I would like to share something with all of you who think the middle class has not been under attack for the past two decades plus:
In 1981, my husband worked at Kmart, and I worked as a night manager at a pizza restaurant. I think our combined income for that year was somewhere around $28k. We had two vehicles in our driveway which we had bought brand new, and we were paying a mortgage on our first home. While my job at the pizza place came without benefits, husbands came with free Blue Cross/Blue Shield for him, to which coverage for ME could be added for $25/month. We were by no means rich—but there was a very simple rule in force at the time, one which we suburban baby-boomers took entirely for granted: If you worked for a living, you could trade in the spoils of that labor for a share in the American Dream.
It’s now the Impossible Dream, isn’t it? Not only for young couples starting out in 21st century America, but for those of us who have watched our income vs expenses ratio erode to the point that the nearly $90k that we command today will not buy us the lifestyle we enjoyed thirty years ago for less than 1/3 of the price.
First of all, take $9k right off the top of today’s annual income for the crappy HMO (Kaiser Permanente) health insurance provided by husband’s employer. And then there’s retirement funds. Did I mention that husband was “vested” at Kmart when he left that job—which meant that, at 28 years old, he already qualified for what would become a monthly pension when he retired (and they were NOT union…)? Does anyone younger than 50 even GET the concept of a pension anymore? In the 21st-century American workplace, if we’re lucky enough to HAVE a full-time job that pays better than minimum wage, we get to piss $6k annually into a useless 401k account that never makes any money, and, in fact, is inclined do dump thirty to fifty percent of its worth at regular intervals, every time the stock market “corrects.” Taking those expenses that didn’t even exist in 1981 into account, we no longer make three times what we did in 1981. And so many of the things basic to the barest definition of “the American Dream” have increased in cost by a factor of three or more in thirty years.
We paid less than $16k combined for BOTH new cars that sat in our driveway thirty-two years ago. And a decent, habitable home could be had for $40k back then. Our mortgage payments are three times what they were then, new cars easily cost three to four times more, gasoline costs almost five times what it did back in 1981. I distinctly remember paying 59¢ a pound for ground beef, a large pizza cost around $5, a candy bar was a quarter…I could go on and on, but the picture is clear. It has taken all the effort we could muster just to keep up with rising expenses…and we haven’t been entirely successful. We have kept our noses to the grindstone, working and slaving like good little card-carrying members of the American middle class, only to lose ground, economically.
I have ranted about this before…I don’t know why I can’t just shut up and accept the facts…ignore the beast and go forward as best we can. But from time to time, things crop up that make the monster take on a stench and a glow that I cannot ignore, so I look at it and get riled up all over again. This time, it’s the mounting pile of auto repair bills on my desk that have brought the monster back to life.
Husband got his first raise in eight years in 2012. A laughable 3% COLA, but it was a raise. And this year, he got another COLA (this one only 2%), and the company he works for has revived enough to hand out bonuses on an irregular and unreliable basis—but, hey…it’s a bonus. And we enjoyed our best sales ever at the Scandinavian Festival. So, we should be turning the corner, right? We should be back to climbing UP the ladder, rather than hanging by our fingernails to the bottom rung.
But, here’s the thing: In the span of about the last 18 months, we have had to sink over $5k into deferred maintenance on the three busted-ass 10-plus-year-old vehicles we have sitting in our 2013 driveway. Because one of the things you DON’T do when you’re stretching every penny thinner and thinner to pay the bills is keep up on regular car maintenance. Two cars needed tires, all three needed brakes, one needed $250 worth of new batteries, radiator work, engine work, new belts, et cetera ad infinitum. Get ahead? That’s a laugh. We have to catch up, first.
And next year, we’re due for a new roof on the house. If we can get it through this winter without a major failure.
So when I see people who I’m pretty sure are in the same economic boat as I am preaching the neo-conservative party line, the one that basically absolves Big Business of the high jinks that have made the rich obscenely richer, and everyone else poorer over the past couple of decades, I don’t just shake my head and wonder. I get mad. Really mad. I can’t for the life of me figure out what could possibly be up with these folks that they can’t look at their own personal financial situations and understand that they are being lied to, used, and most probably laughed at behind their backs.
How is it that we have allowed the corporate monsters to steal everything? Including our pride?