My wife and I were driving to visit family the other day, and we were listening to the radio. NPR, naturally (have I said we’re hipsters?). They were reporting on the economy and whether or not the “average American” had felt as if we have recovered from the depths of the financial crisis. Being as that I love listening to and discussing anything even tangentially related to money, economics, or finance, I tuned in. And well, I feel for those people in the country (and world) who have lost jobs, struggled, and been hit the hardest by “the great recession.” I’ve got family members who have been in and out of work for years now.* I suffered through a lengthy unemployment myself. But, at what point do we place blame on the person, and not “the economy?” If the economy is down, it’s you vs. the economy, right?
I don’t ask this because I enjoy getting hate mail and want people to think I’m some nut job, or because I “blame the victim,” but because something in this story stuck with me. They were speaking with a 40-year-old mother of two from Arkansas, a “prime aged worker” aged 25-54, who had been out of work for some time. She used to be a teacher and licensed respiratory therapist, but “as the economy tanked, the work dried up and she is still out of work.”
One of the first audio clips they played was of this mother saying “We’re doing everything we possibly can to save every single dollar just so we can eat and pay our bills and buy gasoline.” Almost instinctively, my first thought was “you’re probably not.” I know, I’m a jerk. But hear me out.
The next clip of hers- “I don’t go out and buy anything just because I want them … we have to be really careful.” Okay. I might be missing some sympathy gene here, but doesn’t everybody do this? So when employed, you were going out and buying anything you wanted? And now you’re lamenting the fact that you can no longer do this? And that you aren’t adequately prepared to live off of one salary? I know a few people that go out and buy things just because they want them. And if something were to happen to their current income streams, they will probably find themselves SOL, with no one else to blame. So, needless to say, I didn’t hear this statement on the radio and go “awwww. Sad face.” I don’t think I’m inherently employable. I’m glad to have a job, but I also take care to ensure that if I lose my job, we’re ready to face a lengthy unemployment. I know a lot of you all do the same. I also take steps to ensure that I have valuable skills that translate across industries. I try educate myself on anything I don’t have a solid grasp on. I network. Generally speaking, I work to better myself so that were I to lose my job, I would hopefully be able to land another.
She then stated that they don’t go out to eat “as much.” So they still go out to eat, but they’re doing everything they can to save every single dollar? There’s a disconnect there. I understand she has kids, and they still need to go out. But wouldn’t once a month suffice, maybe at somewhere inexpensive, like Ci-Ci’s Pizza, or somewhere that “Kids Eat Free?”
The report ended on an “inspiring” note, with this mother explaining under what circumstances she would consider herself recovered.
“I think that my family is learning how to survive in the economy now,” she says. “If in the near future, I’m lucky and I get a job at a living wage … then I think that the recovery may be possible. I might be able to see that light.”
I’m really not trying to pick on this lady, because I would imagine she is a great person, and a caring mother and wife. And I know their struggles are real. But EVERYONE is learning how to survive in the economy now. Technology increases exponentially, costing jobs. New sweeping laws are passed that impact 1/6 of the entire economy. Companies that didn’t exist 5 years ago on technology that didn’t exist 5 years ago are now worth millions of dollars. Everyone is learning to survive in the new economy everyday. It’s actually a pretty well-known evolutionary theory, much applicable to business and finance in my opinion. In addition, her husband still has a job. Half the bloggers I know survive on one salary.
And that brings me to the phrase “living wage.” The subtext here is that a minimum wage job won’t do. I’m not here to discuss that, except to admit that minimum wage is not much. But it is what it is. Her skills, education, training, and experience might make her worth much more than minimum wage in her mind. But right now, that isn’t what the market dictates. Say she could find work as a grocery store cashier while still searching for a new job at a “living wage.” Would not an extra $200 per week be helpful? Yes, it would suck to have to take some job at $8/hour that you feel is beneath you. But I know that when I was going on my 5th month of unemployment, I was applying EVERYWHERE and for ANYTHING. I had a Master’s and was applying to stock the shelves at Wal-Mart. That is the honest to God truth. So here’s what really inspired me to write this. Yes, the economy isn’t great. But are you? Are you striving for greatness? You can’t turn down jobs and say that you are doing everything you can to survive. I’m not saying she isn’t applying to them. And I’m not saying she’s been offered these lower paying jobs. But if she isn’t applying for anything to which she is remotely qualified, she is in essence, turning them down. Maybe she’s being honest here. Or maybe she knows it would sound terrible if she said she was still just looking at jobs that she felt were worthy of her. I want to believe her, and I have no reason not to, but I still find it hard.
Can you say you’re doing everything you can out of one side of your mouth, and then flatly admit you aren’t out of the other? How many times have you spoken to someone who claims to be doing “all they can” in regards to a particular situation, but after speaking to them for a few moments, you realize they are not doing everything in their power, but only those things they are comfortable with? Or people who waste money everyday because YOLO or some other stupid garbage?
It might be uncomfortable sticking with a budget, but you do it because you know things can change in the blink of an eye. You read more to increase your knowledge. You work harder. You advance your education. You take free classes at the community center to learn new skills. You find ways to make yourself invaluable to your employer. Basically, you do things that suck hard ass sometimes, because you know that while they might not matter now, they could one day.
Now, I know that the program didn’t provide nearly enough information to determine what this woman was doing right, and what she was doing wrong. I was just using her as an example, as unfair as it might seem. If she were to read this, I hope she would know I’m honestly not picking on her, and would do what I could to help her- budget, craft a resume or cover letter, prep for interviews, and search for jobs. I sincerely mean that. And I also didn’t mean for this to serve as some sort of platform for the discussion of unemployment in America. Simply to discuss that personal finance includes preparation, effort, and adaptation.
I know I’ve had help in getting to where I’m at. I’m also fortunate that I have a job. But when it’s you vs. the economy, you have to do everything to make sure you come out on top.
*She sounds very much like a close cousin of mine, who after 2 years of unemployment finally applied at Home Depot. I have no idea what took him so long aside from his pride.
Am I being unfair here? Do you agree? Do you feel like you have to do everything you can when it’s you vs. the economy?