POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 7, 2011:
The art of Middle-Class Survival
We stand at the beginning of a new decade in a fledgling millennium. Three years after a landmark, historical presidential race, our country continues to flounder.
The national unemployment rate is at a high unseen since the Great Depression. Seasoned professionals now compete with teenagers for even the most menial jobs. Lobbies in the offices of staffing agencies and temp services are standing room only, filled with blue and white collar workers.
When tax season is upon us, most are hoping against hope that the numbers work in our favor as we fill out forms with a sense of dread. Businesses that have been in operation for years are closing their doors due to lack of revenue. Those that haven't closed, yet, are holding their collective breaths as monthly numbers are totaled. As lawmakers argue the finer points of economic reform, criticize a President coming into a mess that he's expected to have miraculously resolved in a very short time, and try to find fault -- or simply someone to blame -- the rest of us just suck it up and do what needs to be done.
The poor now find themselves sharing space in day centers and shelters with the displaced middle class. The wealthy go about their daily lives with nary a thought to how the rest of us may be struggling. Unless, that is, if their caddy is late for their 3pm tee time because he had to make the choice between putting gas in his car or paying the light bill.
My family and those of friends find ourselves in a unique and terrifying situation. Through no fault of our own, necessity has forced us to turn hand-to-mouth existence into an art form.
At least one member of the household has been unemployed in the last year and has taken a job paying far less than the previous. Needless to say, this has put a decided strain on the family budget. So much so that I have joked that we are a flat tire away from bankruptcy.
Wait in Line.
I wish I could say that it was an actual joke and not my dark humor coming into play. We, and those around us, survive paycheck to paycheck. We cut corners until the budget is spherical. We buy generic, plan bulk meals so that the left-overs can be frozen for future meals or repackaged for lunches, or simply do without. We do our school shopping at thrift stores and still find ourselves wincing at the check-out counter when the total lights up.
We face every new supply list or special purchase request from our children's instructors with stoic resignation and juggle numbers around so we can satisfy teachers who seem to have absolutely no regard to anyone's financial struggles, work schedules or transportation issues. We stretch a tank of gas to a miraculous point that should be worthy of canonization -- think loaves and fishes.
We do our grocery shopping before we pay the bills, and those get paid late just to make sure the money is there so the check doesn't bounce. All of us are working as much overtime as our respective employers will allow. Still, it doesn't seem to be enough. I drove around on tires that had the steel radial showing far longer than I should have just so I could afford to set up payments to take care of an outstanding hospital bill.
My friend's family is playing shuffle-the-vehicles to accommodate five work schedules, as well as their share of our carpool, until they can afford to get the fuel pump on one vehicle replaced. When I have the opportunity to get overtime, I feel guilty calling them to assume my part of the carpool.
Do the utility, mortgage and auto maintenance companies care? No. The first two just want their money on time and have no qualms about charging late fees, while the latter triple-charges for even the most basic upkeep. The result is that oil changes, tune ups, brake replacement and new tires become a luxury, and ill-afforded ones at that.
The big-name department store, where I buy our groceries, seems to have stopped restocking store brand items in an attempt to force customers to purchase the higher priced name brands. Now, our weekly food budget buys less and less. I watch the television ads for this particular chain of stores, as it touts alleged savings verses eating out, and ask myself "When did we become sheep?"
Shortly thereafter, I take stock of the last time I was able to afford to take my family out to a nice restaurant and who is saving all this money, because I KNOW it isn't me. Heaven forbid that any middle class family with a member who has dietary issues find themselves in financial straits. I can say with one hundred percent confidence that it is beyond alarming.
There is no way to save money on food and address said dietary issues when you're making life decisions in the feminine hygiene aisle. Even if you don't have someone with Type II Diabetes, like myself, or Celiac's Disease, like a friend of mine, you still find yourself praying that your teenage son doesn't hit his next growth spurt before your next scheduled overtime. It's like Paul Bunyan and a horde of locusts had a baby. You have no food in the house ever, and you see more ankle than a Southern gentleman at a debutant ball. Moderation and frugality don't become part of their vocabulary until they move out. Here's the kicker: our respective families make too much combined income to qualify for food stamps.
We're looking for someone to blame for this. The easiest target is the poor sap who volunteered to have the crosshairs on his back in the Oval Office. It really wouldn't have mattered who won or with which political party the victor was affiliated. It is unreasonable for us, as a country, to expect all this to be fixed in a mere 1,095 days when the problem has been developing over a number of years prior to this election.
It took FDR years to get the New Deal passed. Even then, recovery from the Great Depression lasted well into his second term. Instead of finding fault in the powers that be and the lack of speed with which they seem to be moving, we should be looking to see what we can do to help each other.
In the end, it's not just neighbor looking after neighbor -- it's companies and businesses acknowledging that they are part of the problem, not the solution; it's setting aside the bottom line and remembering that we're all part of the great family called Humanity; it's taking one for the team so that the little guy doesn't get tagged out at first; and it's remembering that, at some point, we've all had to ask for help and that we need to give back. Speaking for myself, my family, and those I call family, we're sick of getting shafted by the collective Prince John, and even more so of hoping for a Robin Hood.
--Elaine Young is a senior office coordinator for a Tulsa-based staffing agency.
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