“How the other half lives.” I’ve heard this phrase too many times in reference to the neighborhood over there, the houses on the far side of the tracks, the people to whom we give our charity.
Many people living in the U.S. have always been careful to not know too much about the other half: We have built our cities, neighborhoods, and schools in ways to avoid uncomfortable contact and keep each other in some far-away, mysterious shroud that obscures inequity. It’s no surprise, then, that some of us are painfully obtuse about the lives of others. “Who’s living that they’re not going to make it to the next paycheck?” asked Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pennsylvania) at the onset of the partial federal shutdown.
But things like shutting down the government aren’t even about the “other half.” This is about most of us.
Seventy-eight percent of full-time workers in this country live paycheck to paycheck, with 56 percent saying that they are overwhelmed by debt. The federal government shutdown highlighted what most of us already knew: It is more common than not to be barely making it in the U.S.
Missing two paychecks this January caused a lot of federal employees’ carefully balanced budgets to spin out of control. They were left asking landlords for rent extensions and renegotiating their student loans. It’s especially tricky in a five-week month and moreover in a winter one: You’re likely to survive the stretch by letting the phone get shut off in favor of the heating bill.
A few weeks into the shutdown, a local Triad news station hosted a financial planner who daftly suggested that affected families “make a list of their basic needs” and “cut out the rest” — as if the nearly 80 percent of paycheck-to-paycheck earners just spend too much money at Chuck E. Cheese. When Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was asked if he knew that federal employees were having to turn to food pantries, he replied, “Well, I know they are, and I don’t really quite understand why.” He suggested they should just take out loans.
It’s clear this economy is not working for the majority of people living within it — so who is it for?
I have spent most of my adult life working with people and communities in desperate poverty — the kind of bone-aching poverty that’s accompanied by apartment fires because you were using the oven as a heater; the gut-wrenching poverty where you trade your body for a room for the night; the intergenerational poverty that is laid in babies’ bassinets in the form of underfunded schools, collect calls from prison, and grocery stores filled only with wilted lettuce and M&Ms.
The hardship faced by federal workers and the rest of the 78 percent of U.S. full-timers may not feel quite that concentrated or poignant; it is a more subtle creep. Outwardly, many of these families live comfortably in decent housing with transportation available and all the utilities on. But if there is anything I have learned from over a decade of working with people in poverty is that the relative security of the working and lower-middle class is not a very long string to unravel.
Only a few weeks ago, I helped a mother unload suitcases and a portable baby play yard from her van as she moved into a pay-by-the-week motel. It only took losing one household income to her significant other taking up with another woman and two missed mortgage payments — in a span of just three months — for her to end up there.
It can take a very short time to fall down the economic ladder, and some are never able to climb back up it. This is because more than half of U.S. workers cannot save $100 a month after meeting their basic needs. For them, a broken water heater can eliminate years of saved money in an afternoon. A failing alternator or an emergency appendectomy can derail a family for months. The interest rate for living near poverty is very, very high.
It’s clear this economy is not working for the majority of people living within it — so who is it for? The unemployment rate is at its lowest in decades, and the economy, by all accounts, is strong and growing, but the majority of families in our country are living tenuously at best.
When I was a younger woman, I was a loud campus radical, interested in how we can create alternative economic models that better work for our communities. I am older and wiser now, with years of experience working and raising a family under my belt. Pulled-up-by-your-own-bootstraps stories are the super blood moons of our economic system. The reality is that to most working-class families, even when you play your cards right, the economy is upside down.
My experience helping people in the working class — that large majority of us who are barely making it — and hearing stories of thousands of families struggling has only strengthened my resolve. It is time to use our imaginations to find other possibilities, but we must start by recognizing that the “other half” is most of us.