Class, Pt III: Slipping

I’ve been remiss with the blogging recently because I was (briefly) unemployed and job searching, which has only made this blog post feel more urgent than ever. 

…for American society to work as it should, your children, some of them anyway, must be downwardly mobile. Those who consider themselves exemplars of American achievement (and he includes himself among the offenders) are in fact economic villains. (The Economist)

My grandfather, son of an absent alcoholic father and a single working nurse in 1930s suburban Boston, came back from the War in the South Pacific with little more to his name than ambition, gumption and love for his high school sweetheart. He worked several jobs while the GI Bill put him through night school, and first one and then my other aunt was born. (Mom was a later bonus child!)

One of Grandpa’s jobs was half a step up from the mail room at a big Boston institution. In the interview, as the story goes, he was asked why he wanted the job and said, “Because I like to eat.” He got it.

Night school degree in hand, he joined the accounting department. Forty years later, after breaking ground on a big new waterfront campus for the company, he retired from that same institution as the Chief Financial Officer. In his tenure in the C-Suite, he restructured the pension plan, setting up an inviolable trust that would ensure that everyone in the company (not just the C-Suite!) could retire with 100% of their leaving salary for the rest of their lives.

After retirement, Grandpa got really serious about the stock market, and just in time for the Dot Com boom of the Nineties. Someone pointed out to him, for example, that a new phone that could send emails might be the next big thing, and Grandpa was in the position to make the right investment, and then prescient enough to know when to sell. He set up an education trust fund for his grandchildren, so we wouldn’t have to work two jobs and go to night school in order to get an education like he had.

You can’t do that anymore. It was the American Dream (at least for white people), and it’s dead now.

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My aunts were a CPA and a church administrator, the latter’s husband a builder of McMansions across New England, which put their two children through private school and into top-notch colleges. On the other side, my aunt (who self-identifies as growing up so-called “trailer trash”) and uncle were top of their class at a prestigious New England technical university, making solidly middle class incomes in the field of alternative energy, among others.

My mother was the bookkeeper for my father’s business, a sole proprietorship with a corner on a lucrative STEM market that allowed us to make significant renovations to our big home in the country, go on nice vacations, have a sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay, piano lessons and horseback riding, summers at nerd camp and Outward Bound. When it came time for us to go to college, my parents were able to match Grandpa’s trust fund contributions to our education expenses.

That was the American Dream, and my siblings and I thought it was within our grasp, too.

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For me, combining family money with a merit scholarship meant I could go to one of the five most expensive private colleges in the country without student loans. In turn, this lack of debt meant I could afford to study abroad, spend a couple years learning Arabic in Jordan as a Peace Corps Volunteer, then go on to graduate school, taking on over $40,000 in student debt just as the economy was collapsing in 2008. I saw a bright future for myself in nonprofits, think tanks, teaching or translation – doing good for the world, limited but not prevented by my debt.

I thought I was living the American Dream. I didn’t know it was dead.

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On the way home from a recent family vacation, my partner remarked that in my family, excluding one of my seven cousins, I am the only one of my generation living the middle class lifestyle my parents and grandparents enjoyed. Arguably, I’m not even that. I earn exactly the median income in these United States, which I expect puts me a solid 20+ percentile below my parents and grandparents at almost-forty. Middle class, yes, but not nearly what my generations before me achieved …

… even though I have a Masters from a reputable university …

… even though I’m fluent in two foreign languages, including a national security priority language …

… even though I’m single without children …

… even with less student debt than most and help paying it off …

… even though I live in a city with some of the highest income in the country.

I still don’t have enough income and savings to buy a house within a reasonable commute of my jobs. I still don’t have enough savings or income to justify having the children I have always wanted. I still don’t have enough savings to justify the PhD I’m dying to do, even if I get the full ride I think is reasonable to expect to pursue a degree in teaching Arabic.

Three years ago at 33 years old, I had $0 in savings, two maxxed-out credit cards, and monthly student loan payments of $800. My retirement savings totaled less than $1,200. It took a lot of research and arithmetic, some consultation with Grandpa, and a realignment of my priorities to get where I am four years later – able to pay off my credit cards every month, with enough savings to weather six months of unemployment, and almost a tenth of the retirement funds I should have at my age. I’ve even been playing with a little investing – a CD here, an ETF there.

If the next five years play out the way I hope, then maybe I’ll be able to buy myself a little bungalow in Tucson and raise a couple kids while I do that PhD. Maybe I’ll even be able to set aside a small college fund for the little ones. But I don’t see myself rising much above the median income, and the median looks less and less like the American Dream every decade. A PhD these days looks more and more often like precarious poverty wages without benefits or protections.

It’s a huge privilege to be able to live the life that I do, with the advantages of whiteness and family wealth, a legacy of good education and good health care, and a family that talked openly around the dinner table about saving for retirement, the fundamentals of investing, the miracle of compounding interest, and the value of thrift.

My partner pointed out on our recent trip that he didn’t grow up that way. His family didn’t look up the asking price of the beach house for sale down the street from our Air BnB, and casually discuss who could qualify for a mortgage of that amount. (None of us, if you were wondering.)

I don’t know what it means, except that I will have kids much later than I wanted (if at all), have less home equity later in life, less opportunity to help my kids do better than me, less travel and much later retirement than I had once expected.

None of this is a tragedy. I’m still doing better than at least half the country. I’ll probably never go hungry or be homeless. Neither is it the American Dream we were fed as (white) children.

I don’t quite know what to do, either, except to Fight for $15 (or better yet, a living wage), fight for Obamacare (or better yet, Medicare for All), fight for maintaining and expanding student loan forgiveness programs (or better yet, free public college), fight for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, fight for better, fully public schools, fight for unions, fight for Dreamers and their parents….

The American Dream is dead. Long live the American Dream.

4 comments

  1. […] Over the last two weeks, I’ve had a steady trickle of conversations about my article and the ways Unitarian Universalists do or don’t address financial and class diversity within our congregations and communities. Then yesterday, I was introduced to the UU Class Conversations, and started reading UUs’ personal stories of class. It reminded me that I’ve been telling my own class story here on this blog. […]

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  2. […] With the summer sun in the big bay window at our backs and me probably already in my bathing suit, ready for the lakeside beach across the road, Grandma told me about Captain Freethy who fought in the Civil War, and she explained that I could be a Daughter of the American Revolution if I wanted to be. She had the documentation to prove it. There might even be a college scholarship in it for me. (I didn’t know anything then about the racial wealth gap and the racist underpinnings of much of America’s generational wealth.) […]

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