Monday, November 23, 2009

If there's a war on the middle class, I'm enlisting to fight for it!

After writing Bait and Switch (a book you should all buy, as well as these other other texts), author Barbara Ehrenreich explains, " [it] inspired me to do something totally new . . . build an organization for unemployed, underemployed, and anxiously employed white collar workers. My research on the book showed me that college-educated workers are extremely vulnerable to downward mobility [my emphasis], and often end up in the kinds of low-wage jobs I had done for Nickel and Dimed. With some help from the Service Employees International Union, a group of people I met while on my book tour launched United Professionals in 2006, and we can be found at We’re still small and struggling, but hoping to build a response to the 'war on the middle class' that is undermining so many lives." (I'm proud to say that I am a volunteer for UP and am a legislative researcher for their website!).

 I certainly understand how quickly one can find herself on a sudden and unplanned track of "downward mobility,"  and I'm pretty sure that most of my readers understand exactly what Ehrenreich is talking about. Many of them are already there and are also part of the indentured educated class. That makes it even worse. (Edububble recently made a compelling argument about why it's so bad to be a part of this new class).

But I had no idea how vulnerable I was to become until quite recently. I don't know if that's a result of my naivete or some attempt to hold onto hope. One thing is certain, I now find much more comfort in Yelena's Ivy Leagued and Unemployed blog than I had before. Because at the end of the day, especially when you're living through Great Depression Deux, it doesn't matter if you went to Harvard, Brown, or some no-name school like Washburn. If there ain't jobs, there ain't jobs. So we're out of work, underemployed, and struggling to make through the month (for some, the next day).

I've always loved the theme of class, and researched and wrote about it as a Ph.D. student (I gobble anything up about the bourgeoisie!). However, the concept of class was something with which I became intimately familiar long before I had read and researched Marxist theories about the bourgeoisie or Walter Benjamin's notions about the arcades. 

In fact, I grew up fearful of becoming impoverished as an adult. As long as I can remember, I thought it was inevitable. There are multifarious reasons for why I thought I'd end up in the poorhouse, but I won't delve into them here. Suffice to say one factor was a result of the fact that my father came from poverty. I was familiar with how hard the Great Depression was for my single grandmother (his mom), and grew up hearing stories about the Dust Bowl, empty cupboards, growling stomachs, and so forth (I even learned that chickens could taste like grasshoppers if they ate enough of those suckers during droughts!). Armed with a vivid imagination, I quickly worked out a kaleidoscope of rich, varied images that denoted the "utterly poor." It was terrifying stuff. These pictures were set against an ominous backdrop of impending financial doom. 

My grandmother was a young woman in a world that looked like this picture - it was taken in Kansas in 1941!

Even though I grew up in a seemingly stable, beautiful, and big home, I was aware that my father always struggled to stay afloat. Nothing was ever big enough. We didn't have the newest BMW or Mercedes. The paint on our white colonial was constantly peeling. The carpets were filthy and needed to be replaced. Despite how hard my father worked, how many hours he spent away from home at his job, he struggled to maintain our upper-middle class lifestyle. (He was the first person in his family who obtained a college degree. More than that, he recieved an L.L.M. from the George Washington University). So long before the student lending crisis, I knew that a degree didn't guarantee security. Seeing a smart and well-educated man like him struggle to keep us in a nice home taught me a few lessons about class, as did his mother. 

Just 6 weeks ago I revisited those childhood terrors, and thought once again about how easy it could be to end up homeless. Yep. That's how bad it has gotten for me. Many of you are aware that I recently had a major accident. I fell down a wooden flight of stairs and was unable to work for over a week. For complicated reasons that I'm not interested in discussing, I left my publishing job. In order to make ends meet, and with no luck landing another salaried position like the one I left behind, I decided to try and get back into the world of retail. It wasn't something I really wanted to do, but it was much better than my only other job prospect at the time - Outback Steakhouse.  Again, the job of a server isn't beneath me, but it sure as hell wasn't' going to pay the hefty bills I have and were managing (kinda) to cover with my job in publishing.

