I was born a white American to white American parents who are still married to each other after 41 years.
With the exception of the last 13 years in big-city Tucson, I have lived in safe, smallish towns with accessible libraries and parks and cultural events, towns where kids and adults could roam safely. I have never had to live anywhere I’ve felt was dangerous.
I went to good public schools (in cities where all the schools were good) where I learned not only the basics, but also was able to study art, music, drama, and two foreign languages, and play a little intramural softball because we had sports opportunities for kids not on the JV and varsity teams that didn’t cost parents all their money and weekends.
I have been working since I was 16 (13 if you count those early babysitting gigs). I have never been unemployed for more than 3 months. But I collected unemployment during those months because I’ve contributed to the system, and that’s what it’s there for. When I was in college I had 2 very part-time jobs at once, but beyond that, I’ve never had to work more than a single full-time job.
I have always had a roof over my head and food on my table. I have never been at risk of being otherwise.
I have never been uninsured a day in my nearly 40 years, and have been pretty healthy up until the last 10 or so. I have always had access to medical and dental care, and the means to pay for what my insurance did not.
I was fortunate to be born with a pretty good mind and the innate curiosity to make the most of it. That, along with a little effort, allowed me to go to college tuition-free; my parents covered the rest of my bills. I graduated without student loans, as did my husband, who made his way through school working, supplemented by Pell grants and family support.
We’ve been together 21 years, and have no children to support. No expensive divorces (knock wood). No school clothes or Santa presents or insurance or daycare or activities or college to save for.
I got a teaching job right out of college in my subject area, and we struggled financially the entire time we were both teaching. And though I changed and lost jobs in the interim, I always had a teaching job until I left the profession by choice. I ended my teaching job on a Friday and went to work for my current company the following Monday. I’ve been there for 10 years, and the #1 stated priority of my company is to protect our jobs; that’s a big deal in this economy. In any economy.
I have been deep in credit card debt, and at a loss as to how we were going to pay it off, or even make the minimum payment some months. We nearly lost our first house after we moved to Arizona; it sold at the last minute, keeping us from having it foreclosed on, but not before we’d gone through our entire savings and Minnesota state retirement, which resulted in a huge tax penalty that year. I have made good financial choices and bad financial choices, but most of the bad choices were mitigated in the long run, usually through a combination of effort, family support, and dumb luck. We make smarter choices now; but only because we know the pain of making the not-so-smart choices. Now I have no debt but my mortgage.
All things considered, I’ve lived a pretty charmed, secure life overall. I have been damned lucky, and I know it.
I am the 99%.
I am also the 53%. I paid $27,667 in state and federal income tax last year (more than I ever grossed in a single year teaching), but still managed to live a comfortable middle-class life; therefore, I do not see those taxes as burden. I see them as giving back to a system that has given much to me. It only seems fair to me that those who have more should contribute more. I recognize my taxes as dues that contribute to other people having opportunities, and a safety net, and all the things I had because I was lucky enough to be born into them. I am multi-privileged in American society, and I acknowledge that. I have enough, and I acknowledge that, too. Would my life be better if I didn’t spend that money on taxes? Negligibly. Might someone else’s be considerably better because I do pay those taxes? Quite probably.
I won’t ever be a millionaire in the top 1%, but I am surprised as anyone to find that I am in the top 10%. And that is only because 74% of Americans make less than $50K a year. We’ve been lucky, and though there have been lean times, I have prospered beyond any expectations I might’ve had when I walked down the aisle after graduation with my teaching degree in hand.
I have had a lot of advantages in life, advantages that the social scientists say contribute positively to my potential for success, and I am acutely aware that if any of the above had gone a different way, my life might’ve been very different, and could have been much, much harder. I recognize that I didn’t get to this place on my own—while I do make an effort, and have some abilities that certainly have contributed to my being where I am now, I made that same effort and had those same abilities when I was broke and rifling through the couch cushions for milk money, too, trying to figure out how to make $20 last the week and a half ’til payday when I needed gas and the fridge was empty. I was exactly the same person, but it didn’t matter, so there’s more to it than just bootstrapping. I also had a lot of help and support along the way. And anyone who has prospered in this country has, too. They need to acknowledge that, instead of acting like everyone who doesn’t have what they have just isn’t trying hard enough, when they know the game is rigged; they’re the ones who rig it, every day.
Plenty of people are trying really, really hard to make their way, to find some security, and just aren’t making it. And for all our fever dreams about welfare queens and illegal immigrants living high on the hog on public assistance, the fact is that they are, and always have been, a tiny minority. I think people latch on to the myth because they know or have seen one or two neighbors who are less than industrious and apply it to a much larger, and much more imaginary, group, because a) it’s easy, and b) if they had to acknowledge that most people are working just as hard as themselves, and struggling just as much to make it work, they’d have to acknowledge that the system just doesn’t work for a lot of people. And they’d be forced to empathize with the people they currently demonize. How could they not? And facing that reality can leave one feeling pretty hopeless. Better to keep running on the hamster wheel, believing that you’ll get somewhere, than to deal with the futility, frustration, and anger of realizing you’re in a little box, running your feet off, and you can’t get out on your own no matter what you do.
The super-rich think the 99% want to take all their money away; I don’t think we do. The reality is, it doesn’t take millions and billions to live well in America. But it does take fairness, and access to education, and a decent wage at a safe job, and job security, and physical and mental health, none of which the so-called “job creators” are providing, or facilitating access to. They’re offering less and less and expecting people to be grateful for that. Talk about entitlement issues! I really think most people dream of a relatively modest life. A nice home in a safe place with good schools for their kids. A job that allows them to be useful and pays them enough that they don’t have to live in fear all the time of losing what they’ve managed to gain; enough to cover all the necessities and a few of the luxuries, and to allow them save for rainy days and a retirement that occurs before their bodies give out. And there is enough money and resources in the system for everyone to have that IF the few weren’t hoarding it and denying it to the many by cutting jobs and sending them overseas, fighting tooth and nail against minimum wage increases and providing health insurance, and avoiding paying their share of taxes. If they cared to try to operate more humanely, they would find that they could still be rich even as their employees prospered as well. They might not be insanely, unable-to-spend-it-all-in-this-lifetime rich, but then again, they don’t have to be. Nobody needs that much money; and I don’t know how they can, in good conscience, keep it all and sleep well at night. Say what you want about Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, but they give away a ton of money to charities every year, and still manage to be billionaires; sharing with the Have-Nots doesn’t mean automatic penury for the Haves.
The fifty-three percenters who tell stories about how they’ve worked 10 jobs, 48 hours a day while feeding their kids ramen because “that’s what I had to do” and want the ninety-nine percenters to stop “whining” have a right to be proud of how hard they’ve worked to manage; but they should still be questioning that as a standard that all should be held to. Should people have to work that hard just to make ends meet? Is that what we really want for ourselves? For our children and grandchildren? We live in the future; does it make sense that we should live like serfs, working ourselves into early graves, with little hope of a break? Any person who does an honest 40 hours of work a week, regardless of the work, should be able to afford a good life for themselves and their family. If they can’t, it is the system that has failed, not the person.
The question seems to be whether the world owes us anything. I would say that the world doesn’t, but I think people owe each other something. And how you feel about that will no doubt determine which percentage you’ll stand with. I’ll stick with the 99%, because that is most of us, and I know it isn’t about what’s mine; it’s about recognizing that it’s all “ours,” and acting accordingly.