows you to dedicate your life to it. But sometimes a situation sucker punches you in the jaw, and you have to hunch into the surprise of that sudden, shocking discomfort before you can move on. That’s what happened to me as that otherwise pleasant lunch unfolded, and I had to take a moment to collect my thoughts, to gather the raw feelings of anger and helplessness and turn them into fuel that might succeed at powering something worthwhile.
We’ll call my mom’s friend Susan for the sake of simplicity and anonymity, but feel quite free to think of Susan as your friend, your neighbor, your sister, your mother, or your cousin. Susan could be anyone and, in point of fact, she is far too many of us in this country.
We ordered our food and sat down in a shady spot outdoors. The weather was perfect, not sticky hot as Florida is wont to be, and not too cool either. The food was delicious and I was digging the company and the carefree time spent untethered from my computer. The conversation stayed light, with laughter interspersed throughout, but the words were heavy. At the end of the afternoon, the weight was nearly insupportable. And I wasn’t even living this life. I was only hearing about it.
Susan has a government job and has worked there for decades. She’s eligible for retirement, but can’t afford to quit working for several more years. Her kids are grown. She’s a single woman. She has health issues that her insurance doesn’t cover, leaving her in the lurch for thousands of dollars after seeking care, without which she might not have been able to continue getting to and from work. Speaking of work, that government job she’s had for more than two dozen years? Yeah, it doesn’t pay enough to cover her basic living expenses, so she works a second job on weekends and late into the evenings after working a full day at what should be a good job.
Despite all of this, Susan is upbeat and seems to enjoy life. But she deserves more. She’s worked hard her entire life. Isn’t that the key to success in this country? You work hard, you find a job that offers health benefits, and you work your way up the ladder of success. But what happens when the ladder stops abruptly only a few rungs above the ground? What happens when that much-coveted health insurance doesn’t pay for jack shit and, no matter how hard you toil, you never receive a single cost of living increase to your wages? What then?
Y’all, our system is broken when working hard for more than 25 years leaves you facing the decision to either live in poverty or take a second job in the service industry. After that much time in the workforce, you should be able to live comfortably and retire with dignity. I know that some of y’all are members of the choir to which I’m preaching, but there are so many others that don’t see this problem for what it is. They blame folks like Susan for not being good enough, hardworking enough, smart enough, etc. But what else was she supposed to do? She secured what has traditionally been considered a good job — a position in the government, complete with health insurance — and worked hard for decades. Wasn’t that supposed to be the price of the golden ticket that allows you access to the fabled American Dream? If not, what is?
People sometimes respond to my entreaties that jobs should pay a living wage and folks should have access to quality healthcare that doesn’t bankrupt them when they try to use it with: people should just get a better job if they don’t like the one they have.
Great. Yep. Awesome advice that I’m sure no one ever thought of before. And sick people should just get better, amirite? If I start rolling my eyes now, I might never stop…
We raise our kids to believe the American Dream is a real thing they can achieve one day if they stick to the path through the wilderness of adulthood. Step off the path and you might never find your way back, but if you finish high school and go to college, you can get one of those good jobs. And that’s the goal, right? A good job that pays your bills, lets you (lightly) spoil your kids and take a family vacation every summer, all the while allowing you to put away a shiny nest egg you don’t break open until the golden years of your retirement. Perfect.
But it’s also unattainable af.
I grew up thinking a college degree was some kind of skeleton key that would open a whole host of doors. Not any door, but enough of them that the sky would be the fucking limit. So, I got a college degree…in philosophy. As you can imagine, my key didn’t unlock many doors. And when I was looking to go back to work outside the home after writing and raising a child for several years, it didn’t open any doors at all. I had to go back to school for two semesters to earn a paralegal certificate that allowed me to work in a law office wrangling attorneys. But that cost money and time a lot of folks don’t have, making it a privilege, a non-option, a locked door. And, anyway, it’s bullshit. I had a college degree, and it wasn’t enough. I know folks with graduate degrees that aren’t enough.
The system is broken.
After lunch, I told my mother that this was why I did this work. Susan’s experience. My own. Millions of other people that I will never meet. Hard work should be enough to succeed in this country. No one should work for 30 years and still find themselves one paycheck away from calamity. I’m a firm believer in personal responsibility, but the system is stacked against too many of us at birth, and it hardly matters what path we take through the wilderness. Even if you do everything right, you might still find yourself unable to earn a golden ticket. No matter how many locks you try, your key only opens a small number of doors, and none of them leads to the American Dream. You’ll stay in that darkened hallway for the rest of your life, searching for light, believing that you are to blame.
That’s not okay. None of this is. I have to believe that more is possible. That we can do better in this country. That we can unlock these doors to opportunity. That we can let in the light.