Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Class, Part III: The Dire Financial Straits Ride, or: Working Without a Net

Paul Krugman makes this point more succinctly than I'm about to do; go read him first. And James Wolcott makes it more eloquently. Susan has some relevant posts on this as well. You're back now? Okay then.

As Krugman points out, and as will be apparent to those of you whose backgrounds are similar to mine in relevant ways, one of the major fears with which many of us live is the fear of finding ourselves on the Dire Financial Straits ride. When the junkies and alcoholics hired me, I had enough money to survive for about six weeks. I could pay my rent for two months, and eat for about a month and a half. I'm sure I could have found some shit work (the subject of another coming post), but, at that point, I knew that it would keep me out of the Straits for only a couple of weeks at most. I must also say that my parents would have ensured, and would have been able to ensure, that I did not, in fact, have to go to a homeless shelter or run up major consumer debt or something that drastic, but my parents have taken the attitude that we are, by and large, on our own, with some important exceptions (e.g., they're helping in significant ways to pay for the wedding), and I think that's a perfectly reasonable attitude. I was in my late 30s, and I would have been embarrassed to go to them, and I don't know what they would have offered--move me back to Hometown? what?--but I had some kind of net, if push had really come to shove. Still, I was a lot closer to the Straits than many of the people I knew from grad school (or college) would ever get.

So, really, I DID have a net. But many people--most people?--don't. Plain and simple. A big medical bill, a protracted (or even short) period of unemployment, a major repair to the car needed to get to work, and poof, they're screwed.

The last time a large number of people were screwed or potentially screwed in this way was the 1930s. (Russell Baker's 1982 memoir, Growing Up, is a beautiful, lyrical evocation of that time. He does a spectacular job detailing how this major economic, social, and political upheaval affected everyday lives.) The President at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was from a family of immense wealth and privilege, yet he managed to come up with myriad programs, including Social Security, that would serve as a net for people who did not have such wealth and privilege to protect them. I don't know nearly enough about him to speculate on why or how he did this, but it's clear that most members of the present government do not have any of that. Quite the opposite: the only people the Bush administration or the Republican Congress seem to want to protect are corporations and rich people. The Republican Party has been trying to eliminate Social Security since its inception, for example, though everyday people seem to believe, pretty overwhelmingly, that Social Security is a good thing.

And, really, it's simple. You pay into the system now, while you're working. People who have worked their whole lives, or people who cannot work because of disability, for example, live off the money you're contributing. When you retire, or if you become disabled, or if one of your kids is disabled, people working then will cover your ass. For people who don't have trust funds, which is most of us, and for people who don't have pensions, which is a growing number of us, and for people who don't make enough to put some money in an IRA, this is a good system.

Simiilarly with bankruptcy. Are some people irresponsible? Yeah, probably--but note that the majority of bankruptcies for folks like us come from things like medical expenses, and also note that, even for those people, most had health insurance. Irresponsibility doesn't enter into it; bad luck does. The Republican Congress wouldn't limit interest rates to 30%. The Republican Congress will, however, enable rich people to hide a chunk of their assets before they declare bankruptcy (I'm sure that shocks you). Poor people, however, fuck 'em. They can't wipe the slate clean, they have to try to pay their creditors. As a result, they're likely to remain in debt and even dig themselves farther in debt. The credit card companies will still get their money--they continue to profit from sending cards to people who can't afford them, or they wouldn't do it--but the wage slaves will just become more impoverished.

This isn't taking away the safety net. This is shredding the net, setting it on fire, and pushing poor people into the abyss. And I can only conclude that it's being done by people who never worried, for even a minute, where the next meal would come from.

As noted, I had a net, even though activating it would have been an act of desperation and an admission of personal failure that I don't want to contemplate. Even today, as I contemplate a major life change, I'm beset by anxieties about being able to pay my bills. Suppose there's no market for pastry chefs? Suppose C loses his job? Suppose I never get any of my back pay? Suppose Something Bad happens? I don't worry so much about being able to do the work--I worry that this move I'm contemplating will throw me right back into the Straits somehow. My rational self thinks that this is a little ludicrous--surely, at this point, I have sufficient skills and experience and so on to keep from starving--but then I look at the economy, and I look at that shredded net, and I'm not so sure anymore. My rational self can distinguish between me and people who don't have education, for example, but then I remember how hard it was to find a job when I finished the last degree, and I remember that my transition to pastry chef has been inspired, in part, by my inability to find a job now. So you tell me--which part is rational?

The larger point, though, is that I've come to believe that these fears are part of the habitus of someone from my background. We don't take jobs for granted, and we don't take money (even in small amounts) for granted. Even if we don't know what it's like to go hungry, we might know what it's like to be out of work and unable to find anything to pay the bills. We know what it's like to narrow your vision down so you can only see one little thing, because thinking about the larger picture causes panic. Some of it we learned from our families, and some we learned from our own adult experience, but it's a different knowledge than that possessed by someone who never really worried about paying the rent or buying groceries.

Update: Go read this post by Susan.

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