Sunday, October 16, 2011

We're talking to signs

If you're a blog-reader or social networker, you've probably noticed an interesting trend that's cropped up in the wake of the Occupation of Wall Street and the numerous worldwide protests, marches, and occupations it has inspired (an account of a recent march in Des Moines by me & Brian Spears is here): people are posting what they think in the form of "signs" -- usually photographs of themselves holding their own hand-written signs. Many of these signs are in support of the Wall Street Occupation and the movement it has inspired, others are opposed. But it's not the black-white oppose-support part that's interesting. What's interesting is how moving these signs are -- no matter what "side" they come down on, there is something so genuine-seeming about these artifacts of our shared humanity, you find yourself lingering upon them whether you "agree" with them or not.

Which has led to the most interesting phenomenon of all: we are talking to each other's signs. We're not all just shoving our own thoughts out there into the vacuum; we're presenting our thoughts to a entire planet of thoughtful, interested people, some of whom take our signs very seriously and reply. This is perhaps my favorite: the "Open Letter to that 53% Guy." But even before I read it I had saved the following image to my desktop and put "really look at that sign" at the top of my to-do list. 


This one struck me for a number of reasons. First, she (I see a bracelet and what appears to be a dress, so I'm going to assume this person identifies as a "she") is a college senior. This is a heart-breaking position for her to be in. Anyone who reads the news knows what she is in for, even if she were an Ivy-league high achiever: disappointment and humiliation. As someone who teaches college students, I'm particularly sensitive to this issue: they spend their entire lives "doing everything right," then graduate to discover the "prize" they've been promised does not exist. So my heart goes out to her from the very start.

She says that she is about to graduate completely debt-free. This is wonderful for her. Federal statistics show that just over half of all college students today end up taking out some amount in loans, so she is in the more fortunate half -- good for her! That will definitely be no small advantage when she must navigate a future of reduced opportunities, reduced income, and low-to-no job security -- and every advantage helps!

She adds that she pays for all of her living expenses by working 30+ hours per week at minimum wage. The federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, though in some states it is higher: in Florida it's $7.31/hour; in California it's $8/hour. We don't know where she lives, but we can guess that her pre-tax income is about $250. After taxes, that would be closer to $200. That means she pays her rent, buys food, soap, clothes, medicine, haircuts, gas for her car, coins for the laundromat, everything, for about $800/month. We don't know where she lives, but the average cost of an apartment in America is $650/month, so even if she's got a great deal -- say, paying $500/month for an efficiency with all utilities included -- she's clearly been living a very, very austere lifestyle. 

She tells us that she "chose" a "moderately-priced in-state public university." Good! I'm a big believer in public higher ed. And it's a great deal for the students. The last university I taught at was a public university. Its operating budget is about $525.5 million and it has about 20,000 students, which means if it were a private university, students would be expected to pay at least $26,000/year in tuition (just for the U to break even). The brilliantly socialist system of public education radically reduces that cost to the student by having the millions of taxpayers of the state each contribute a little through their taxes so that a more educated populace can benefit the state as a whole. So good "choice" in my opinion! 

This detail also allows us a greater insight into that austere lifestyle she leads: my last teaching job was at Florida Atlantic University, which is a moderately-priced in-state public university if ever there was one: tuition at Florida state schools is the lowest in the country for in-state students, and FAU doesn't even have the additional fees the flagship state schools, FSU and UF, have. So even though the odds are she's going to another, more expensive, school, let's use FAU as our model for her: at FAU the in-state tuition is just over $5000/year. Huh. Wait, what's her budget again?

That can't be right. Let's keep reading. Oh, good: she has two scholarships that cover 90% of her tuition. That means her education, if it were at FAU, would be costing her a mere $500/year. Very low. Good, especially considering that her books (according to FAU) will cost her around $900/year. Maybe she earned enough while she was in (presumably taxpayer-funded) high school to cover all four years of college? Could she save up $5600 working during her last two years of high school? That would be great if it were the case, because she is incredibly poor, and really doesn't have the money to spend.

I mean, clearly, she is a very vulnerable person: if it were not for these government and other external supports (the tuition relief of a state taxpayer subsidized school and wherever those scholarships came from -- someone's paying for that), then it seems this poor girl would not be able to go to college at all. 

And yes, I know that her college education will not, in today's economy, mean a good job for her. But education for it's own sake certainly can't hurt her.

