There’s a crisis out there. We are living in a world where, across the board, young adults are earning less than retirees. We’re putting off marriage and children. We’re living at home longer. Getting our first apartment with roommates is the new ‘starter house.’ We’re accruing trillions of dollars of student loan debt and we’re getting jobs that can’t pay those loans. About 45% of the United States’ homeless population was under the age of 30 in 2012, with data indicating that number increasing every year.
What’s causing all this? It’s not because we’re addicted to social media or we let One Direction become a “thing.”
One person working a 40-hour workweek earning minimum wage used to be able to support a family of three. Now, even though the minimum wage is rising in cities like San Francisco ($12.25/hr to $15/hr by 2018), Los Angeles ($9/hr to $15/hr by 2020), and New York ($9/hr with a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15/hr by 2021), it still isn’t enough to cover rent, let alone allow for paying off debts, saving some money, or – god forbid – affording a $20 copay (assuming you have an employer who pays for your health insurance).
These numbers are screaming out a very urgent problem, yet it seems many of us remain unmoved by the news. And I get it. If it wasn’t for my own personal experiences, and those shared by my coworkers, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the economic climate around me either. Even as someone seeing the problem at first hand, I still thought it might just be a fluke. Or maybe I wanted it to be, because the reality is a lot harder to swallow. Those who might be moved are all too quick to brush off such feelings: they touch a very deep part of ourselves, where our most primal fear lives. They remind us that not only are people struggling, but we, being people, are one accident away from that struggle, too.
Money concerns – wages, the cost of living – are the hardest things to face, because even a regular paycheck which gives you the ability to pay your rent could be taken from you at any moment. Besides, the people who have finally made it – the people with those regular paychecks – don’t want to be reminded of the pain they felt as they shuffled to and from work until things finally clicked.
And so, in place of empathy, we get deeply misguided bootstrap thinkpieces and Fox News segments that are literally called “The Wussification of America.” Justifications designed to distract from that most basic anxiety: That could be me.
In some twisted way, it feels better to bash the people already being crushed. It helps keep the tiniest shred of power, the sense of security we are evolutionarily designed to grip tightly. But there are so many of us who will never, ever have that power. You can do everything right – go to college, get a job, comb your hair – and yet there is such an immense and growing disparity between the Haves and the Have Nots of our country that no number of extra jobs or roommates or food stamps can lift a person into stability if they started from the bottom.
It’s scary to struggle. It’s scary to be reminded that you could struggle, even if you currently don’t. It’s terrifying to be powerless in any situation, especially with respect to your own wellbeing. You’re a human; you should be capable of maintaining at least some semblance of humanity. Right?
But you don’t get to be human when you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck. You get to be a worker, dulling all your senses and losing the willpower to do anything besides work. You don’t just do the grind, you become the grind, flaking away more and more bits of your soul just so that you can stave off homelessness for one more month.
When you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, maxing out a credit card so you can have toilet paper and a rent check that doesn’t bounce, you develop tunnel vision. You don’t socialize – you don’t have the money and you certainly don’t have the energy for fun. It just reminds you of all the stresses you’re avoiding. You don’t sleep. Your back pops all the time from the constant tension. You learn not to freak out at the heart palpitations that leave your jaw numb for a moment.
You’re living a modern-day Great Depression. But there’s no sense of shared suffering. Only you know about it, and you’re struggling so hard to survive, you barely even realize what you’re going through.
Vitriol won’t put a roof over someone’s head; shame won’t get them a better job. The largest demographic in the United States is practically burning alive and we’re letting it happen. But I get it. It’s scary to admit that there’s a problem. It’s scary to realize we’re responsible for fixing that problem. But even scarier is how many of us, instead of putting out the fire, would rather turn our backs to the growing inferno and walk backwards into the flames, wondering aloud why it’s getting so hot and mocking those who catch on fire before we do.
Turn around. Fill out a ballot. Use your voice to douse the flames. It won’t be easy, but we’re facing an inevitability. And it only gets worse the more we pretend it isn’t there.
Talia Jane is a writer living in the Bay Area who is newly available for hire. She can be found on twitter (@itsa_talia) or crying in a corner questioning her life choices.