I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “us vs. them.”
I’m not really sure that many of us really understand exactly where we stand in the hierarchy of things. In fact, I was having a conversation with CV Rick about the myth of American middle class just the other day in which I stated that I think a whole lot more of us are in the “Them” group than think we are, and that the “Us-es” in the relationship aren’t really interested in looking out for the best interests of the “Them-s.” Despite (what I think is) pretty clear evidence of this fact, far too many of the “Them” continue to vote for the “Us” people who make no secret about endorsing policies that will bring them demonstrable harm.
Look: I am, by all accounts, well off. In fact, I consider us very well off. My husband makes a good salary. We have a lovely home in a nice neighborhood. We can buy new cars and take a vacation every year (last year, we took two, in fact). We have cable t.v. and high speed internet, we have heat in the winter, and we all have access to good health care. The children have college funds and savings accounts, and Mr. Chili and I have some investments and retirement accounts. We have enough to eat, literally everything we need, and damned near everything we could possibly want.
For all of that, though, I am profoundly – almost painfully – aware of several things about my life. First? I am the exception, not the rule. That list of first-world problems I posted on Tuesday? A huge number of my countrymen don’t even get to make those choices; they’re simply not available to them. In fact, we have percentages in the double-digits of students in my school whose families are poor enough to qualify them for free or reduced school lunch. Poverty is a real and present thing in my community, as I’m sure it is in every community across the country, and I am observant and compassionate enough to notice that I have it very, very good.
Second? I did not get what I have by the sweat of my brow or the fortitude of my character; a significant part of it was pure, dumb luck. Fuck the “bootstraps” argument; as my sister is quick to note, in order to pull oneself up from one’s bootstraps, one first requires the possession of actual boots. If I hadn’t run into this guy who grew up in a well-to-do home and got a good education and happened to love me, I would have been exactly what my parents were; poor, undereducated and, at some point in my life, dependent.*
Third? That all of it – every single happy little fucking American Dream-ish part of my life – all balances on the edge of a knife. One layoff, one accident, one bad diagnosis or natural disaster and all that happy, self-sufficient, perfect shit – all those examples of all that is good about our life as successful citizens – dissolves. Poof! Gone. Too bad, so sad. Sucks to be you.
Someone told me the other day that someone making $250 thousand dollars a year is not rich. Let that sink in for a second. A quarter of a million dollars, and that person is not rich. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that (and, to be fair, I didn’t have time to ask that person to clarify what he meant by that, so there may well be much more to the idea than he was able to get out before I had to go and get my kid from band practice). According to our 2010 tax returns, Mr. Chili and I made significantly less than half that figure, and I consider us to be two of the very lucky ones. If someone pulling down half a mil isn’t rich, imagine what one of my student’s life is like; his family of four reported a combined income of $23,600 last year (significantly below the federal threshold for poverty. I know because I collected his free and reduced school lunch form this morning). Has our perception of wealth become so skewed that we’re willing to think of the 250k family in the same ways that we think of my student and his family? Really?
*Before you all rush to my defense to assure me that I am a good and strong person who surely would have found a way to be successful even if I hadn’t had the miraculous good fortune to meet my husband, let me put on your brakes. Sure, I may have found some way to get my shit together. I may have even found someone else to support me in my efforts to get an education and make something more of my life than my parents ever did with theirs. The truth of it, though – and I know, because I was there – is that I was not taught that this life was something I could ever have. There is a certain hopelessness that comes with not being able to pay your electric bill, never mind not being able to afford the tuition on a college class. Honest to god, until Mr. Chili suggested that I take a class, the thought literally never entered my mind. When one is in the position I was in, she does not allow herself to consider the things she knows she can’t have. For all that, though, at least I was still eating and living within four walls, which is more than some people can say, and that is the true failure of our imagination as a nation and a people.*