"Picking oneself up by one's bootstraps," "Persevering despite all odds," "Making your mantra work," "Anyone can succeed in America, if they only try" etc., etc. All these sayings seem to be very inspirational to normal, every day people, like myself. They are posted and rehashed in motivational blogs all over the interwebs. I always wonder how well that blogger is actually doing. I think about whether they were born into money, are inherently good looking or are, simply, whiter than other people. Or maybe they want to be successful and are faking until they make it.
It could be that I'm a skeptical asshole. I actually think that's pretty true, but I think there is something else to it. And I'll let you in on why: I am an educated woman, a college teacher, a full-time mother, an author, someone who friends and family members feel is doing rather well, and I am struggling with this whole American dream thing.
Firstly, let me start by saying I was born into poverty. I've been homeless and hungry (not at the same time. Mom always made sure we had enough to eat, even if our house situation was less than perfect). I couldn't afford to feed myself all the time, in college, so I was often hungry then. I was raised in a two bedroom house in the bad part of Tacoma, WA. I know it was about 800 square feet and there were six people living in it. I remember having to stay inside a full day, once, because there was a murderer prowling the streets. I not-so-fondly recall throwing a rock at a man in a beautiful Corvette who asked me and my little sister to come closer so he could give us candy. I remember my mother having to sit us down to tell us the reality of life, the fact that some people meant us harm, would even kill us, given the chance. I was five and I knew that I was not immortal.
But you're not there, now, Hannah. You live in an okay neighborhood, in a house big enough for your family, if it is quaint. You have a Master's degree, a part-time teaching job, you write books that people buy and enjoy and you get to be with your children for a large part of their day. You're winning at life. Well, yes, I am. Mostly. I do have a comfortable life, as compared to those who are struggling, but let me enlighten you about what I do, and what comes of it, and you can judge for yourself if I'm winning or simply surviving.
Yes, I teach college as an adjunct. A job that falls under the poverty guidelines, for most people. I work in the classroom for four hours twice a week, prepare for class for an hour twice a week and grade for several more hours a week. The college I work for can only offer me 550 dollars every other week. That's 1,100 dollars a month, for a part-time job that is anything but part-time. So, get a full-time teaching position, you say? Sorry, those are going to the over-abundance of PhD students who have more loan debt to pay and can't get hired on at the University level because there are more degrees than jobs. Also, colleges don't like hiring full-time. They prefer to get cheap help. No benefits=more money to pay for updated computers. And that's a real problem for my employer, a Native American program with little funding and a lot of need.
Yes, I write books. But, here's the thing, people don't read books as much as they used to. People read blogs (sometimes), Facebook posts, and spend a lot of time online or watching television, but the reading rate has dropped significantly. Moreover, I get a very small percentage of a 4.99 Kindle book and paperback books just don't sell. Even if they do, I get a small percentage of a 18.00 paperback, and then I get people complaining to me that my five years worth of work cost them 18 dollars. So, my writing doesn't really bring in the big bucks, though I very much enjoy doing it, and I enjoy my reader's feedback. And it is, yet again, another example of a job that falls under poverty guidelines.
Yes, am chose to be a full-time mother. For a couple of reasons: A) Day-care is too expensive for a person who makes so little per hour in her field of study that McDonald's employees fair better. B) My children mean the world to me, and spending time with them is a privilege my husband and I made work by getting a very modest home, not traveling and not really going out to eat or for entertainment.
Yes, I chose to get the degrees I received and signed up for the loans I am paying back. But you tell me: what option did I have? I have more than a home's worth of debt from my AA, Bachelors and Masters degree. As stated above, I have no family money. I was the first in my immediate family to go to college, and I made it work in the way almost ALL modern Americans have to make it work: by going into extreme debt. I did not receive the scholarships (over 30) that I applied for and I wanted to eat and live somewhere, so I took out loans to pursue my dreams. Before you say that I should have paid for some of it by working, I did. I worked 30 hrs a week during my AA and BA and took full-time course loads. And received an A average almost every quarter. During my Master's degree, I tutored and taught classes almost full-time, while maintaining an A average. Even the last two months of my Master's program, when I was pregnant, then dealing with a newborn and severe postpartum depression, did I still work and go to school full-time.
And today the choices have left me with career options that don't pay for the debt I accrued. If I want to be a director or manager of an educational institutional, instead, to pay off my debt more quickly, I will have to get yet another degree, and go into more debt. So I choose to pay off the debt more slowly and enjoy doing a few jobs that don't pay well but that do make me happy. And they do. They are underpaid jobs, sure, but they are wonderful.
The last five months has been particularly hard with school debt. I sent in my application for Income Based Repayments two times, called three times to get the information processed and, in the interim, have been paying, monthly, almost 700 dollars a month. This is all due to the fact that we live in a country where knowledge is expensive. Those who gain knowledge are then forced to either take underpaying jobs and fight with loan sharks for reduced rates, or simply take jobs that pay more but are not a good use of their education.
