January 16, 2007

The Working Poor

My whole life, that is, until I finished college, I considered myself a part of the middle class. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a nice house in a nice neighborhood and went to a good public school. I always had a roof over my head, a warm bed to crawl into, and all of my needs were met.

After working through 4 years of college, I'm poorer than ever, with no sign of change soon. Today, I align myself with the working poor- a struggling group that doesn't seem to get ahead despite hard work and dedication.

I live with my girlfriend. She's a 4-year graduate of one of the best journalism schools in the country who managed to achieve a 3.8 GPA. I graduated with a masters degree in economics. Neither of us make more than $10 per hour.

Ten bucks an hour would have sounded like a lot just a few years ago. Even today, it's more than I've ever made in my life. I've had a number of jobs, and this one has more hours and a higher wage than any other. Despite this, I'm ineligible for health benefits, sick time, vacation time, 401k, or anything of the type. I also drive 40 minutes to and from work, so extra cash goes straight into the gas tank. Worst of all, I've been working temporary assignments for the past few months. I figured it would be a way of building experience, but it doesn't provide any permanence. I have no certainty that I'll still have a job here next week, let alone next month.

My girlfriend has made more money than this before. She used to be a waitress, and while it doesn't carry much in the way of prestige, it brought home more cash than her current job- bank teller. She's thought of going back to that line of work, and does often. The catch is that a restaurant won't provide health benefits. We need that medical plan, as we're both on it.

We don't have much spare money. We pay utility bills, rent, and car insurance with the majority of our paychecks, and the rest goes to food, car insurance and debt. She has credit card debt left over from college that she's been able to maneuver through 0% interest cards, and I have $20,000 in student loans that I'll be paying back for the next decade or so. Even though we each pay only half of each bill, it still seems like money disappears so fast.

If one of us could land a real job, it would take a lot of the pressure off of the other in so that they could find salary somewhere too. If we could each get a decent job, say, somewhere around $35k, (which is still well below the US GDP per capita of 41,000) we could substantially improve our predicament. It would alleviate the pressure to pinch pennies and use credit cards to keep afloat.

It bewilders me how we've had such a hard time finding work. We're both smart kids, well educated, with spotless legal records. We're friendly, respectful, and thoughtful. We're willing to take just about any job that promises opportunity. We've made substantial efforts to get ourselves out there, and have applied to several positions per week for months. I know we've submitted well over a hundred resumes, to job openings near and far. I've managed one interview, and she has had a few calls back, but nothing promising. Neither of us know why we're failing. It's unknown whether we're tremendously unqualified for the positions to which we've been applying, or if simply no one is reading our cover letters and resumes.

Maybe my presumptions were simply off the mark, but I expected more. I truly thought an advanced degree would put me on some kind of career path out of college. My girlfriend thought that good grades were a ticket to a good job. In this new year, we each only make a couple dollars more than minimum wage. That is to say that our college degrees and other credentials only benefit us a tiny bit over the least educated, least talented, and least qualified individuals employed in the state. If there's anything to be learned here, it's that a degree guarantees you nothing.

As downtrodden and hopeless as my words may read, I haven't given up hope. I am mindful that a job opportunity may be only a phone call away. One day, things will work out. We'll get jobs and be able to establish a better life. We'll even think back to today in few years, and laugh about how frustrated and stressed we were. However, when I do get to that point, I don't want to forget what this felt like. The lifestyle I lead now is the past, present, and future for so many people. I don't want to forget what it feels like to struggle.

I've been reluctant to publish this posts because it largely just sounds like me whining. And in a lot of ways, that's exactly what it is. But it's a way for me to air my frustrations with the system that's been pushing me back for months- isn't that what blogging is for? I do understand that even our frustrating lives are significantly better than so many others. We do have a lot to be thankful for. At the same time, I don't want use that as a rationale to cast my thoughts aside. Everyday I talk to people that don't seem to be any more special than anyone else, yet they hold down successful careers. Why not me? What it comes down to is the simple fact that I expected to have more by this point than I currently do- and I mean that in an overall life sense, not necessarily materialistic. Most of all, I'd like to share my experience with those younger than me. My friends, siblings and others who have yet to embark on this stage of your life. I sincerely hope that you have better luck than I- but don't get your hopes too high too fast. It's a difficult struggle ahead.

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