hough I could cite my bona fides as a public intellectual, Mr. President, you should listen to me today for two entirely different reasons. First, I’m a pretty good poster girl for the unemployed. I’m a fifty-one-year-old single mother of two whose also-jobless ex isn’t paying child support. Where I once boasted a twenty-four-carat credit rating and knew not of debt, I now hobble along with credit scores so low you’d have to get on your knees to read them. And here’s the kicker: I’m also homeless. My kids and I are bunking with a friend too kind to know better than to have taken us in—and I can’t imagine when she’ll be free of us.
I have no choice but to be rational tomorrow, Mr. President. But not today. Today was the final straw. Today, you announced a two-year salary freeze for federal civilian workers. Whether a halt in federal hiring is also in the works, I don’t know. But I couldn’t help jumping to that conclusion. In deference to my unmedicated hypertension, I stopped reading. (Without insurance, my monthly prescription costs $503.08. The pharmacist and I went silent at that news—then laughed helplessly. I think it was the $3.08 that got us.)
Why does your announcement cross a line with me? Well, it’s personal. After two years of fruitless online applications and incompetent networking, I’ve lately had my hopes pinned on a government job. Who else is going to hire a not-so-tech-savvy, middle-aged journalist, especially now? Some of the brightest lights in print are now blogging for pennies or fighting over community college gigs and PR “consultancies.”
So never mind my fellowships or other hard-won credentials. What might finally give me an edge, I reasoned, was my twelve years of Air Force service and its resultant five-point veterans preference in federal hiring. Then I switched on the TV and, with the volume safely off, watched you deliver this latest blow, which set me thinking about how I’ll spend the rest of my life digging myself out of this hole. I’ll never be able to retire or give my kids much of a financial start in life. The friends who’ve kept me afloat will be waiting quite some time to be repaid. I don’t know how I’ll survive—or what I’m supposed to do that I haven’t already done.
I dragged myself from the ’hood to the Ivy League. (You were Harvard Law class of ’91; I was Harvard Law class of ’95.) I’m Gold Star Debbie. Or I was. I did everything America asked me to do, and now I feel like a chump. If, back in the 1970s, I’d chosen cosmetology instead of work and night school, I’d have a steady clientele and marketable skills. (Personal service to the rich seems like the only safe bet these days.) If I’d had kids in high school, they’d be adults now, instead of second and fourth graders, and I’d have only myself to manage. If I’d done drugs, at least I’d know how to chill out.
So what exactly is it that you at the top expect us to do? Why is only Main Street paying the price? If you’re an incompetent meatcutter at Walmart, you get fired. But bring down the global financial system? You receive bonuses and get to dismiss the unemployed as slackers. “You should thank God” for the Wall Street bailouts, said Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, this September. But “if you talk about bailouts for everybody else, there comes a place where … you just start bailing out all the individuals instead of telling them to adapt.” His advice to people like me? “Suck it in and cope, buddy. Suck it in and cope.” That’s really what he said.
Classless society my aunt Fanny. What we have here in this country can only be described as a plutocracy: entitled, incompetent, untouchable, and bankrupting us peons with its decadence. I’d like to hear you talk about that, Mr. President, because the feeble “deficit of trust” line in your last State of the Union address didn’t go very far. Name some names, homey.
I no longer understand my nation. I honestly don’t know what to tell my kids about who we are as Americans or what it takes to be successful, beyond aspiring to robber baronhood. (At least the robber barons built railroads. What edifices will AIG bequeath to the nation?)
What I miss most is the sense of competence—the thing I loved most about myself—that took me from the inner city to a career writing for national magazines. It’s what kept me grounded and focused when others around me took the low road. It’s what kept gratification ostentatiously deferred. Now what?
My junker of a car doesn’t help. I spent my last penny on it. It lasted six weeks. A dry rotted tire shredded on Thanksgiving Day, and the next day a part that is no longer made—nor found in junk lots—followed suit. Thanks, Craigslist. Soon, my friend’s tony, sidewalk-free subdivision will force her to have its useless hulk removed. At least I no longer have to tell the kids that scorched popcorn smell is normal for engines.
But how do I get my kids to the doctor now? Or myself to an interview, if I get one? Or to the welfare office, which never, ever answers its phones? (How could it, given the inexhaustible supply of folks like me and the cutbacks they’re no doubt trying to navigate?) I can’t afford the afterschool program ($35/week x 2), so the kids are back home at 2:35. That leaves six hours and twenty minutes a day to try to get anything done. To not get through to the welfare office. Six hours and twenty minutes to wonder how my family, and my psyche, survives all of this.
I also don’t know how a friendship of forty years withstands the torture of our benefactor never having her home to herself. How it survives two rambunctious kids rampaging through her once child-free home, no departure date in sight. We figured I’d be crashing with her for three months. Four, just to be safe. That was six months—and how many job applications?—ago.
And this is the second reason you should listen to me: to be reminded of the toll this recession is taking not just on the fifteen million of us jobless but also on the forty-five or so million Americans who love us. They’re the ones whose couches we’re surfing, whose cars we drive, whose money we borrow, and whose generosity we test in countless ways. They’re the ones who hate themselves for flinching when we pop up on their caller IDs but go cold with fear when we stop calling. (The former means listening to more tales of woe. The latter means wondering if we’ve fallen apart completely.) Someone should crunch the numbers on the millions in “loans” our supporters will never get back. Hell, it’s not just loved ones pitching in: there’s an e-mail from this upscale subdivision’s homeowner’s association about anonymous neighbors in need of food donations. Guess they can’t get through to the welfare office either.
I could tell you about the effect this has had on my eighty-three-year-old mother and how often I have to beg her not to send me money from her Social Security checks. I could tell you about the shame I felt last night when the kids wanted me to stroke their heads to sleep but I had applications to do, dammit. I could tell you about being hunched over my laptop until 1:30 every morning, then up again five hours later. For two years now.
But I won’t. That would penetrate the facade of anger that is so much safer than the emotions I’m actually feeling.
So instead I’ll tell you about the T-shirts my kids sometimes have to wear at school. The dress code requirement had made me angry—how dare the school tell me how to spend my money?—but then my kids came home with free shirts in their backpacks, courtesy of a PTA committee. When I tried to return the shirts, a teacher just squeezed my hand sympathetically. Guess what I felt then? Can’t wait to see how I’ll feel when the Christmas presents I’ve learned they’re arranging arrive. I used to appear on honor rolls; now it’s just the welfare ones.
Poverty changes you, Mr. President. It makes you someone different. It makes a fellow unemployed single mom who also isn’t getting child support assure you that the car she’s selling you is so reliable she’d have “saved it for her kids if they were older.” (Now that I have to get rid of it, will I do the same?) It makes you someone who hesitates before chasing down the guy who dropped a twenty at the next gas pump. Someone who has to rely on anger to keep going.
And then there’s injustice.
That’s what makes you toy with the notion that hard work and personal responsibility—the bedrock virtues of our nation—are for chumps. This isn’t something I want my children to believe one day. So, Mr. President, I want to hear from you reasons—solid, persuasive reasons—why they shouldn’t.
Photo: Getty Images"