A few months ago a friend of mine asked me to tutor her son in Algebra. I had a good rep with her, I got her husband through Calculus in college. She asked me what I would charge and I told her all I needed was a healthy meal. She also wondered if I'd tell the lad how important math was. I remember thinking, what am I going to say? Bust your ass learning this hard stuff and maybe, one day, you can teach it to a kid for food while his math challenged father makes 10 times what I make? Because that's the truth in the world today.
I was a stockbroker for years, I've run teams in contact centers, I am comfortable with technology and handle emotional customers well. I've worked at this particular company for three years and in 2012 I was the top performer in the entire department of hundreds of people and have turned in similar results at other firms. I can rip through the hairiest math you can imagine. In short, with a facility for very complex subjects and decades of success explaining complicated things to the general public and co-workers, I'm the guy you want in your contact center.
But all I have to show for that hard work is a goofy-looking coffee mug and a heart attack. It's as though, somehow, millions of people like me have been secretly placed on the economic equivalent of the no-fly list.
If you want know how that feels, go below.
I am a new member of a new group of poor people: the college-educated, middle-aged working poor. When you make what I now make, about $1,500 (yes, per month -- DS) take home, forget about saving any money, every cent will be spent. It's not a lifestyle choice or lack of discipline, it's just math. Take out $600 for rent, $400 for bills and what's left over has to cover co-pays for my heart meds and cardiologist, food and sundries, and any unplanned expenses. That means you're always running out of things you previously took for granted, from toilet paper to shaving cream. Things like an iPad are unthinkable luxuries. Going to a movie is a splurge.
It doesn't matter how good your credit is, on that kind of pay you can't qualify for a modest mortgage. Probably for a good reason: sooner or later something in your house will have to be repaired and you won't be able to afford it even if the mortgage payment is low. In fact, credit in general is not an option anymore, you're on a cash basis. At this pay rate, you'll have problems getting any kind loan outside of small payday advances and other predatory scams.
Idolizing the wealthy has always been a lucrative trade. No matter how flaky or cruel or mentally disturbed the powerful may be, there's always someone willing to tell them what noble, merciful, misunderstood creatures they are. The flip side of that is how the people like me are treated. We are mostly either invisible or held in contempt by the public at large. There is callous indifference to our plight. People just don't give a shit.
So, when you become poor in America, it comes complete with shame, isolation and detachment. Young people who are just starting out, with whom you now have much in common economically, don't want to hang out with an old fart. People your own age see you as a loser. When you go from affluent to poor, even some of your oldest and best friends fall away like leaves in winter, retired family members who worked during times when labor had some clout simply don't understand the dynamic at play now. Holidays are a prescription for depression. A barrage of ads on TV and radio pitch products you can't even consider buying. It's tough to maintain any kind of existing relationship, romantic or platonic, with your non-poor friends because you can't afford to do any of the fun things you used to do with them. Life goes downhill fast, from rich and colorful to a drab, lonely ordeal.
Always there is the underlying assumption, sometimes spoken aloud right to your face, that somehow, this is your fault. You must be a lazy slacker, a degenerate gambler, or a heavy drug addict; maybe you're just not trying hard enough. Or maybe your expectations are too high—you expect the government to take care of you? FWIW my expectations are damn reasonable: a small home, a reliable vehicle, health care that I won't lose if I get laid off or sick. Maybe a cheap vacation every year or two. But every single one of those desires is an exercise in fantasy for me now, let alone all of them.
I think it's more comfortable for your peers to believe that you are exaggerating, or that something, anything, must be going on, than to accept a person can really work his ass off, be great at their job, be intelligent and have a good education, and still face the threat of homelessness because of terrible pay, or death by lack of health insurance, every single month. But that's how it is, folks. There may have been a time when the wealthy understood that if they shared just a little bit of their gravy with their employees, the employee would have a real stake in their continued success. If so, that time is long gone and I'm living proof of it.
When I hear an exec making six figures complain about how stressful their job is, I have to try not to laugh and mock them. It gets worse the more they make. Pretty soon you have guys like Romney, who honestly believe the reason they're worth a million times more than a roofer is because they work a million times harder.
When thinking over just how bad things have gotten, it's easy to find scapegoats. The entire grassroots base of the GOP runs on that anger. They know at the gut level they're being economically screwed, but the GOP is great at bait and switch: the cause of it all is the same people the GOP—and plenty of Democrats if we're being honest here—serve with complete fealty: the super wealthy.
That never ends well.
Time and time again we've seen this sad drama play out, in this nation and throughout history. Great wealth becomes concentrated in a tiny number of hands, some of those fortunate people then use their influence to insure they get even more money and power, at the expense of everyone and everything. A small sliver of the population gets much richer, the rest of us suffer immensely. Eventually, the wealthy rig the system so much in their favor that the entire edifice crashes and burns, the cycle of boom and bust continues that has enslaved humans since the development of agriculture and civilization.
You have to wonder, could there be a better way?