I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew my career was gurgling down the drain: October, 2008.
As a small-time publisher for eight of the twenty years I worked as a reporter and editor, I often went without a salary in order to make sure the folks who worked for us got a fair wage. I jerry-rigged our own computers together in order to operate our small community publication. We watched as parents took pictures of their kids at school events with cameras that were more expensive than the ones we could afford for the newspaper.
My husband and I were on call 24/7 for accidents, disasters, burglaries, unexpected deaths, and shootings. For the eight years we owned the paper, we never took a week off of work. We were responsible for printing every single one of those 400+ weeks. We worked through untimely power outages, freak snowstorms, and our Christmas holidays.
When one of our sons became so ill he had to be hospitalized, we still got the paper out. I worked through two of my own surgeries—including one serious enough to require a blood transfusion. We missed events our kids were involved in thanks to our deadlines. When I found out in 2005 that I had an incurable chronic illness, I blew it off. I had no time to be sick.
And I didn’t complain. I knew that our work required tremendous sacrifices, but since it was a job I believed in, I did whatever I could to make it work. We didn’t win a Pulitzer or even any state awards—not that we ever had the time to enter our stuff into any contests anyway. As long as we did our best, that was enough for us.
But then the crash happened. Although we had invested thousands of dollars back into our business, and we had worked our butts off, we still lost over twenty thousand dollars when the guy who bought us out went bankrupt in early 2009. That was the money we’d earmarked for helping our three sons through college.
So at 43, I found myself out of work and without savings. My husband and I made ends meet working as private contractors for banks that needed on-site inspections of houses in foreclosure. We visited homes owned by gang members. We visited the homes of highly-paid school district officials and wealthy retired people. It became quite clear to us that what had happened in ’08 was affecting people all across the board. Every month there were more addresses on our list.
Every month, it was getting worse. That was what freaked us out. Every month, we would think this has to be it. This is the worst it will get.
After five months looking for a job, I lucked into a part-time teaching position at a community college. I was hired two weeks before classes started—two weeks before my unemployment benefits ran out.
However, as an “adjunct” community college professor, I have little hope of being hired on full-time. Thanks to my state’s precarious financial situation, colleges are filling few (if any) of their open full-time positions. Adjuncts can only get a maximum of a 66% class load per college—any more, you see, would qualify us for expensive benefits that our employers say they cannot afford to pay.
In order to make up for being unemployed for four months again this year (my college insisted I was on “vacation” so I couldn’t qualify for unemployment when I was laid off), I picked up a course at another community college this fall. This college told me that although they wanted me to teach two classes, they could only hire me for one. The dean explained that if I worked three quarters in a row at a 66% load, they would be required to pay me health benefits during the third quarter.
And, of course, they couldn't afford to do that.
So right now, I drive over 550 miles a week to teach at both places. My monthly take-home pay as a professor teaching a full-time load (three classes) is about $3,100. It doesn’t matter that I have a master’s and twenty years of experience in my field--every four months from now until I find a full-time job, I will have to worry about whether I still have a job.
So don’t try to sell me any bullshit about how hard work and bootstraps are all it takes. The corollary to that argument (at least lately) is that welfare/federal spending/taxation is to blame for our financial problems. I know from my experience as a small business owner that taxes were always the least of my worries. I didn’t enjoy paying them, but I never lost a wink of sleep over them. Don't ask me to believe that increasing taxes will put anyone out of business or will keep a small business from hiring more employees.
And don’t try to sell me bullshit about how anyone who has lost their home shouldn’t have one in the first place. Unless you’ve seen figures on the number of people in your own town who are suffering and ashamed because they can’t make their house payments—well, you can stick it, because the truth is that the crap you’ve heard on TV is just too easy for you to ignore. When you hear a news anchor droning on about “millions of people who have lost their homes,” it’s easy to assume that those people all live somewhere else. Or that it's only happening to people who aren’t responsible, people who are criminals, or people who are immigrants, or whomever the piñata du jour is.
The truth is that it’s happening right here—right now—and to your neighbors.
Perhaps we should have done some things differently with our business, but right after the crash, we received word from several major advertisers that they were cutting or drastically reducing their ad budgets. By November 2008, we had $18,000 of our annual ad revenue taken away just as suddenly as if a switch had been flipped. It was a blow that our business never recovered from.
So don’t sell me bullshit about how “more government regulation” won’t solve anything—the fact that there wasn’t enough regulation in the first place is the reason this happened. The fact that a podunk newspaper publisher in rural central Washington felt the shockwave so immediately and so deeply was not lost on me--I knew that if I was in trouble, people further up the food chain had to be in a dreadful situation.
The panic of 2008 cost me my career and every dime we had invested for our sons’ future. It cost us the business we spent eight years building. So don’t tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. I do know. I lived through it.
But I’m not writing this to complain about losing my career—hell, I’m one of the lucky ones. I still have a job, and it's a job I actually even like. My health and our personal finances will allow me to wait the decade it looks like I'll have to wait for a shot at a full-time job with benefits, right? Well, a girl can hope.
I want to complain, though, about friends and relatives whining about taxes—and, worse, lying and bending the rules to avoid paying them. Why is it so hard for people to remember that taxes help pay wages? Am I so valueless? Do people really think that I’m overpaid for the work that I do, or that the work I do is unimportant? Nope, government isn't efficient or perfect. But at least it employs quite a few folks.
I want to complain about the insanity of a culture which has embraced radicalized, end-justifies-the-means ideas about profit. Unbridled greed is more than unseemly. Greed kills people. Greed destroys the planet. We are running out of time to figure this out.
I want to complain about a society that reinforces the old myth that hard work is all you need to be financially successful—a myth that also whispers, of course, that the people who are out of work, losing their homes, or who are underemployed/underpaid are lazy. My own story tells me that’s just not true.
I want to complain about how the idea that people should try to live within their means has become an obsolete concept. In our credit-driven, worship-the-self consumer culture, we are led to believe that our happiness stems from our stuff. This is a lie. Avoiding this trap is honorable, and—dare I say it—patriotic.
I want to complain about how my country is being governed by the money and for the money. This means, among other things, that regular people will now be accepting more and more hardship and risk in order to stay employed—and fewer and fewer of us will be willing to speak up. This is a very, very bad thing.
I submit that personal responsibility—financial and otherwise—is the true backbone of our this country. Responsibility is what gets our kids raised and our old people cared for. Responsibility is what saves lives, mends fences, and keeps the trains on the rails. And this responsibility doesn’t stem from God, city ordinances, our Constitution, political parties, or money.
It comes from people.
We will always have value, no matter how much our houses are worth or whether or not we can find a job. We will always have value because dollars don’t make the world go around—WE do. Our hands. Our strength. Our will, our perseverance, and our blessed cussedness.
Anything is better than our tacit silence, even if it means carrying around a goofy sign with a bunch of other people carrying goofy signs. Even if we’re afraid that we look stupid or that we aren’t saying quite the right thing.
We really can't remain silent any longer.
We know we're in trouble, and we need to see others admitting it. We need to see that other people--a lot of other people--feel the same way. We need to get this talked about, mulled over, and figured out.
We, the people. Imperfect union and all.