I apologize in advance for how personal this is going to get, but I am not a sociologist, or a political scientist, or an economist, and so the only way I know to discuss this topic is in the context of my own experience, my own situation, my own life.
If you Google “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” the “definition” you get reads as follows: “to improve one's position by one's own efforts.”
This idea exemplifies the supposed virtues of American capitalism, exceptionalism, and individualism. The United States of America is the only nation in the world, we are told, where it is possible for anyone to be anything if they are only willing to work hard enough. Often this is termed by the phrase “upward mobility,” and it is used as an example of what makes America better than other nations which offer more in the way of social benefits, such as free healthcare.
If only we could capture that “can-do” attitude of our parents and grandparents, we could achieve the same standard of living as them and stop begging for handouts.
I may or may not be representative of millennials. You may read this and decide that I’m a victim of my own mistakes, and nothing in this piece is as indictment of American society, politics, or economics. If that be the case, then at the very least I hope that this will help to put a face and a name to one of those “lazy, entitled millennials” struggling below the poverty line you like to mock.
I grew up neither rich nor poor. I was raised by a single mother who did not have a college education, and then my mother remarried and I was decidedly middle-class until the age of about seventeen. We were able to save, we lived in a decent house, and we took the occasional vacation. I never had it so good before or since.
My mom and stepfather split when I was seventeen. The reasons were personal, not financial, but my stepfather took his safe, middle-class job with him and left my mother to take care of myself and my three younger siblings with a ten-year resume gap and still no college degree.
So we lost our house in the suburbs and moved to an apartment. Around this time, due to the stress of the divorce and the death of a close family member, I spent a year after high school goofing off instead of going to college. I was nihilistic and rebelling. My mother did not have the time nor the energy to devote to keeping my life in check, nor should she have been expected to.
After a year my mother and father came together and convinced me to go to college. I chose an expensive liberal arts school because at the age of nineteen I had no idea what to do with my life and no particular academic skills, and my parents were just happy to see me go to college, any college. Because we had no money, it was financed completely through loans. When I dropped out three years later (more on that later) I was just over $70,000 in debt.
While in college, I fell in love. I hastily got married (on a shoestring budget) and we moved to an apartment in the city. We were both in school and working on the side and briefly, it seemed like the future was limitless.
Then she got pregnant with my daughter Kairi. It was completely unplanned and partially due to a misdiagnosis when my wife was younger that resulted in her believing that she was unable to get pregnant.
I was not about to let my wife continue working and going to school while pregnant; obviously I had to drop out to work full-time and take care of my family. Fine.
So we became a single-income family with a baby on the way. To save on some expenses we moved back in with family, temporarily, and shortly after Kairi was born we were finally able to return to living on our own, in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a not-so-nice neighborhood with hardly any furniture (we stayed there for over a month without a bed).
My wife and I made the decision about four months after Kairi was born to switch roles; she would work full-time and I would be a stay-at-home father. Again, the reasons for this were intensely personal and I will not violate my ex-wife’s privacy by stating them here. You’ll have to trust me when I say that at the time, it was definitely the right thing to do. We lived that way for over a year, never flush with cash but never truly under water either. Unfortunately, it was not to last.
I followed in my parents’ footsteps by getting my own divorce. I’ll spare you the boring personal details (you can read about it here and here) but in the end I had to borrow somewhere north of $3,000 to pay for a lawyer to ensure that I have equal time with my daughter. I had been taking care of her for most of her life and I was not about to become like my father, visiting my child for two or four days a month while she slowly forgot about me.
Now I also had to deal with a resume gap and lack of college degree. I was able to land an internship based on the strength of my writing for HuffPost...which only paid $10 an hour and demanded hours that would not allow me to spend any time with my daughter. After struggling a few weeks to make it work, I was forced to leave. Now I work driving for Uber, and collecting every cent writing freelance I possibly can. Uber is great for me because I can work my own hours, but my wife got our car in the divorce and so I was forced to enter into an extremely expensive lease which forces me to work around 15 hours a week just to pay for the car.
I’m living with family again because I couldn’t afford the rent on our old place by myself, but I cannot mooch off of them forever. Unfortunately, I am also finding it nearly impossible to save up any money at all. Because I’m a 24-year-old male with no recent car insurance history, my car insurance premiums are through the roof. I pay for my own cell phone and food, as well, and I’m also slowly paying back the 3 grand I borrowed to pay for lawyers.
So here’s my question to all the conservative Baby Boomers who want me to stop being entitled and lazy and ignorant by voting for Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein: what the hell am I supposed to do?
Seriously. Leave a comment and tell me what I’m supposed to do. And please don’t tell me I “should’ve stayed in school” or “should’ve waited to have a child.” I know that. I already didn’t do those things, so it’s a moot point.
I make between $13 and $15 an hour driving for Uber, which is much more than I will make at any other job I could feasibly get with my work experience and education.
Should I give up on being a full-time father? My daughter’s two. I’m working on getting her into day care, but believe it or not, my awful credit score is making that nearly impossible. Even if I could, that’s another several hundred dollars a month I’d be spending, and since the only days it would open up for me to work are Mondays and Tuesdays, it will only increase my net income by about a half day’s pay.
Going back to school isn’t an option. I have no family to pay for it, no grounds for getting another loan or grant or scholarship, and no time for education even if I could scrape together the money.
I have no expenses to cut. I don’t drink alcohol or do any drugs, at all. I don’t smoke. I cook for myself as much as possible, and when it isn’t possible I live off of cheap fast food. I don’t go clubbing, I don’t have any hobbies that cost money, and I don’t own anything more expensive than a couple hundred dollars.
How do I pull myself out of this mess? I don’t even have boots, much less bootstraps. Should I live in my grandmother’s basement until Kairi goes to kindergarten? Should I renege on repaying my debts indefinitely, credit be damned? Kiss the idea of ever owning a house or starting a business goodbye?
Do I completely and utterly sacrifice my health, working even longer shifts on the days I’m able to and pounding 5-hour-energy shots like water? Should I develop a cocaine habit to stay awake long enough to make more money?
There is literally nothing I can do short of getting miraculously lucky enough to land some kind of dream writing job (writing is my only real skill). I can squirrel away a few dollars here and there, and those will sit pretty in my savings account until the debt collectors come for their monthly shakedowns, or some other unforeseen expense pops up out of nowhere, as they are wont to do, and I have to start from scratch. It’s almost impossible to save money while poor.
Maybe I’m young and naive and it’s supposed to feel this way when I’m in this situation. Maybe I just need to keep holding out until the economy gets better, or until Hillary Clinton makes college tuition-free (if she ever does).
Or maybe I’m just an unskilled laborer in an economy that is designed to have a surplus of labor and a society that does not care about said surplus. Maybe our system is profoundly unjust, and maybe the American dream is nothing but a cynical fairy tale meant to convince poor people they too can be rich someday, so they won’t demonize the rich too hard.
Or maybe I’m just a bitter poor person who screwed up too many times when I was a teenager and young adult, and I deserve the lot I’m in. I bet I can tell which political party you vote for based on your choice between those three options.
I learned another thing while Googling “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” something so obvious I feel incredibly stupid for not having thought of it myself.
The phrase was originally used as an adynaton, that is, an absurd metaphor meant to illustrate the impossibility of something.
So actually, upward mobility when you’re poor in America is exactly like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.