Let's see, what else does she say: she's bragging about her GPA (mine was higher, though, lol), and how she doesn't own very much -- but we'd already figured how austerely she must live when she said she supported herself on minimum wage. Her clothes must also be cheap and/or old. Her furniture is probably made up of curb-side discards. Pots, pans, dishes? She must have had them donated to her by a charity. I mean, really, for someone living in the wealthiest country in the world, this girl is poor.

She implies on her sign that she believes having debt at all is a de facto bad decision, which suggests she's not majoring in business or a related field, or at least it suggests that she doesn't understand the advantages of capitalism, of spending flexibility in a real economy. Smart, well-off people use debt all the time to their great advantage, and it is very often a brilliant decision. Maybe after she spends 30 years saving up for a house, she'll get that.

The next sentence says she's saving for the future -- WOW. Really? Girl, you are amazing. Super-human. You earn $800/month. Seriously, even if you live in a depressed area your rent is at least half that, you owe $1400/year in tuition and books, and you're paying all your own expenses yourself. How do you do that? And that doesn't even get into the inevitable and sudden expenses of everyday life: does your old car (she says she has no "new" car, implying she has an "old" one -- how'd she afford that, by the way? Even if it was only a few hundred dollars, really, when and how did you squeeze a car out of this finite supply of cash?) -- anyway, does your old car never get driven, does it never break down? 

I've read several other responses to this particular sign. Pretty much everyone's a little amazed that she is so unaware of her own privilege. Being able to work and go to high school at the same time implies an enviable employment (jobs for high schoolers were available in her area) and family situation (what she earned did not have to go to the household expenses, but could be saved) that not every teenager is blessed with. To benefit so heartily from her fellow citizens' tax dollars yet insist that she has done it all herself and expects nothing to be handed to her means she's pretty blind to how things really work -- indeed, how they have worked, for her. 

But what saddens me is not the blindness to her own privilege. What saddens me is the sense of entitlement -- ironically the exact thing she seems to be arguing against. Her sign says that she believes all this work is going to pay off, that she will not be a part of the 99% (that she will be a member of the 1%, the financial elite). This is nothing short of delusional. The nation's highest-achieving students are currently graduating from the Ivies and finding very little is out there for them. She, as someone who went to a "moderately-priced in-state public university," is in a far worse situation than all the Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, Stanford, Ann Arbor (etc.) students who will go out into the world and out-compete her handily for whatever little is there to be had. She's in for the same rude awakening that I have witnessed class after graduating class endure for the past several years. Joy and expectation turns quickly to confusion and anger as they realize that their hard work has -- whatever else they gained from it -- not resulted in financial gain.

But none of this was my first reaction to this sign. I will be honest. I will tell you, since you've read this far, what my true first reaction to this sign was. I thought: wow. This poor girl thinks she's doing everything right. Me, I did everything "wrong." I made every mistake. I took every risky choice. I lived for the here and now. I enjoyed myself. I didn't finish high school (not the traditional way). I ran the streets. I traveled. I married. I divorced. I partied. I went bankrupt. I worked more than 30 jobs by the time I was 25. I was an undocumented worker in a foreign country. I drove across the USA five times: I slept in my car, and brushed my teeth in the snowmelt rush of the high Colorado. It took me 8 years and 5 majors to finally get around to finishing that undergraduate degree -- in an "impractical" field: English/Creative Writing. In short, I didn't try to play or win this game she's playing: I lived, and never willingly deprived myself of anything -- even if I occasionally "went without." And today, I'm better off for it in every imaginable way, including financially. 

My first reaction to this sign was, Yes, maybe that's "how it's supposed to work," as you say. But it's not how it works. The economy is not just, is not fair. You, who have worked so hard and been so diligent, will not be rewarded. Others, who have laughed and played far harder than I ever did, are rewarded beyond what you or I could dream. You, I want to say to her, believe in fairness. So do I. The difference is, you've been fooled into believing it already exists. I know it doesn't. But I believe it should.

The only difference between this girl and the people marching in cities all around the world is that she still believes the fantasy: that she will be rewarded for all her hard work; the people marching are simply not that naive: we know that she will not, that no one is. And we feel sorry for her, for what she's about to go through. And we'll be here to welcome her to our cause, afterwards. Because we all believe in fairness, and want to see a hell of a lot more of it in the world. 

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