Despite the fact that unemployment is at an all-time high, has been for a while and shows no signs of moving downward. The majority of us who are still fortunate enough to have gainful employment that meets most of our needs seem to think economic hardship is just a conversation and something that happens to others. Never mind that if one actually takes a hard look at those around them, in most cases you don’t have to look far or hard to realize it’s actually your neighbor, friend or acquaintance who has left the middle class and landed in poverty.
National publications have been publishing hard breaking stories for over a year now about folks who have are riding the socioeconomic train downward. Yet unless it happens to us, it’s easy to ignore since for most of us we still have assumptions about what poverty looks like. Well after fifteen years working primarily with low income families and youth it recently hit me that what I am seeing in my work looks a hell of a lot different than what I am used to seeing. The stuff I am seeing lately stays with me day in and day out because unlike the first five years of my work when I worked with single men and women many who faced untreated mental health issues and addictions, I am seeing many folks who used to live where I …they remind me daily how the trip up the class ladder can take years but the trip down and the descent into poverty is rapid and once there your chances of moving back up are harder than ever before.
Due to my job schedule and the flexibility of the Spousal Unit’s work, he is often the parent that connects with other parents, since I am often at my office when the girl child is getting out of school. Over the years of the girl child being in preschool and now in elementary school, we have noticed a shift. It used to be that the hubster was the only dad dropping and picking up a child, but now there are far more Dads picking up and dropping off. Sadly this involvement comes because dad is either unemployed or greatly underemployed as the man has learned when talking to the other Dads. In fact he has been one of the few Dads who are actually employed in his chosen career, many others are trying to hobble together a living or simply on childcare duty while Mom works and this comes from their own mouths.
Back when the girl child was in preschool, the Spousal Unit became friendly with another dad who it turned out was an out of work school teacher who hailed from the Midwest like us, so they struck up a casual friendship since our girls like to play together. Towards the end of preschool, Bob as I will call him landed a job at a local grocery story in the deli section despite having advanced degrees and all that jazz there was no jobs for him. Last night the hubs told me he had run into Bob who mentioned that they had sold their house at a loss and were now living with relatives. Initially this information didn’t register but when it did, it dawned on me that Bob and his family are now part of the 22 million Americans doubling up with friends and family. Doubling up is often the last stop before outright homelessness. Most of us are not going to willingly move in with relatives’ long term unless we have no option, that’s just how most of us operate in the US. No, you leave your house and move in with relatives because you are about to be homeless, no matter how you dress that up. In the families I work with, many are doubling up though for those who have been living with financial scarcity long term, doubling up is harder than for the formerly middle class. In many instances the formerly middle class at least has enough of a toe in that world that the folks they double up with have the room for them. One of my clients right now is a family of 7 living with relatives in a 3 bedroom apartment. Tough shit!
I find that since I have no issues talking about having grown up working class that in the past year or so many people I know both offline and online share their financial plight with me…I often joke it’s an occupational hazard. In some cases I can give folks a lead on resources as I did recently when a woman overheard me talking in a café about work and shared her story with me and I was able to guide her towards some agencies that might help her. All while sitting in a lovely upscale café! Think about that.
In America we don’t talk money, at least good middle class and above folks don’t, its gauche, so we avoid it. Yet when we do that, it means no one sees who needs help. So we can continue to assume the poor are the raggedy, the folks living in subsidized housing, the addicts, etc. instead of seeing that the poor are our friends and family members. I keep thinking that if more of us actually knew we know real people struggling we might get more pissed off and demand justice. Instead the formerly middle class hold onto a few vestiges of their former life be it the car, the iGadget or even the coffee at Starbucks they nurse for hours while using the Wi-Fi connection to look for work. So because we see Susie and Bob still looking more or less like us we don’t bother to dig deeper and shame keeps Susie and Bob from telling you they have lost it financially. Instead they use creative language and euphemisms to describe their downsizing but if we would just open our eyes we will see the poor are not others, they are us.