As I write this I’m eating a sub I bought from across the street. While it was being prepared I chatted with the young woman making it, and she told me about moving from the Canadian Maritimes to Toronto, to, in essence, get a job that pays a little more than minimum wage. Because out in the Maritimes she had trouble getting even that.
I thought to myself that her experience is one that politicians need to have. Many politicians, of course, have never ever had a bad job. They went straight to a good university and from there to a good job or internship. They probably worked hard for it, and think they deserve what they have, never really seeing all the people whose feet were never on that road, who never had the same shot they did.
Then there are a fair number of pols, though less and less every year, who will tell you about the lousy jobs they had as teenagers, or maybe in their early twenties. But in most cases something is different between them and many working class and even middle class folks.
They knew they weren’t staying there.
When I was poor and working in lousy jobs I used to look in the mirror and see myself at 50, or 60. I expected to still be working at grindingly hard jobs, being treated badly by bosses (because there is no rule more iron than that the worse you are paid the worse your employer will treat you), and still being paid little more than minimum wage. That was the future I saw for myself.
And when I was on welfare, after having failed to find a job for 6 months, and even being turned down by McDonalds (in the middle of the early nineties recession) I wondered if I’d even ever have a shitty job again. I ate cheap starchy food, turned pasty and put on weight. My clothes ran down. When my glasses broke beyond the point where tape would keep them together I literally had to beg the optometrist to make me his cheapest pair and I’d pay him later. (I eventually did.) My life was a daily grind of humiliation.
And that’s what I expected my life to be.
When politicians participate in one of those “live on Welfare for a week/month” programs I’m happy, but I’m also dubious. The difference is that they know they’re getting out in a week or a month. They know it’s going to end. Much as I applaud someone like Barbara Ehrenreich, who lived for months working at lousy jobs, again, she knew it was going to end. She knew that, if push come to shove and she became seriously sick, she could opt out. She knew that if she really couldn’t eat for days, that was her choice.
Living without that safety net, knowing that if something goes wrong, that’s just too bad, changes you. Living without any real hope of the future, knowing that the shitty job you’ve got now is probably about as good a job you’re ever going to have, changes you.
And it changes your sense of what hard work is, of what it means to be deserving. I remember working on a downtown construction site as temp labor, and I’d watch all the soft office workers with their uncalloused hands come out for lunch, and I’d wonder why they got paid two or three times what I did for work that was so much easier (and which, of course, I could do, even if I didn’t have a BA.) At the end of the day they might be stressed, but I’d go home physically exhausted from hard labor and so would my co-workers.
Of course, I got out of that. I’d say “I went back to university”, but even though that’s true, it’s not what got me out, since I never finished my BA. Instead what got me out is that I finally got a couple chances to prove what I could do—I got a temp job in an office, and was one of their most productive workers (they measured it.) Later I got invited to blog, and hey, I can write, even if I don’t have a BA. I got lucky. Like most people who get lucky in work, that luck involved a lot of hard work, but it also involved luck.
But a lot of folks never get lucky despite the fact that they work hard. Perhaps they aren’t really all that bright (half the population, after all, is below average intelligence.) Perhaps they’ve got some personality issues or weak social skills. Perhaps there’s something not quite right in their brain chemisty. Or perhaps they just never catch a break because they aren’t lucky and their parents weren’t well enough positioned to help them get those breaks.
But still, most of them work hard and earn their money, whether it’s barely more than minimum wage or they did get a bit of luck and got one of the few remaining good blue collar jobs.
But when they look in the mirror, they know that the guy or gal looking in the mirror ten or twenty years from now is probably going to be doing the same thing. And they know that they’re one bad break away from losing even the little they have—one illness, one plant closure, one argument with their boss.
They don’t have a lot of hope for the future, except that it won’t get worse. The life they live now is the best it’s probably gonna get.
Living like that changes you. It makes you see people differently. You understand that there are a lot of bad jobs out there, and that someone’s going to be stuck with them. You know that most of those jobs are either hard or humiliating, and often both. You know that for too many people, a shitty job where they’re abused by their boss is as good as it gets.
If this depression and the "jobless recovery" has taught the educated underclass anything it is that connections and luck usually matter more than intelligence, hard work, and doing everything right to get into law school or even a top law school only to find yourself back in the same position you would have been in if you had dropped out of high school. Only now you have student loans so huge that it will take you the rest of your life to pay back.
This is especially painful to many of us who didn't come from a rich family. Maybe your mother was like the woman in Ian's post who moved to Toronto to find something better than a mininmum waged job. Or your parents struggled to pay the bills and the mortgage while putting aside money each month for your college fund. My mother bought used textbooks from the library so she could tutor me at home in addition to schoolwork. She always emphasized getting an education so that my life would be better than hers. Some of you might have had strict parents who forced you to take additional classes and extracurricular activities so you'd have an edge when applying to college.
Your parents or guardians did all of this because they held out hope that all of that hard work and education would someday pay off and you wouldn't have to struggle for the rest of your life or work in a demeaning and low-wage job. Hope for a better life for themselves but especially their children is what keeps most people going through the worst of times. Well, the light at the end of the tunnel has officially gone out and with it the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans who did everything right (emphasis mine):
Meeting 99ers is to tap into a deep well of anger at lives that have been knocked off course, shattering the enduring vision of the American dream that many had felt they had achieved. Just take Donna Faiella, a 53-year-old New Yorker who lives alone in Queens. She spent 28 years working in film post-production and video-editing. She was successful and had a career. Now she is desperate for a job, any job. But she cannot find one. "I will do anything. I will sweep floors. You think I look forward to collecting unemployment? It is fucking degrading," she said, almost quivering with anger.
Faiella is in dire trouble. Joblessness has eaten away at her sense of identity. "I feel like we are worthless. We are lost in the world. I don't know what to call myself. I don't have a title any more. What do we do? What do we do?" she implored. Faiella has one week of benefits to go. Then her 99 weeks will be up. She will have a title again. But not one she expected. She will be a 99er. "I am petrified. Do I become homeless?" she said, adding that she has begun making inquiries at local shelters.
Perhaps the most tragic is to see so many young Americans who have lost all hope and faith in a better future for themselves and for their children. It is tragic to see a generation who should be starting their lives having to move back home with nothing to give their parents - who may very well be struggling with unemployment or early retirement themselves - other than a worthless piece of paper that they and their parents had invested their entire lives to obtain.
I hope for our country's sake that someday we get a President who really had to struggle so they know what it is like to live on the edge with no money and no hope for the future. Someone who grew up on welfare and struggled to find a job during our generation's Great Depression will hopefully have at least a modicum of empathy to invest in job creation and finally end the total looting and destruction of this country by Wall Street and the student loan companies. I'm not holding my breath. Regardless, if or when we get out of mess, there will be inumerous casualties including many of our readers and scambloggers who are part of the Damned Generation.