It would be not be so difficult to balance how we are all living. I make fewer than $20,000 per year, as a single mom with two dependents, but I recently lost my BadgerCare health coverage and SNAP food benefits, because I had one paycheck that was $13.95 too high. Most of my paychecks are not over their limit, and even the one larger paycheck will not put me above the $20,000 annual total. It doesn’t seem like a great plan to take food and healthcare away from a mother who is working really, really hard to claw her way out of poverty. That $13.95 over the line of public assistance didn’t cover the groceries I had to buy, not the health coverage I was now supposed to afford.
I make these fewer than $20,000 per year as an adjunct language, composition, and vocational rehab specialist at a technical college that focuses on career success for its students, while not being able to do so for the labor upon which they depend. The administration of this school, like so many, claims that they cannot refigure their budget to be able to afford benefits for the many adjunct faculty on whom they rely. They say that they cannot possibly hire several of us full-time — instead of more of us just beneath half-time, instead of new buildings to stay relevant as an organization, instead of recruiting top-level administrators who require large salaries — to teach classrooms full of students waiting for our qualified expertise, because then they’d have to offer us health care among other benefits, like access to retirement savings accounts, which would further assist each of us out of an impoverished old age. So, unless the administration wants to take pay cuts themselves to get us into the doctor when we catch strep throat from students, we adjunct accept that the price we pay for groveling for these competitive and highly-skilled positions is a complete lack of benefits. Balancing educational budgets is being done on the backs of teachers, who are increasingly being kept in poverty while performing public service.
We know we’re getting screwed but we appear thankful for these opportunities when we can, because we can see our schedules full of the classrooms who need instructors with our qualifications, and because we have no union to protect us from the realities of being told, “You can have the competitive job with sketchy compensation, or not have a paycheck from higher education at all.” We could go work at Target or some other location for full-time work with similar annual income and some benefits, but then we’d never use our educational know-how, which is desperately needed and should (read: could, maybe, someday — increasingly unlikely) offer us more avenues to use our incredible skill sets and dedication to education to climb and claw our ways out of poverty. We know that the educators in charge of developing the professional, functional, literate citizens of this country should not be those bobbing along the surface of the poverty line in this country. None of us should be. Not while teaching at a college, and not while working at Target full-time, or in a shop welding, or in a public waterway sampling for pollutants. None of us.
How is it possible that we as a society don’t want to provide enough support to extremely hardworking neighbors to climb out of these pits of our own creation? Why do we want the fabricator or arborist who lives nearby to pay thousands and thousands of dollars for an operation he needed? How is this entire system working against us? None of us should be working our buns off to assist the future of our nation and our own families when one paycheck of $13.95 over the cap for public assistance (but well under the cap for poverty) throws us back into debt for strep throat appointments and antibiotics, and back into buying food with credit cards. Food and medical care and basic housing should not so easily trap us in poverty. Being teachers or others in danger of losing professional ground and funding while working nonstop to better this country should not be asked to perform this work at the expense of the ability to see a doctor, buy fresh vegetables, pay for gas, own decent clothing for their kids, or pay an attorney to continually defend themselves from an abuser who uses remaining parental rights to repeatedly seek custody changes.
There is no box on public assistance forms to say, “You’ve already robbed me of a decent income and health care by slaughtering state budgets for vital public careers that used to benefit all of us via my dedicated, hard work. You’ve already cut off my public assistance two months ago and asked me to completely reapply after I barely got my head $13.95 over the not-even-solvent line. You pretend that this is because many of us are lazy, reveling in drug use (we’re not!), or capable of overcoming addiction without services (none of the addicted are). I spend more than my annual income on an attorney who is the only person standing between my kids and my abuser. Stop asking me to put food and socks and laundry detergent and gasoline and on my credit card to appear like anyone’s bootstraps are enough, no matter how hard we work — and that’s really, really hard.”
We could solve this. We don’t have to shit on each other this way. We could have livable wages. We could make sure that all Americans have housing, food, and healthcare. We could stop collectively imaging that anything about anyone’s time in poverty is lazy or intentional. We could stop feeling better than other people, than our neighbors. Employers could stop railing against benefits for workers; could stop sending cheaper, even-more-pooped on jobs to locations that don’t even offer basic safety benefits; could stop blaming it on taxes that are only collected to prop up the public services that employers balk to provide. We could demand that they pick one: look out for us while we work for you, or pay for the public services that will do it on your behalf.
We could stop busting unions that protect vulnerable laborers or use public benefits as the unions that look out for all of us. We could stop gutting the budgets of public services that are good for all of us. We could not cut taxes in the highest brackets in order to go into further debt as a nation which then must cut services to those of us who are already working our asses off to barely not drown. We could operate in the manner of any of the Scandinavian countries or Canada, which at least don’t associate walking or crawling into a scheduled appointment, urgent care, or an emergency room with spending the next decade of their adult lives impoverished and sick. We could stop disbelieving women when they tell us about dangerous men who delight in emotionally, physically, and financially terrorizing them after metered almost-escapes.
We could off each other ANY one of these ways out of the traps that have been laid. I am an excellent teacher who is experienced in and dedicated to expanding the knowledge base of and increasing the likelihood that some of our most vulnerable students can become functional, contributing, literate members of society. Do you really believe that I should not have a livable wage due to education budgets being slashed and teachers’ unions being busted while I work far more hours than those for which I am paid? Do you think I should deeply be in educational debt for gathering the immense know-how that we are demanded to have even as we are told that we aren’t high quality? Should we require a union in any field in this country so that the workers do not go deeply into debt for basic life requirements and wages that do not feed the vicious cycles of poverty? Should any of us, including employers, rail against benefits for hardworking employees on whom profits depend? Should the minority of extremely wealthy be receiving such amazing salaries while we perform the most difficult toil? Should the gulf between us really be so, so wide?
Should anyone not be able to walk into a clinic with an illness that needs to be treated without going into years of debt, buried beneath interest rates and collection attempts for healthcare? Should anyone in this country not have access to plentiful food, no matter their mental health, addictions, or percentage of their income spent on rent? Should we feel tax “relief” knowing that those of us who most need the money back in our pockets are going to have our other meager services cut in the name of “trickle-down” theories of economics that only work for the rich who do not wish to even see the rest of us? Should we live in a system where you are skeptical of a woman telling you that a man is dangerous, because we are systematically more interested in the dad’s perspective of family dynamics?
I don’t think we should live like that. It’s not patriotic. It’s not kind. It’s not fair. We could just rebalance our systems. We could shun the idea that any of us should be living on someone else’s trickle. We could fund education and healthcare to help relieve our debt problems and national crises, including economic bubble bursts and addiction trends. We could allow labor unions to insist that there should be a balance between profits at the top and the benefits paid to those who provide the hardest labor. We could all act as each other’s labor unions to insist that we each be treated well inside of capitalism. There could be slightly less discrepancy between the living conditions of those with the most and those with the least. We could accept a sliding scale for just about everything. “Pay what you can,” is not hard to determine, and we don’t have to keep pooping on each other. We could stop distrusting each other about how hard we are working for how little. None of us need to keep laying out these traps for each other.