Dear Mr. Bageant,
I’ve read some of your stuff. Good points. We raised six children on
$30,000 a year, in North Carolina and in Pensacola, Florida. We live in
a neighborhood made up of working class whites, blacks, and Asians,
reflecting our demographic.
I went back to school in the mistaken belief that if I just got my BA
degree in journalism I’d be hired by the local newspaper. Didn’t
happen. I am the wrong age for the "lifestyle" section of the
newspapers. They are looking for 20-30 year-old age demographic persons
in their attempts to hook that age group into reading the papers. So I
did freelance for a number of years which paid $35 per article and $10
for photographs. In other words, grocery money at best.
When that didn’t pan out, I went back to school for a master’s degree in English, then started work on a master’s in education so I could teach. I just finished my first year of teaching making the most money I’ve ever made in my life, $27,000, and loving it, but my contract was not renewed and won’t be thanks to NCLB — I was told I needed one more course for certification. It gets done on August 11, but school starts on August 8.
So here we are loaded down with debt — SBA for the roof because of Ivan, student loans, and we’re in a debt management program to pay off the VlSA. My husband fits the profile of "working poor" to a tee. We are so screwed it’s not funny. I am so angry I don’t know what to do. We are stuck for the next 25 years trying to dig ourselves out from the mess we’re in. No, it’s not so bad that we need to declare bankruptcy, but we are just holding our heads above water. We have no dental insurance. We own no stock. We barely have a 401K through my husband’s job and I don’t know how long he can continue to hold it. He’s 56 and working as a manual laborer at an agricultural produce company. He makes around $10 an hour. Money — if I can’t find a teaching position (high school level) — runs out after September. We did not take a camping vacation in the mountains of North Carolina this past summer like we have in the past, because of gas prices. My husband needs three caps on his teeth, but we cannot afford it.
We have no friends. We used to when we were active in church when the kids were little, but only two kids are still at home. I’ve given up on church for a lot of reasons. It’s a long story. I still believe, but I’m not going to church any more. Hurts too much. Do we belong to a new feudal age? Are we serfs? We sure feel like serfs. We belong to no social class because no social class will have us. My husband comes off as a minister’s son because that’s what he is — but he has no education beyond a high school degree. I come off as well-to-do because my grandparents raised me and they were "comfortable". But, we’re hopeless.
We’re poor, but we’re not on welfare. We’re paying our bills, but barely. We’re educated — a little at least, I’m almost done with my master’s degree. But we don’t hold down adequately paying jobs. We are powerless and are growing more powerless by the day per fact that real earnings have dropped since 1973. Only one of our children has really "made it" out of this mess. He is extraordinary. But I worry about the rest. They are all working and paying their bills, but again, only one has graduated from college.
Just how bad is it out there in the rest of the country? How many people are going through the same kind of stuff we are? How do we change things for the better? Can you sense my frustration?
I hope your site is still up and running and I hope you have time to read and respond to my lengthy e-mail. I am not asking you to solve my problems — but as a writer on the subject of class to offer some perspective on the mess.
I try to constantly remind myself that we are not a commodity — our value is not based on how much we are worth in monetary terms. But the entire American culture seems to think otherwise. I have taken the position that a person’s intrinsic worth is far greater than his earning power and have paid dearly for it. Yes, I will probably wind up in an old person’s retirement home someday dependant on others — or, holed up in this house living on a fixed income and eating cat food. (I actually know of people who make fish cakes out of cat food. Think about that the next time you see a little old woman with a grocery cart full of cat food.) What will my life have been worth?
I wrote a story once (and won an award for it) about "Buying Beer in Turkeyfoot" when we lived in the country in North Carolina, miles from the nearest town, a quarter of a mile from our nearest neighbor. We lived in a little shotgun house with six rooms. I stayed home and raised the kids. It was the happiest time of my life.
We once belonged to a little Baptist church and the pastor came by to visit with us on a regular basis. Only one of our pastors has ever visited us in our little house in Pensacola. I’m crying. Money serves one great purpose: it insulates from pain and reality. I hate it and yet I need it. Money is like a damned drug. If you have it, you feel superior. If you don’t, you feel like you’re not worth a damn. And other people will treat you like that.
Thanks for reading this,
My Dearest Elizabeth,
I sat here and read your letter and cried out loud. (When I cry over an email my wife suspects I am losing it these days. I tell her, "No I am regaining my selfhood these days.") I have no answers, just a lot of what I feel is well justified rage. Higher education for our class is a shell game, a scam run by an elitist system that pretends it is not an elite. I am talking about class struggle, so if you find the observations of a nasty old redneck (leftneck) socialist offensive, best to stop reading here. But I am going to have to digress here for the sake of illustration.
A helluva lot of folks in our generation went back to school in hopes of finding a respectable spot in today’s new jobless economy. In fact, my neighbor, a goddamned good engineer — a damned intelligent late middle aged fellow who is his own man in a time when such things are discouraged in the workplace today-found himself no longer needed as an engineer unless he was willing to work for dirt wages. He did just what you did. He went back to school to get an education degree. And he is seeing much the same vision of the future as you. I can see in his eyes that it tears his heart out to see his talents and many years of experience tossed onto the heap of cheap labor, as if all he has struggled to learn is worthless. As he said the other day: "There really is no longer a place for us in this system." It remains to be seen how cheap they will buy his teaching skills, but I’d make a guess it won’t be much
Whatever the case, all of us are left with increasing debt, which is the way our financial masters want it. I deeply sympathize with your husband. Many times in my life I’ve been kicked back into the manual labor force just when I thought I was beginning to get somewhere. On one occasion at age 41 I went from being a news reporter to a job in a "pole mill" heaving telephone poles into boiling hot poisonous Penta preservative in 120-degree heat with a six-foot log peavey. So much for this country’s respect for journalistic skills and experience.
