I need to take a slight departure from my usual topics of environment and parenting and vent about a topic that has been on my mind and come up in some heated political debates with friends and family. I want to talk about the economy.
When voting for a candidate for national office, my top priority is generally environmental policy. I believe rising oceans are not something to joke about, and any candidate who mocks climate change or puts industry interests above safer chemicals is not going to win my favor. After all, when we are poisoning our children and destroying our planet, how can that not trump everything else?
But no one at the conventions are really talking about this. Or talking much about foreign policy or the war. They’re talking about the economy. And they should be talking about it, because it sucks. And we all feel it and we all want to fix it. Well, at least most of us do. I still think some Republicans in congress would block smart economic moves just to make Obama look bad. But that’s a whole other issue.
No, what I want to talk about is luck. And how we, as Americans, see luck. And where does the merits of hard work end and the benefits of luck and opportunity begin?
Watching the Republican convention last week, there was quite a bit of talk about hard work being the key to success. All of Santorum’s “dirty hands” and the “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and “we-built-it entrepreneurs.” And, yes, everyone should work hard. We should work hard to seek out education and meaningful work. We should work hard to be better citizens and better parents. We should work hard to be “better Americans.”
I know that there are thousands of people in America who have just given up and just don’t care. These are the people who buy their food with stamps but pay cash for and press-on nails and ringtones. These are the people who are happy to collect welfare checks. These are the people the Republicans are talking about when they complain about their hard-earned money being taxed to support “all those poor people who don’t want to work and keep having children.” (Hard not to delve into something about the hypocrisy of same people wanting to deny access to birth control and abortion here, but I must not digress…)
But for every American who truly doesn’t want to work there are thousands more who do. I see them with my own eyes having worked closely with a welfare-to-work agency for the past decade. Women who were laid off when they were too old to be seen as viable to learn new skills. Women who lost their jobs due to health problems or not being able to afford childcare. People who want nothing more than to be self-sufficient members of society — they aren’t looking for hand-outs. They are looking for a hand up (just not Rick Santorum’s “hands”).
But let’s forget about these truly poor people you are picturing at the moment — the unlucky ones who really want to do better. And let’s talk about the people who might be a little closer to home and what luck really means.
Remember all those bright-eyed ambitious college students who took out student loans so they could major in finance and get jobs on Wall Street. And remember how screwed they were when they lost their jobs at Lehman Brothers and Freddie Mac and couldn’t get new jobs in their industry but still had to pay their rent and their student loan bills and then they had to move back in with their parents but still had to pay for their own health insurance because before Obamacare you couldn’t be covered by your parents at age 22? They all worked hard and thought they were doing the right thing to support themselves and build their American dreams. They were unlucky.
Think about the people who took out more student loans to get their teaching degrees, eager to help guide today’s youth even if it meant a meager paycheck. And when they finally received their master’s degree after working two jobs on the side, they announced massive cuts and hiring freezes at all the local school districts. Are they lazy? Or just unlucky.
And how about all of these people?
And what about my husband? We went to college for degrees in journalism back in the ’90s when it was still a viable profession. Who knew that a decade later journalism would be one of the fastest failing professions of our generation? Sure, we knew the internet would grow and change the way we received news. But we didn’t know that almost every major news source would struggle with epic layoffs and bankruptcy. And where else can we use our learned writing and investigative skills? Blogging for zero dollars a year?
Fortunately, despite massive layoffs, my husband remains employed — and holds down several freelance gigs on top of it. But he will never make millions. So is he any less hard-working than a tax attorney?
But ultimately, we are lucky. He is employed. I work on a self-employed roller coaster that ebbs and flows and can never assure my next paycheck. And we don’t have student loans to pay because our parents paid for our education. And they still help keep a roof over our heads. Luck.
My father, admittedly not a political aficionado but a devout gambler, likes to say, “Sometimes to have a little luck is a brilliant plan.” But his gut instinct was to be furious when I made the following point.
Take the story of my two grandfathers. In the 1940s, one of my grandfathers was a successful musician in a time when being a performing musician was quite a lucrative career. But with the invent of television and stereos and other means of entertainment, the market for musicians dwindled. Times got tough and he had to take another job to make ends meet. He was hard-working and he was talented. But he was financially unlucky.
In the 1960s, my other grandfather was a used car salesman. He worked hard to put food on the table for his working class family. They weren’t poor, but they were not wealthy by any means. Then, through a fortuitous meeting with a friend, he ventured into the steel industry. And, as it happened, the late ’70s and ’80s were a goldmine for the steel industry. My grandfather was a smart businessman and he was a hard worker. But he was also very, very lucky.
No man can find success entirely on his own. No one can really say, “I built it.” Yes, I built my business, but how about those who offered me opportunities along the way? Would I have been able to start a business if I didn’t have the cushion of well-off parents and a working husband? When the city came to me for miscalculated back taxes and when I had to replace a $12,000 sewer line and a $10,000 roof, would I still be living the same lifestyle had I not had help to pay those bills. Probably not. I was lucky. If those same misfortunes had befallen someone who wasn’t lucky enough to have that cushion, they could be out in the street.
Because I appreciate honest, healthy debate, please let me know what you think. Just know that if at any time you mention the whereabouts of Obama’s birth certificate I reserve the right to mail you one of these.