We are living in interesting times and I don’t mean that in a good
way. This new coronavirus is spreading across the globe and here in the United
States, it is safe to say that the current administration is uniquely
unqualified to handle the threat that COVID-19 poses to our citizens and to our
very way of life.
As the number of infected people rises, we have an administration
that is hell-bent on stumbling at every stage of this growing pandemic, and a
leader who is steeped in ignorance, narcissism—with no one on his team who is
willing to speak truth to power (even if they wanted to, which I presume at
this point most do not). As Americans increasingly realize that they are on
their own, we hold to the childish belief that our standing will protect us
from the greatest harm along with a year’s supply of toilet paper and hand
Of course, given the growing insanity around the handling of the
pandemic and with this being an election year, many are focused on the idea
that if we can just get rid of Trump and his bumbling group of sycophants that
order will be restored. That if we can coalesce around a single person, we can
return to when things were good and when we had a leader that didn’t legislate
by tweet and who used his manners.
Yet that belief, should it come to fruition, will leave millions of Americans out in the cold. In 2016, the year Trump was elected, the poverty rate in the United States was 12.7%, and the last figures that I can find for 2017-18 put the poverty rate at roughly the same rate, give or take a point or two. To be clear, the poverty guideline is $26,200 annually for a family of four in the United States. The wage that is truly needed to live in almost every corner of the United States is significantly higher than the poverty guidelines, which means a lot of Americans are living hand-to-mouth.
Despite the media spin, the gig economy is not just something that
young people finding their career path are participating in. Have you noticed
the median age of your Uber drivers or Grubhub delivery people? I have
and increasingly, they are people who look a lot like me. Middle-aged and older
people who are cobbling together a living with jobs and gigs where there are no
benefits, no retirement, no raises and no futures. Even for those of us who are
“making” it, many of us are working multiple jobs that are referred to as
consulting or creating revenue streams. A nifty little way to hide the fact
that our “comfort” requires a lot more than 40 hours a week. When my husband
and I split up in 2015, BGIM Media was born out of the necessity that I could
no longer afford to write and speak for free or the occasional honorarium or
While we have heard daily blathering for years about the strength
of the markets, and social media most certainly presents an image of many
Americans living well, the truth is, many of us are not living well and our
lives are simply about daily survival. But self delusion and American’s naive
faith in the possibility of everyone moving up keeps most of us from
acknowledging this uncomfortable truth.
In a country built on the myth of meritocracy and boot straps,
personal failings are seen as singular and the result of the individual; as a
result, we rarely hear about those people. Yet their numbers are reflected in
the number of uninsured people, the increasing numbers of people who are
putting off necessary healthcare, the rapid increase in crowdfunding for
necessities, rising student loan debt and the proliferation of how student loan
debt is squeezing people as schools continue to charge astronomical
A decade ago, when my son entered college, his school—a small
Catholic college in northern Wisconsin—was charging $39,000 a year including
room and board. The only way that he was able to attend was via a debate scholarship
that shaved off half the price along with family help and loans. When I
graduated from DePaul University in 2001, I left with a BA and $28,000 in
student loan debt, and I thought that was bad enough. Of course, that was
before attending graduate school where my debt soared far beyond that.
We have also created a society now where a high school diploma is
virtually worthless and increasingly companies want applicants to have multiple
degrees for positions that do not pay a living wage. I experienced this in 2008:
With a graduate degree, I took a position where my starting wage was $14 an
hour and at that point I had almost six figures worth of student loan debt.
However, it was a position that would move my career and I had a husband who
did earn a decent salary, so I could afford the gamble. It still hurt, it
still left me falling behind, and most people don’t even have that “luxury” that I did.
I grew up poor. Occasionally, we had a good year and we could be
considered working class but my childhood was not the stuff of middle-class
memories. When I was in fifth grade, we spent six months living in a homeless shelter.
My childhood memories have one common theme: material scarcity. Times so hard
that occasionally we could not afford toilet paper and ate tuna mixed with
mustard because there weren’t enough pennies in the sofa cushions to buy
My early adult years were marginally better because I married up.
In fact, both of my marriages are what would be seen as marrying up. I married
into families that were not poor. Thus, access to resources via marriage
allowed me to chart a different course than what a poor, Black girl could ever usually
However, as income inequality has grown, there are fewer
opportunities to mix and mingle across class or economic lines. In other words,
we live not only racially siloed lives, we also tend to live economically
siloed lives in a country that feeds us a false narrative of what we could be,
if only we worked harder. Rather than a country that actually provides a basic
living to all people or at the very least, some healthcare that is accessible
(not simply “affordable,” mind you, because affordable is often still not
As a result, we have a country that is conditioned to vote against
its own best interest under the guise of maintaining the status quo and what is
realistic. Rather than what is in the best interest of our citizens.
Therefore when people do speak up about inequity with any level of
anger, it is off-putting. We don’t like angry people. Yet not feeling our anger and
expressing it is yet another way that the system of whiteness keeps us all
trapped, regardless of our respective races.
Frankly, in a country with the level of resources that this nation
has, there is no reason for the increasing homeless camps that proliferate in
cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. People should not have to put off
healthcare because they cannot afford it. We live in a country where for
millions of school-aged children, their only reliable source of meals occurs at
This coronavirus only makes even more clear how large the class
and economic gap is in this country. Americans are currently being advised to
stay home if they don’t feel well, and to consider working remotely. Yet,
paid time off is not universal and millions of low-wage service workers and gig
workers, these very unseen and necessary people don’t have that luxury.
I have friends in the service industry who are scared shitless
about the coming weeks and months and yes, they go to work when they don’t feel
well, because as a friend told me last week, she needed the shifts to pay her
rent. While some of us have the luxury of stocking up on toilet paper and
bleach wipes, others are scrambling just to pay the rent and keep the lights
on. And honestly, if they don’t go to work because of illness it’s not
just lost wages for a few days—it often means they get fired.
As someone who grew up with no pot to piss in or window to throw
it out of—and as a first-generation college graduate who has had to financially
help family countless times—I will stay angry about the way we treat our fellow
Americans. As anyone who struggles financially knows, survival is day to day
and while Trump may be a madman poised to destroy our nation, even the ability
to worry about that threat is a matter of privilege. Your Uber drivers may not
care for Trump but at the moment, they just hope to earn enough to make a
This is a divided nation and it’s not just a matter of voting on
the left or right. We are a nation where millions struggle and are not seen. We
have created a country where, just like with racism, we can choose what to see
or not see. Yet our inability to not see others harms everyone and has created
a system of both racial and economic apartheid. Our collective survival and
growth will require us to see everyone and to consider our shared needs as a
Hard times and hard moments can destroy us, but they can also be the catalyst for great change if allowed. The challenge will be moving beyond the me to the we.
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