I’m not here to tell you my sad stories, but just to indicate that were are brothers and sisters in labor for the owning class. Besides that, I think every single college age person should have to work a hard, dirty, dangerous exhausting job for two years before being allowed to attend college. I really do. Especially the elites who own the newspapers and the pole mills and everything else — the people who do not go to community colleges or state universities in hope of bettering their lives, but instead are among those who are born with advantage and goddamned well know it, but insist on playing along with the running lie that we all have an equal chance.
Once one really understands what the fact that 95% of all real wealth in this country is inherited (look it up) then a different picture emerges. For example, the owning families of both the mill and the newspaper live beyond our wildest hopes and send their kids to Ivy League schools to preserve their advantage of people like us. And in doing so create trusts that do things like add wings to hospitals, etc. in which their children get paid to administer said trusts. Jobs for worthless spoiled rich kids. Let me tell you, sister, if you take the time to look uphill, you will find an elite class pissing downhill in this country — the owning and governing classes.
Meanwhile our teeth rot and our credit card debt mounts just so we can stave off the inevitable. A roof blows off, or a furnace dies and eventually we are sunk beneath the cost of debt service. Right now about 45% of working people’s take home pay goes to debt service, whether it be mortgage, credit cards, or the cost of debt service of the stores they buy things at. (Remember, the business class never uses their own money to start businesses. They borrow it and pass the interest on to you in the price of goods.)
As to bankruptcy, remember that they just changed the laws so that it is damned near impossible to declare bankruptcy. Oh, you can go to court and all that, but the end result is that the debt, is simply extracted from you until you die. Of course the lawyer gets paid up front. Think I’m kidding? Go on the bankruptcy sites.
Regarding your question: "Just how bad is it out there in the rest of the country? How many people are going through the same kind of stuff we are?" At least tens of millions, sister. Recently I learned that lots of those families in $400,000 houses financed on interest only loans are every bit as fucked as you and I. I was stunned. I had let the huge size of these flimsy cheeseboxes fool me into thinking their lives were somehow considerably different from other Americans. But one spouse loses a job and they are out of those houses, or if they are one of the luckier classes, running to daddy and mommy at age 50 for a bail-out.
You wrote: How do we change things for the better? Look, I’m not expert on anything. I just write about what I see around me. But my personal opinion is that the time is long past to change things from within the system. Our government is owned by oligarchs and the best we can hope for is that they will throw us a crumb, should they ever feel threatened. But they won’t because their boys, Republican or Democrat, will always be in office, under our current system. They bought ‘em and they own’em and they use’em as they see fit.
At this point you and I ARE a commodity. You and your husband and millions of other Americans are living proof of it.
You wrote: Can you sense my frustration? Sense it. The whole goddamned country reeks of working class anxiety and fear, though the working classes are so indoctrinated they just keep up the front that everything is OK. In the end, it’s all about the question you asked in the email: What will my life have been worth?
I am asking myself that question very seriously these days, due to certain health circumstances. And I have decided that my life is "worth" exactly what I make it worth with every moment that is left. The first step seems to be: Throw away every notion you ever had about protection and freedom under our system. We are seeing the beginning of the end of America as we knew it, simply because it is no longer possible for 5% of the world’s population to devour a third of the world’s resources so we can enjoy the lifestyle and protection we once enjoyed. The rest of the world wants its rightful share and have arrived at our door to get it. Twin Towers was the first knock at the door.
Meanwhile, we are in Iraq so we can drive to the mall for a two-dollar item, thereby enriching the oligarchs who have you and your husband and me by the throats. Your husband prays to keep a $10-an-hour job, I stumble to work sick to make a house payment on a house I don’t even care to own.and as I write this I can hear a young couple in the apartment across the street fighting over how to get the phone bill paid, whether to do the right thing or screw the tenant who just moved out. After ten minutes of listening to the conversation, I can tell they are stretched to the limit by simple necessities. In this creeping and increasing Darwinian struggle, I knew the answer before their discussion ended. They decided to screw the former tenant because they had no other choice. This is America. No money, no choices.
Now all this may not sound like it has to do with your increasingly despairing situation. But if you think about it, it has everything to do with all of our situations as members of the working class, degreed or non-degreed. Most of us in the working class are sold shit degrees for which there are no available jobs in order to capitalize on the working class penchant for hope. Here’s a number for you: Of all the people who graduated from accredited colleges and universities since the Reagan era, 47% have been "proletariatized." In other words, put to work in "service industries" or driving delivery trucks, jobs that require no more than a high school education, if that. Almost all of these college graduates were from working class families.
You wrote: "We lived in a little shotgun house with 6 rooms-I stayed home and raised the kids. It was the happiest time of my life." Yes sister, yes. I once lived in a hippie school bus with my wife and son in the Rocky Mountains. And later in an old silver miner’s cabin. Both were heated with woodstoves. We had nothing. But the sun flashed in the eyes of those beautiful children, and we all had so much hope, not for riches — just plain old hope because hopefulness was in the air.
You wrote: "Money, I hate it and yet I need it. Money is like a damned drug." Honey, it is the ULTIMATE drug. And the only way to kick it is to quit, either together or alone. Read some of the other letters on this site. Particularly Pam’s.
You wrote: "Money serves one great purpose, it insulates from pain and reality." If I may be allowed to differ, no it does not. It just looks like it does when you have none.
Like I said earlier. I don’t know shit. But I can see what’s going on around me. Just like you do.