Coming from humble working class roots, it was instilled in me that my ticket to the good life was to be found in attending college and getting a good job. The kind of job that paid at least $50,000 a year and had good benefits. I suspect many of us heard some version of this when we were growing up, especially those of us who came from economically fragile families where a college education was sold as the miracle cure for all that ails.
I don’t fault my folks, from where they sat, a college degree did appear to hold the key to ensuring that my brother and I didn’t find ourselves falling down the path that my parents did, which at times included food insecurity and a brief stint of homelessness when I was 10.
However the world has changed; the dreams that America sold to her people have become nightmares that don’t end when we wake up. College may be the ticket to a bright future but increasingly it has become a noose around the necks of millions as the rising cost of college means millions must take out loans to afford the costs of attending. Yet when one graduates, the good jobs with the good benefits are increasingly hard to find. We Uber and Airbnb to make our ends meet, we cover up our financial insecurity with those magical little plastic cards that are yet another form of bondage but in the short run, we cannot avoid the painfully honest reality that the America our parents and grandparents lived in is not the one that most of us are living in now.
A few days ago, Paul Krugman wrote this piece on The Insecure American, where he wrote he was startled to learn that 47% of Americans don’t have the financial resources to meet an unexpected expense of $400. Frankly I am impressed that it is only 47% of us who can’t meet an emergency expense of $400, especially in a world where regular raises are no longer the norm. Where your employer may give you a one time bonus or a perk rather than a reasonable raise.
For all the talk that people “waste” money on frivolous treats such as the daily latte or i-gadgets, I find myself noticing more that the cost of living has gone up and the wages stopped keeping up a long, long time ago. Wage inequality is real. Hell, the dialogue has gone mainstream. Yet even when we have that discussion we still tip-toe around the reality that wage inequality is not just limited to those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder; in fact, it affects almost everyone but the wealthy. Lately, I fight myself grumbling more and more about the cost of healthcare as I face the reality that having good insurance no longer means what it did 20 plus years ago when I had good insurance. Today’s good insurance means being nickled and dimed to death by a fractured healthcare system. Earlier this year, I wrote about my unexpected visit to the Tufts Medical Center Emergency room, a visit of such epic proportions it deserved a blog post. Well thanks to the way the visit was billed, my good insurance paid very little, leaving me with a bill for a cool $962. Throw in two months of twice-weekly specialist visits that had a nifty little co-pay of $75 a pop, suddenly healthcare costs are a very real thing. Never mind that in August, I will be going under the knife…who knows how much of that will be covered by my good insurance. Yet, I am one of the lucky ones, I have insurance. I lived without insurance for a number of years (employer didn’t offer it) and I know that struggle all too well.
While I have not known homelessness or food insecurity as an adult, I also haven’t known that good life that I was raised to believe in. I know now that home ownership can be a killer of dreams and relationships, I know that graduating from college after being a high school dropout was a high point in my life but as I journey through middle age, the reality that the loans for that education will be with me well into my retirement years in an uncomfortable truth. I know that when I talk honestly with my inner circle, almost all of us are struggling financially despite our good jobs. I know that there is shame around it and rarely will we admit to it openly.
Paul Krugman refers to us as insecure Americans. Yes, we are, but we are also survivors of a dream gone wrong. The American Dream in 2015 is largely inaccessible for most of us but to admit that sounds so wrong, so hard and so utterly un-American. So let us anesthetize ourselves with a triple Venti raspberry mocha and plug into our i-gadget, at least we can get a little relief from this nightmare since $5 mochas in a country where basic living is out of reach for millions makes us feel as if maybe things aren’t so bad.
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