The American Dream died…they forgot to send the memo

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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Dancing in the dark…bliss versus reality

This time of year for me is always a time of deep reflection and planning for the year ahead; it is both the end of the calendar year and soon will mark the passing of another chronological year for me. However this year I must confess I am in a bit of a funk as I struggle to find that balance between my passion, reality and growing up.

In many ways, I put too much pressure on myself and now it has backfired on me and I don’t know what to do with the resulting mess that is plastered all over my emotional walls. Looking back to a decade ago when I was on the brink of turning 30, I had such high hopes for myself, so many things I hoped to accomplish, so many dreams. Instead my 30’s ushered in real adult life, starting with my mom’s cancer diagnosis not long after turning 30 and her death six weeks after I turned 31. Don’t get me wrong the past decade hasn’t been an entire bust; I finished graduate school and earned my master’s degree which for someone who dropped out of high school isn’t too shabby. Thanks to the generosity of loved ones, the man unit and I were able to become homeowners which it turns out sounds far better in theory than reality when you have two left fingers and find The Home Depot to be a dreary and depressing place. We added a beautiful daughter to our family, I saw my son grow into being a fine young man. I have work that is meaningful and passionate; my childhood dream of becoming a real writer came true.

The reality is that on the checklist of goals I had at 30, I have hit most of the goals except for one that I have continued to ignore but am realizing is no longer possible to ignore. Financial security has eluded me and continues to elude me and it’s starting to bother me.  From a financial perspective my 30’s were basically a continuation of my 20’s, except that health insurance was no longer a given.

This morning I woke up thinking of my father who is getting older and basically living hand to mouth and the fact that in the next decade he will probably retire and with no retirement plan, the reality is that my brother and I will have to help him out. His own fragile financial stability was shattered with my mom’s death and resulting bills and thanks to the worldwide economic crisis and his age; he has never regained his footing.

Then there is that pesky reality that hell, I don’t even have a plan for my own retirement one day, so basically I will be working until I die. That thought scares me to death; it scares me to think that I could end up being that little old lady trying to eat cat food to survive. Or burdening my own kids due to my desire to follow my bliss and passion.

It’s in these moments that I realize that I am still quite young enough that I can change the financial course of my life and that history doesn’t have to repeat itself. The problem is that to change the course of my life essentially means leaving the work that I love and the work/life balance that I have that allows me time to indulge my creative side. Earlier this year I received a call from a headhunter about a position that was amazing on paper with an attractive six figure salary and lovely benefits; the only problem is the job would have taken my soul. It was the type of administrative position that I am well qualified to do, but despise the thought of.  After my initial excitement about the idea of being in the running for such a high profile position, my soul cried out, don’t do it!!! I listened to my soul as I have done in the past and now am starting to realize that maybe it’s now time to seek out such positions.

I have always loved that the man unit and I have crafted a life that we live on our terms but lately that money thing is weighing heavy on me as yet another year passes and I was unable to visit with family. My seven year old has relatives she has never met, she only just met my brother on Thanksgiving when he came out here and she is seven years old! Sadly it is our turn to visit family since they all last visited us but living life on our terms never seems to allow for travel and it’s starting to scare me how fast the years are flying by.

So as I do the dance of struggle in these dark days of December I grapple with the question of what next? I do know that if I move on to a different type of job the demands pretty much will take away the simple joys such as being able to write publicly to the extent that I do. There will be a cost to my family, but what really what costs more? Living joyously and presently with just enough or making the sacrifice and doing the adult thing and dedicating myself fully and maybe even miserably to achieve the dream of financial stability. Of course I sometimes wonder is financial stability in this ever changing world even accessible to the masses.

Deep thoughts and much planning lay ahead for me.

 

 

Downward spiral

A few days ago I had to make a call I dread making….a call to the Internal Revenue Service. Like many Americans I have a healthy fear of the IRS but unlike most Americans my fear is not based in fiction but reality. Thanks to several years of self employment the Spousal Unit and I owe a chunk of change, aside from the time they levied our bank account, overall they have worked with us. Though I must say having your bank account levied even temporarily is no fun.

Anyway I got a notice in the mail the other day which was strange because I had recently spoken to them about our account. So I placed the call and after waiting 40 minutes to get a human on the phone, I got the worker who clearly was offended that his colleagues had been working with us. Despite the hard proof in front of him that in the seven years we have lived in Maine, our income by and large has been reduced greatly, he asked why did we owe?

Now on second thought that is a seemingly innocent question and as I have done in the past I explained how we ended up in Maine and all the things that have popped up that have created this debt with the IRS…but Mister Man was not having it though in the end the reality is that at present we owe more than we even earned last year meaning there is not a lot he can do since the reason we got the notice was more due to a computer error than anything else. Shit, even the IRS computers recognize when a person can’t pay….

But in retelling the story to my husband I was reminded of a story I read a few days ago, basically the data shows when folks are laid off from good paying jobs it can take years to earn what you used to and in some cases you never earn what you once made. While we were not laid off when we moved here, in fact it was family issues that brought us here, the fact is in 7 years aside from one year where the Spousal Unit came close to earning what he once made when we were in Chicago, the other years have been a downward spiral.

Funny thing is when people lose a good income, your bills don’t suddenly get reduced (wouldn’t that be nice!) instead you have to figure out how to keep a roof over your head, food on the table and pay off that bitch Sallie Mae, and her distant cousins Visa and Mastercard if you were a member of the middle class as we were for many years.  Of course many in the educated middle class end up going the route of my husband and join that class of consultants and freelancers…a group that even now I think is not reflected in the unemployed or underemployed numbers. Folks who can still pretend at least on the surface that life is good even when they know deep in their hearts they are leaning on Visa and MasterCard to subsidize the income they really don’t have….no while everyone loves to believe we can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps the truth is one you get knocked down financially, you need a lot more than bootstraps to get up and avoid the financial death spiral.