For a couple of months now, I have been driving a young teenager from her home to her high school and back again (about 22 miles one way) for 15 dollars a trip a. Recently, I have also started doing laundry for $12.50/ hr. at the same house. So, at the end of the month, this family pays me a little under a grand. The girl has had almost all privileges a young girl can have- her parents are both corporate attorneys, she has traveled the world, she lives in a lovely McMansion, she has been exposed to culture and goes to one of the best local charter schools. For the most part, she is quite blessed.
This family would be easy to point to and say “Look how easy they have it! Of course this girl is going to succeed, she’s going to have ample opportunity too!” But this is not a story about her, or her family. This is a story of my privilege.
It is harder to look at the things that you have that you don’t deserve. It’s easier to go “I deserve so much more because I work so hard” or talk about all the difficulties but you have had to face. But, even people who have had legitimate difficulties (and I imagine there are quite a few of them) mixed in was all the stuff that institutions have favored about you, the headache that you don’t know that you don’t have*, and sheer dumb luck. I’m female, bisexual, poly and I’m currently lower-middle class. I’m also white, cis-gendered, grew up middle class and grew up in the United States. Your life is always going to be intermixed with what you do, and what happens to you.
I was reminded of that, very strongly, when reading this post from “Forever in Hell”. The post talks about a poor business owner who’s 2 miles away from the nearest bus station, and because of it can’t find anyone to work for him because he needs people to have a car. The relevant part here:
But you have to be able to drive. That’s an odd way of putting it, isn’t it? Why would you need to be able to drive to be a metal fabricator or a welder? What Mr. Isbister means to say isn’t that you need to be able to drive, it’s that you have to be able to afford a car.
Where I live, bus riders are divided fairly evenly between three groups: people too young to drive, people too old to drive and people too poor to drive. Mr. Isbister isn’t talking about the first two groups, he’s talking about the third group, and all of those people are fully able to drive. I have a driver’s license. I know how to drive a car. I just can’t afford to own, maintain, repair and gas a car. That’s expensive and I just don’t get paid enough.
Neither, I would guess, do Mr. Isbister’s employees. And that’s the problem. Henry Ford was a racist asshat, but he did get one thing right: he paid his employees enough to afford the product they were producing. He was only doing that to create a demand for his product (can you imagine a time when you had to create a demand for cars?), but the point still stands.
In order for businesses to be able to pay low wages, they depend upon our tax dollars to provide services to their employees that their paychecks just won’t cover. Low wages won’t cover the cost of owning a car, so your tax dollars pay for public transportation to get employees to work. Low wages won’t cover the cost of food, so your tax dollars pay for food stamps and WIC*. Low wages won’t cover the cost of housing, so your tax dollars pay for housing assistance*. Low wage and part time jobs don’t cover, or even offer, health insurance, so your tax dollars pay for health insurance for their children. And on and on and on.
My job is to drive a kid back and forth. I got this job, because I graduated with honors from high school, and this was my parent’s gift to me, so while I have been paying for the insurance and upkeep on it for the last 7 years or so, I never purchased it. Last month, my car which hadn’t had any problems before, suddenly had the timing belt break on me. The mechanic told me it would be at least $600 dollars to repair**. This is the third major expense on it, and Hubby and I had already decided before this happened that if there was another, that we were just going to junk it for it’s pathetic $200.
$200 dollars is not enough to buy a new car, and my job, it should go without saying, requires me to have a car. Had I not had my husband’s car to fall back on, I would have been flat out screwed. Did I do anything to deserve this luck? No. It’s just what my situation had available for me. We went with one car for awhile, and we could have stayed a one car family, but it was turning out to be really difficult with our wildly divergent schedule. So, Hubby’s family lent us their second truck, a manual. Did I do anything to deserve this? No, it was luck that’s Hubby’s family is wealthy enough to do that and that they could offer it to us. Now, Hubby’s car is starting to sound funny, so we’re taking it in to the mechanic’s. The second truck is a stick, which I of yet don’t know how to drive, so Hubby’s grandparents are lending me one of their vehicles for the couple day’s it’ll be in the shop. Again, did I do anything to deserve this? Did my hard-work lead good things to me? Did I even pay for it in any way? Absolutely not.
If someone else would have been in another situation, they would be flat out screwed. They’d have to quit this job, and lose the painfully meager salary. I have the privilege of a) having a car to get the job b) having a back-up when that fell through c)having in-laws that were in a position to, and willing to***, help me out when this car needs preventative maintenance. This is a privilege that I have that others do not, and one that I’m going to be taking advantage of. And I wish people who say things like “I’ve worked for what I have” could recognize where they didn’t work.
It is more than likely that Hubby and I will eventually be middle class, and probably upper middle class, at least if our parents and grandparents life-path’s are any indication. And I just hope, when and if that happens, that we can keep the knowledge of our assistance, and apply it to everyone else, not just who we know.
*Ani Difranco “Shroud”
**And already had called a couple junk yards to give us quotes on how much we could get for it, demonstrating that he didn’t think it was worth fixing.
***My in-laws confuse me. When it’s everyone, it’s “people should rely on themselves, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps” conservative tripe. When it’s their friends and family suddenly it’s “Everyone needs a little help in the beginning”. I’m not sure how they live with the disconnect.