One Strike and You’re Bankrupt

The day that I was supposed to head home for winter break and the holidays, I put my foot down on the brake pedal of my car and it didn’t stop. It was a scary moment that could have resulted in serious damage, so I decided to take my car to the mechanic before braving the 300 mile journey to Western New York. Two days later and $1200 poorer, I finally made it home.

I didn’t buy that car. I never had to scrape together enough savings or make a monthly car payment. When he bought it new in 2002, my grandfather had — rightly — called it the last car that he would ever own. It was my first.

I don’t pay the insurance on that car, either. My parents cover the cost of that through their policy (and if they haven’t given that recent thought, this will be a very expensive column for me). I pay for the gas and the maintenance costs, and for small repairs. But when calamity strikes, my parents are still my first call. This does necessarily not make me lazy; when my parents wanted to buy their first house, they too called their parents, who probably never could have called on their own for such a favor. If the goal of each generation is to leave their children better off, then success is not something that happens overnight. It builds over years, through family, across generations. We benefit from the hard work and good fortune of those who came before.

Most people in the United States do not have this option. Their ancestors weren’t on the boat as early, or were denied the same opportunities, or were unlucky. If they run into car trouble around the holidays, they must take it out of the money that they might otherwise spend on Christmas presents for their kids, on family trips, or on visits to the dentist. Or they scrap their car and hope that a bus comes along. Millions of Americans live just one piece of misfortune away from utter financial ruin. Some of them may be lazy or unimaginative. Some of them might not have given their bootstraps a tug. But the vast majority are pulling with all of their might, and their fingers are getting sore, but they stay locked in poverty, struggling to make things work out somehow. Until one day their brake pedal sinks to the floor and it all falls apart.

In the alleged economic recovery of the last few years, the type of middle class jobs that come with the type of salary that allows for saving have largely been replaced by low-wage or minimum wage jobs. With a federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour, a worker who might need a car to get to their job every day would need to work for more than 160 hours — four full-time weeks — just to pay for those repairs. Ford could help by making more reliable cars, but the federal government can help by raising the minimum wage, which when adjusted for inflation is a third lower than its original level. Raising the minimum wage will not slow job growth, especially since many of the worker who would benefit work in service sector jobs that cannot move overseas. Instead, a raise in the wage would help to shift money from record corporate profits and executive compensation to the people who will immediately return that money to the economy. This is not because they lack in thrift, but because their daily needs exceed their daily income.

I have worked in a number of jobs throughout my time in college — landscaper, janitor, web designer, research assistant. For me this has always been a point of pride. I like to think of myself as financially independent and fiscally responsible. But this ignores some inconvenient realities. It ignores the nature of success and the nature of generational improvement. When you are one unexpected serious illness away from bankruptcy, or homelessness, or not being able to afford breakfast for your children — situations that plague millions of Americans — every day is a battle and every spin of the roulette wheel could be deadly. When you struggle to survive it is much more difficult to further your education or build a career. When you struggle to stay out of the ditch it is much more difficult to climb the slippery hill and look beyond it to the stars than if you started two thirds of the way up the slope, where the pitch starts to level. The American Dream is not a rocket ship, but rather a hard slog and the people just starting the trek do not deserve our scorn. They deserve our help.

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