Broke, not broken: confessions from the frontline of a dying middle class

The tears went from slow-flowing to uncontrollable as I stared at my son’s shoes in the middle of the kitchen floor. He had just taken them off before running upstairs after a long day at summer camp. He is seven and he’s been wearing these shoes since his birthday last November. The shoes were a gift from his grandmother. It’s August and the lining is coming out of the shoes and there is a hole in the sole of the left one. A volcano of emotion just sort of imploded inside me. His shoes represented everything that I hate about this life. They were tattered beyond repair, woefully inadequate, and the only pair he owned. The shoes repulsed me. They repulsed me because they were yet another stark reminder of how little my hard work really accomplishes. I am college educated. In fact, I have a master’s degree. I am gainfully employed as a counselor at a community college. I own a home in a nice, suburban neighborhood. I have never missed a mortgage payment; never even been late. Yet, I cannot afford to buy my son the most basic of needs—a pair of decent shoes.

old sneakersI am just one of the many millions of Americans struggling to hang onto a rung in the ladder of America’s shrinking middle class. The numbers paint a sobering picture. The average real income per family has actually dropped nearly 8% in the last six years. About 14% of Americans are considered to be unemployed or underemployed. The vast majority of states in the U.S. have seen their poverty rates rise steadily in the last five years and nearly three-fourths of the U.S. population report not having enough savings to cover six months of bills (the recommended amount), if they have any savings at all. We see the reports online and the occasional heart-breaking profile of an impoverished family. But we rarely discuss the social and psychological toll that a broken economy can have on a worker who is fighting daily to avoid rock bottom and retain their spot in the elusive middle.

“It could be worse; but it could be a hell of a lot better, too.”

Chronic complainers are one of my biggest pet peeves. And the truth is it could be worse for all of us. We could live in a third-world country where disease runs rampant and even very low-level work is rare and dangerous. Americans have a lot for which to be thankful. The reality that things could be worse is what gets me through the toughest days. But the fact is, things could be better. My deepest frustration lies in the idea that based on everything that I’ve been told, things should be better; but they’re not.

I am quite literally the “hope and dream of the slave” that Maya Angelou so eloquently speaks of in her famous poem, Still I Rise. My great-grandmother was the daughter of a sharecropper and granddaughter of a former slave. She was employed as a domestic worker most of her life and wanted something better for her own daughters; and they indeed did better. All three of her daughters completed at least a secondary level of education and all three achieved robust working middle class careers from which they retired. Her oldest (my grandmother) became a successful civilian government employee. Her middle daughter enjoyed a long career in the manufacturing industry. And her baby girl became a nurse. And just like my great-grandmother, her daughters wanted and expected more for their children. My mother became the first in the family to graduate from college with a four-year degree.

So the groundwork had been laid solidly for me to do well in life. Not only did I believe in the so-called “American Dream”, I had living generational proof that it existed. Hard work and determination could actually lead to higher education and home ownership and decent jobs. It was also evident to me that it was reasonable to expect your child to have a better life than yours, rich with opportunity and access and achievement. So I followed the recipe. I got an education, an advanced degree no less. I worked very hard. I even got married (not necessarily a part of the recipe). I have more promise and potential than you can shake a stick at; but, unlike my predecessors, my wages have been virtually stagnate by comparison and that master’s degree has yet to pay for itself.

“Whose dream was this anyway?”

A recent USA Today article estimates that a typical two-parent household, raising the average 2.5 kids, would have to earn just over $130,000 per year to experience what the average American describes as the “American Dream”. The dream described in the article is modest and quite reasonable. It includes college savings, retirement contributions, a family vacation, a few extras like cell phone and internet service, and the essentials necessary for living. There is nothing luxurious or over-the-top about these expectations, especially if you are a college graduate working a solid forty-hour workweek in the wealthiest nation on Earth. But the numbers don’t lie. Even when I was married and running a two-income suburban household, we were still $60,000 away from the “dream” numbers. Today, as a co-parenting divorcee, the “American Dream” is as far out of reach as it has ever been. According to the USA Today piece, the average household needs to bring in a little more than $58,000 annually just to take care of the essentials. I earn just under $40,000 a year and that is a gut-wrenching reality.

“Faking it gets old quick when it looks like you may never make it.”

Getting by with barely enough is damned near a job within itself. Between juggling payments and dodging bill collectors, you begin to find yourself having to make decisions that no working American should ever have to make. You let your children take cold showers until payday because the daycare bill must be paid on time. You routinely skip lunch and breakfast so that you’ll have enough for your children to eat three meals a day (and yes, you make too much to qualify for food stamps and the free/reduced lunch program at your child’s school). Your husband gets up early every Tuesday and loads your household garbage into the trunk of his car to take it to his mother’s house because she gets free service. Trash service is now, somehow, an unattainable luxury. When your son complains of a toothache, the absolute best that you can do is offer him half of a Motrin until you get some extra money (usually tax refund time) that will allow you to take him the dentist. You cannot pay for dental insurance because you must pay your car note because you have to have transportation to get to the job that does not pay you enough to purchase family dental insurance.

You do everything that you can to hide these secrets from friends and family because, in your heart of hearts, you feel like this is not supposed to be your life. You did everything right, but you are still struggling and you are afraid that people will think that you are a failure. And, truth be told, that’s exactly how you feel—like a failure. You turn down lunch invitations. You avoid conversations with co-workers about shopping, vacations, pedicures, or any other small nicety that you can’t afford. I once suggested to a friend and co-worker that she might find a decent bag for her laptop at Target. Not knowing my true situation, she tersely replied, “A bag from Target might be okay for you; it’s not for me.” In my mind, I thought, “I don’t shop for bargains because I’m tacky; I shop for bargains because I’m freaking broke.” The moment left me feeling incredibly small and desperately isolated.

“So what does happen to a dream deferred?”

I lifted my eyes from the worn out sneakers, wiped my face, and took a deep breath. Between his father and myself, we were able to purchase my son a decent pair of shoes right before school started. For the most part, things usually work out one way or another, and we survive. But mere survival is no substitution for truly thriving. That is what I long for. That is my American Dream.

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