Like many of you, I was scared out of my wits. When my current employer called me in for an interview, I was delighted. Sure, retail is tough work, but at least you stay clean, and you don't have to worry about spilling drinks on your customers. (I was a good server, so I never once spilled a drink on someone, but I bet my chances of pouring liquids on someone would have risen exponentially if I'd gone back to serving). I was offered the job and took it immediately. 

I kid you not, that's what I looked a few hours ago, just before I came home. Phew, am I tired!

To make matters worse, I decided to throw myself down an entire flight of stairs. You aren't a good "salesgirl" when most of your back is severey bruised and you have lacerations on your arms, so - as I already said - I had to call out for an entire week. Since I am a new salesgal, I had to call on a regular basis to "touch base" with the HR office and assure them that I wanted to return. When I returned, limping and struggling to lift the lightest of objects, I learned that I had almost been let go. I may be injured and in pain, but I sure feel lucky as hell to have this job still. So, to hell with my back! I need to earn some sort of wage.

With this turn of events, I've been finding myself in some heavy conversations with my spouse. A whole lot of ever-so-serious talks have been happening for months now, and we're faced with making some serious decisions about our future here . . .

So, here's my question: what sort of serious big-stuff/life questions are you discussing with your loved ones and/or partner as a result of the economy and your student loan debt? (Please share below).


Unknown said...

Whether we can really afford to have children. Because of my Lyme disease I can't work full time, so what I can pay on my student loans will be limited and of course, I owe 329,000 due to interest.

Cryn Johannsen said...

I am so very sorry . . . I too hope that I can some day afford to have children too. Thanks much for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Wrote a long comment...had trouble with the profile section and it was killed. I'll try to get back to it again later. Good post though. Karen

Cryn Johannsen said...

Ugh. I'm sorry that you wrote a long comment and wasn't able to post. I hope to read it at a later point, and thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

Well, my life feels essentially as if it is over just when I wanted to try to begin. I will never be able to own a house, and I probably will never again be able to buy a new car. Chilrden seem like something that I now need to write off as a possibility for me. I'm ruined because of my student loan debt. My only other option is to change my name and try to run off to South America. It's a bad joke, but some humor keeps me from feeling hopelessly depressed about what my life has become because I chose to try to improve myself with an education. What a horrible, horible mistake.

Anonymous said...

How do I cope? I can't I also feel that I will end up homeless. I have developed anxiety, sleeping problemas and depression. I also experience suicidal thoughts all for not being able to pay my loans. I have no life. Only my children are keeping me alive. I always dream when this nightmare is over and I will be able to enjoy life for the first time.

Cryn Johannsen said...

I am sorry to hear that both of you who just added comments are struggling so much. I sincerely hope that if you're experiencing suicidal thoughts that you seek professional help. I realize it costs money, but you can find therapists who operate on a sliding scale. I'm sorry that you're so overwhelmed, and still hope that something can be done to change your dire financial circumstances.

Anonymous said...

I never really thought I would be the crazy cat lady, but it is certaintly looking like it's coming my way. I can see it and the cat, living in our cardboard box, sharing a can of cat food because the private student loan people have garnished my SS benifits in my old age. At least I will finally lose some of this weight!

I have sold a lot of my things just trying to make ends meet and will need to go through it again to see what memories I need to part with so that I may buy food or pay other bills. I love my job, but the pay is way below the national standard for librarians starting out. To get another job right now is really not an option. Too many people trying for one or two positions out there makes it a bit tough.

The private student loans are making my life miserable. I feel guilty because I want to pay them back and can't. I feel miserable because I know that I will never be able to buy a house, have children or even get married because I do not want to saddle anyone else with this debt load. I'll be needing a car sometime in the future and that's not going to happen either. So, no more whining. I have a cat I talk to about it right now (see? Crazy cat lady) and my parents hear about them a lot. The rest of my family have their own problems and I don't want to burden them with my tales of woe...but I am tired of struggling to make it paycheck to paycheck. As we all know it ain't easy!

Keep doing what you are doing Cryn. Don't let them forget about us!

Cryn Johannsen said...

"Crazy" cat lady - thanks for sharing. Sorry that you're so stressed, and feel free to whine whenever you like. So many of us are living paycheck to paycheck. I think cats are great (I have one myself), but you deserve a home, children, etc.