I know a woman who recently got a shock when she went to fill her prescription for bipolar meds. She’s a mom of four, with young twins, working as a home medical assistant while she takes classes to certify as a nurse and her husband stays home with the kids. She thought she’d have another month of cushion before they demanded payment, but this time they said no, they needed last month and current month otherwise no meds. Her family depends on her mental stability for their food and housing. Friends took up an online collection to buy her medicine.
Another family, with a stay-at-home mother suffering from depression and a dad who can’t meet the rising cost of living with his teacher’s paycheck, declared bankruptcy years ago after a NICU baby combined with student debt wiped them out financially. But bankruptcy doesn’t touch student debt, and they still can’t get their heads clear of the water.
And still others did everything right: went to college, got their degree, took what work they could find and worked and worked, and after years still aren’t seeing financial stability in return. It’s not like they’re spending poorly, or lazy. There’s just too much work and not enough money.
And that’s just a small sample taken from people I know personally.
Meanwhile, in my home, the Bay Area of California, housing costs continue to climb, and low-income families, mostly families of color, are increasingly being pushed out of their spaces as investors look at their humble homes and see gold: a little renovation, and wealthier households–many of them new arrivals in the tech industry or families from more expensive areas scrabbling for a better economic foothold–will pay hundreds, even thousands more per month in rent. The average home here is now $750,000, with investors paying hundreds of thousands of dollars down in cash, pricing out many of the families who might otherwise actually be able to afford their own property. Teachers, police, and firefighters can’t afford to live where they work, and in many affluent areas, making a place for the landscapers and the nannies isn’t even on the table, because property values are more important than people. Meanwhile, the homeless population continues to rise, with the number of homeless children reaching an all-time high in 2014. Quick to respond, cities like Palo Alto have outlawed sleeping in your car (an ordinance that was overturned thanks to outcry). Berkeley passed a law in December banning people from taking up more than two square feet on the sidewalk, and San Francisco is now debating whether to outlaw tent cities. As if declaring homelessness a crime will make it go away. “Gee, now that they’re making it this hard, I don’t want to be homeless any more. I guess I’ll just have to stop it.”
Where do we expect people to live? If you’re okay paying someone far less than you make to clean your house, but you’re not okay with housing they can afford existing next door, you are part of the problem.
And then there’s food. 16.2 million American children don’t have a secure source of food. But in the US, 40 percent of our food ends up in the garbage. 165 billion dollars worth, an average cost of around $2000 per family. Farmers, grocers, and food companies dump it out themselves by the ton. Yet more and more cities are making it illegal to feed the homeless in public, because so many homeless out where everyone has to acknowledge they exist looks bad to tourists and scares people. Stores and restaurants don’t tend to donate their embarrassingly copious leftovers to shelters, because of unclear liability law.
You know we’re not done yet.
Child care costs more than rent in most of the US, and yet we still villainize low/no-income mothers who don’t work outside their homes–especially if they’re single, especially if they’re moms of color. And if they leave their kids in order to work, we arrest them.
Many glorify middle to upper class women who stay at home with their children, calling “mother’s work” important, and lauding the sacrifice it takes to dedicate your life to children instead of career. But the second a mom takes her “mother’s work” outside her home and seeks payment for house cleaning, child care, or food service, suddenly those duties are low-skill jobs not worthy of a living wage. Which do you really believe? Are caretakers priceless and vital to our stability and happiness, or are they second-class citizens? You can’t have it both ways!
I could keep going, but I’ll end with this puzzle: They tell us we need more jobs to keep the economy strong, and in order to create more jobs we need to buy more things, and in order to buy things we need to work; long hours away from friends and children and activities that often better help our communities but never pay, or at least not enough to make rent. So we leave our families to work so that we can buy things so that we can work, and who else thinks there is something broken about this picture? Is there a place where everyone’s needs can be met without the stress and excess of buying and producing and working in ways that don’t actually make our lives better?
There has to be.
Because what we have isn’t working.
We can do better than this. We can adapt. We’ve been super good at that up until this point. Don’t stop at “we need more taxes” or “we need less taxes” or blame it on immigrants or corporations. Come up with something new. Go talk with your neighbors and come up with something you can do together, something you can actually implement, and realize that if you have time to work on actually implementing things, many more may have to spend that time on a second job. Listen to those people. Listen to the people you don’t agree with, ask them why they believe what they do, and keep digging deeper until you can find some solid building ground. Then start building.
Image credit William Andrus