American Dream Turned American Nightmare
By Solomon Hatch
In December of 2007, I moved from Chicago to Chattanooga, Tennessee with my wife and son. Within 30 days of moving my wife and I found good jobs. I was employed in the Mayor’s Office running programs on fair housing and community diversity and my wife was a Financial Services Representative for a southeastern regional bank. With the cost of living being lower in the south and with my wife and I making more than $80,000, we were doing pretty well.
After the economic crash of 2008, everything started going downhill for us. Shortly after buying a new house for my family, which by now was about to include our second child, my wife was let go from work like many others working at her bank and in the financial sector. She was terminated just before she was to go on to maternity leave, which we believe was no coincidence. Still, with my job and some tightening of our belts, we were able to afford our new home and to send my son to a private Christian school, a choice we felt we needed to make because of the low quality of public schools in Chattanooga. All of our choices have been for family first. But it started becoming a struggle.
The next summer of July 2010, because of the economy, the City of Chattanooga – like many other government jurisdictions – was in the red and engaged in massive downsizing. I lost my job. Every day I looked for jobs in the papers and on line. Eventually I looked for jobs as far away as Atlanta, which would have been a three-hour daily round-trip commute. Numerous times I was a finalist with one or two other people, only to get my hopes dashed after a long and encouraging process of communications and interviews. I was becoming more and more discouraged and fearful as unemployment was running out and Congress was debating whether or not to extend it. As this debate over unemployment extensions was going on, I was infuriated to hear some elected officials say that people on unemployment were just lazy and being encouraged to slack off.
By Thanksgiving, my wife got a job at the local Volkswagon plant. It is not a union plant but it provided enough money for us to get by on with my unemployment and thanks to us being one of the lucky families to get assistance from the Making Home Affordable program. By now, we were really struggling. By 2012, as I’d been unemployed and looking for work for well over a year, I took a job in the Volkswagon plant for $12 an hour with no benefits. It turns out that Volkswagon, like Walmart and many other profitable corporations, uses “temp” agencies to hire and pay their workers so they don’t have to give them benefits. I have come to learn that I am now part of a growing class called “contingent workers”. As I am approaching the time in which I become a permanent employee and receive a $3 an hour raise, there are suddenly “quality” issues with my work. So that decision may be “delayed”.
So here I am now. My wife and I are both working in a factory. I make $12 an hour, which in a 40 hour work week comes out to less than $25,000 for a family of four, with no health care. My grandfather worked in a UAW auto plant in Michigan and raised a family of 6 without my grandmother working outside the home by choice. He put his kids through college and retired on a decent pension. My wife is a semester short of a college degree and I have a Masters in Pubic Administration, and we have to both work hard physical work to barely scrape by and cover the basics, with quality child care for my daughter and my son’s school. We try to work as much overtime as possible. I work as many as 14 hours installing rear seats all day long. I am not lazy. I am not a freeloader. I ask for overtime all the time. It makes the difference on whether all the bills get paid.
I did what Bill Clinton used to talk about, I “played by the rules”. I worked my way through college and then graduate school. In between I worked for a few years, building my resume. I married my wife, started a family and we always put our two children first. I’ve tried to work jobs that meant something, helping my community by doing job training and development, fair housing and community diversity. It has not paid off for me like my grandfather who fought racial discrimination but benefited from a good union job despite not having a college degree. Now I have a mountain of student debt that, unlike the big banks who gave it to folks like me, cannot be forgiven. I am struggling to pay my mortgage and basic bills. Because education is such a low priority in my country, I had to take out loans for myself and now I have to spend money to send my son to private school because I refuse to sacrifice him to a lousy and underfunded public school system in Chattanooga. I get threatened and disrespected daily on my job to meet my “points” quota and “step it up”.
When I heard Mitt Romney talk about the 47% who do not care for their lives, I knew he was talking about me. I used unemployment for more than a year. I took advantage of a program to keep my house. Does this mean I am lazy and do not care for my life, or my family? This attitude disgusts me. But many Democrats aren’t much better. Who is really talking about creating public jobs for the millions of unemployed Americans? They too played by the rules and the private market failed them. Who is really talking about strengthening unions so corporations can’t exploit workers like me who have to take whatever their employer dishes out or get fired? Workers play by the rules but corporations get incentives to abuse their workers both at home and abroad. Who is talking about forgiving the trillion dollars in student debt for a generation that was promised a pay-off that wasn’t delivered? The rules allowed the working taxpayers to forgive the big banks that created this whole mess in the first place. Who is talking about more money for education, instead of simply blaming teachers and poor people for the miserable state of education in America?
I work hard and I’ve played by their rules. But the rules have become stacked against the middle class and the poor. The American Dream has become an American Nightmare. I think the rules are rigged for the few to always win while the rest of us to have the odds stacked against us. They’re dealing us cards from a crooked deck. I think it is time to create some new rules!