A Precarious Life – On the Slippery Slope of Class
I live in a nice house, drive a nice car, and have nice things – the way I always dreamed of living. It’s been a long struggle to get to this place.
But I still struggle. I have no savings to speak of, not near enough for retirement. As a disabled person, I constantly struggle with exorbitant medical bills. I am often called upon to support family members who are much poorer than myself. I worry about retirement, that I will lose my house, or not be able to get the level of medical care I need.
Moving through Class
We carry our internalized oppression from our childhood into our current situations. When I do workshops talking about class and internalized oppression, it can become very confusing for those who grew up poor but now live a middle-class lifestyle. Class Action refers to people like me who have changed class as “straddlers.” Class is set in our minds by the age of 12, because those formative years are when we absorb messages that form our opinions and thoughts about ourselves.
I know I never thought of myself as different from my friends until I started elementary school. I was only in the third grade when my best friend, Lou Jean, told me she couldn’t come spend the night at my house because her daddy said we were “white trash.”
I didn’t understand. I spent months afterwards making sure that all the trash anywhere around our little trailer was picked up, so no one could call us “white trash.”
We can rarely judge someone by how they look or act, what they own or where they live. Many of us “straddlers” have learned to pass in a middle-class world. But we know how fragile that new life is. We may be just a paycheck away from being homeless or in poverty. Many are often deep in debt from college loans or home mortgages. If folks lose their jobs (like during a pandemic) or have a medical catastrophe, they are back to living in their cars. They have lost everything.
My niece had to quit her job because she couldn’t afford childcare. If you live in a state that refused to expand Medicaid, you may never be able to go to the dentist or pay for other health care that Medicaid and Medicare refuse to cover. If you need a car to get to work, you can’t get a loan for a decent used car because of the high down payment and short loan period. You have to get a more expensive new car with a five to six year loan with payments you might be able to afford. Yet, you can’t buy new tires and if the car needs service, it’s often more than you can pay.
Very few of us have family we can depend upon financially or can ever expect an inheritance. I would not have survived until today without some help from my friends for some of my medical costs.
Yet I, unlike most people from generational poverty, now live a middle-class lifestyle. But also like many people who made that transition in their adult years to middle class, there is a difference from growing up in the middle class. There is no security. That 10-year-old child still haunts us.