I was on the phone for an hour today with a Department of Education Loan program, Nelnet. This is the third time I've had to find the time to do this, but it has been proven that my time isn't worth much, so I did it. Last time I called, I was told that my Income Based Repayment had gone through, that the 700 dollars I pay is accurate. I dodn't buy that because we just don't make that much money, and I can do basic math. I understand what 15% of my income is. I have degrees, and had to learn basic math. So I called again, after filling out the forms and receiving yet another 700 dollar bill. We have been having a hard time just buying groceries and paying other bills because of the burden the debt has placed on us. I told this to the representative, who quickly informed me that we were not in Income Based Repayment.
I was lied to the last two times I called the Department of Education, then sent the same forms I've filled out two times already, and asked to re-send in order to be current with my IBR option. And, no matter how much I insisted that the poor quality of work and lack of empathy of the company was at fault for my financial woes, I did not receive an apology or offer of fault. Because they people dealing with me are probably encouraged to get as much money out of me as possible.
So why is all this important? What does it mean for the American dream? Isn't this just the complaints of a middle-class woman who thinks the government is out to get her? Not really. I am generally happy with the country I live in, but I want people to understand the flaws, too. There are things that need to be improved upon, so we can compare to other countries, compete in the marketplace in the future. What this story means is that the American dream is a fallacy supported by the rich and regurgitated by the ignorant, even those suffering the same pitfalls I suffer through, but who still believe that people can pay their way through society with hard work. Let me say that I don't believe that has ever been the case, especially for women, minorities and the poor. I know it not to be the case now.
I know these little sayings are lies propagated by companies that gain capital from hard-working and falling behind Americans because I am a hard working, educated person who cannot afford to be mentally well. Just this week I was given a letter saying that my medical insurer, Regence, which I pay almost 400 dollars a month for, won't cover my mental health medication for bi-polar symptoms. I have extreme cases of suicidal depression and sometimes severe manic irritation that I survive, daily, but struggle with. Latuda really alleviates those symptoms and has made me feel, lately, like a normal person. If you've always felt normal, let me assure you that you are very lucky. It has been a blissful experience to not feel agitated, overly energized, sleepless, or deeply depressed. Latuda, which is very expensive in its patented form but very effective for my illness, is really the best choice for a working person, like myself, since it has very few major side effects. In order to pay out of pocket for it, however, I'd have to be able to afford 1,000 dollars a month in medication. I was hoping that the insurance I pay for would alleviate the financial burden, since that is why I pay for insurance.
Regence has refused the request, and will not pay, even partially, for the medication. Prior authorization was denied, as it had been in the past for a thyroid test I needed done. I don't tend to go in for sicknesses because my deductible is so high that it's almost impossible for me to reach it. If paying for medication counted, I would reach that deductible in a matter of months. But my mental well-being is not important as the end profit, so I have been taken off of a drug that was successfully providing me a normal lifestyle.
And, probably because I'm off my meds, but also because I'm justified, I am feeling the extreme agitation of a person who is realizing that her whole life she's been fed a bunch of lies. I was told that my education would ensure that I receive a better paycheck. I was lied to. It has given the Department of Education a reason to squeeze the life out of me, monthly. I was told that, if I worked hard, I could do anything. But I can't afford to treat my bi-polar symptoms or get regular dental checks. My husband is a lawyer in a market where new law students are failing to find jobs as much as new English teachers. He was able to find a position as a lawyer, but it has to cover every bill, debt, and life need of our family.
And I'm bombarded by posts from people who are retired and lived in a different world--perhaps a world without Department of Education loands, a world where a degree did not measure their worth and where school was affordable--saying that my generation are lazy jerks, moving in with their parents after college. And we did have to move back in with my husband's parents for a while, when we couldn't afford rent and food because we could not find jobs that paid for our education. It's hard, in a time like this, to buy all the bullshit mottos thrown my way.
Here's what I think would help: A) Affordable education for all, if not free education for all. B) A single payer system or free health care. C) An emphasis on education where our teachers are respected and paid for the work they do. D) A place where entertainers are not being lauded and praised over the good work of citizens who work make the world a better place. E) A country of people who, instead of passing on the propagated lies, turn on their empathy, care more for the poor, the marginalized, and the struggling than for their local sports team or their favorite reality tv show.
We are being trained to depend on easy little lies and to swim in a sea of nonsense (reality tv-based and entertainment-driven consumerism) to drown the depression that debt and failure breeds. And we are told that the debt and failure are our shortcomings. So we drink cheap six-packs of beer bought at Wal-Mart because we can't afford the fancier locally owned stores that support our neighbor's small businesses. We charge our expensive team jerseys to a credit card with an interest rate that is killing our savings, we drown our sorrows in social networking and expensive entertainment. We are encouraged to relax, disengage, not think. We are charged hundreds of thousands of dollars to think (that's what gettign an education is); cheaper entertainment, then, seems a good option. And we believe that we did something wrong, when, in fact, our system is failing us. But it's unpatriotic to say so, and no one likes to be called unpatriotic.
H.M Jones is the author of B.R.A.G Medallion Honor and NIEA finalist book Monochrome, its prequel Fade to Blue, the Adela Darken Graphic Novellas, Al Ravien's Night, The Immortals series, and several short stories.