Readers Write: 'Strapped' for Adulthood

Jodie Janella Horn's recent review of Tamara Draut's book "Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead," sparked one of the most in-depth dialogues the AlterNet community has ever seen. With some 330 comments, it was evident Draut had touched on an issue that resonated with many of AlterNet's readers.

One notable theme was that Draut's book struck a nerve with readers of all ages -- not just those in their 20s and 30s. Lizmv started off the conversation by noting that, "As a 51-year-old single mom whose kids are now finally out of the house, I am still struggling to pay off the debt incurred by dentist bills and helping the kids get through college as best I could. I have just come to the conclusion that I will NEVER own a home, so I will never have that security. I expect to work until the day I die."

Another embittered reader, monkeywrench, was "retired prematurely" explored the difficulty of making ends meet when you are "overqualified," which is a euphemism for "too old, with looming health and pension issues." And, just try to enter another field at a low level as a middle-aged newbie -- employers think of you as retarded; otherwise, why would you be shooting so low?

McJulie wondered, "What in hell is America going to do with 50 million pissed-off ex-employees and starving 'retirees'?" Suggesting that readers unite in a "revolution with the oldest revolutionaries in history."

The younder generation volunteered many personal accounts that bolstered Draut's argument. hbw noted that even modest lifestyles can leave Americans in debt: "We are not taking expensive vacations. No big-screen TV, no boat, no drug habits. Well, some prescription stuff, with a modest co-pay. We have a 3-bedroom home in an older neighborhood. We have one child, with all his incidental school expenses. I take Metro to work, carrying a cheap sack lunch in my backpack. In sum, we are not extravagant, but we are in hock up to our collective eyeballs."

AndyF thought there might be a little too much whining going on. "Oh, come on," he writes. "Please start to look closely at your expenses and separate needs from wants, and start to cut back on the wants. You've chosen to live in an expensive urban area and complain about it. My wife and I made the decision to live a life which we enjoy and doesn't require a lot of income. This meant leaving expensive urban areas behind and bringing up our children in a rural area."

Where one chooses to live, and the subsequent costs of transportation, were both factors brought up time and again throughout the discussion.

While AndyF encouraged moving to a rural area in order to cut expenses, other readers found this to be an unrealistic option. geming noted that "Some of us do social justice work that requires that we live in the urban areas we serve. It really isn't a choice for me to move out and live in a nice place and then commute back. And frankly, as a person of color with a culture different than average rural or suburban folks, I really don't consider it a choice to move where nobody looks like me."

jasonix adds that, while the cost of living is lower, a well-paying job may be hard to come by: "I investigated Erie, Pa., and western/central N.Y., where house prices are all below $50,000. If I could make $50,000 there, I'd be in swell shape. But try taking a look in the help wanteds -- the only jobs are for Wal-mart (minimum wage) and farm workers ($7.50)."

Some readers confessed that they had been considering moving to Canada, where they felt their tax money would more directly benefit them. ssegallmd wrote: "Sure, we Americans pay taxes in the same ballpark as citizens of traditional socialist governments. That's because we live in a welfare state. It's just that that it's not the general welfare or the welfare of its needy that America's government is interested in, but rather, the welfare of the greedy (i.e., very wealthy)." okcamp said simply, "The way I see it, my grandparents left their motherlands to come here for a better life, and I likely will do the same."

jasonix took the dialogue global, writing that his sister moved to India and "has a better life than she did here in the states, where she worked 80 hours a week for a gross pay of less than $50K. Now that she lives in India with her husband, who outsourced himself rather than lose his job here, she can be a stay-at-home mom, raise her children, send them to private school and go back to college for an advanced degree."

abbie from the U.K. joined the conversation, saying, "I have never been more thankful in my life. When I compare our situation to the sheer grinding poverty and desperation a family like ours would be experiencing in the U.S., it almost makes me wish I had a deity to thank. I am a sick former teenage mother with a formerly very sick child and a husband who makes minimum wage, and we have no debt, no looming financial catastrophe with the potential to ruin our lives, and our standard of living seems to be equal to that of most single young professionals posting here. That's just wrong."

drone addressed all those busy packing their bags, entreating them to stick around to fight the good fight: "I considered the same thing, but the U.S. really can't be lost to these punks. They'll follow you around the globe if unchecked. The fight's here, and the fight's now. The right's been spoiling for this for years. I say we give it to them. Hard. Like any other bully, they're cowards when they have to get in the ring themselves. They won't hold up. Give 'em the wood."

Some readers joining the conversation thought that the discussed economic problems have more to do with young Americans' expectations than realities. tone writes, "You guys can't see the forest for the trees. You want the right job in the right town with the right house and a kid or two to complete the package. You also expect that that job will automatically pay enough for you to have all those things. What we need to realize is that all those things are not birthrights. Time to let go of the myth of the American dream, folks."

crusty thought similarly: "Things are more expensive then they used to be, it is true, but nothing a little nose-to-the-grindstone thinking and action wont take care of. I still believe that if you want something badly enough there are ways of doing it -- creativity, financial prudence and true grit and determination are the stuff that dreams are made of."

The American dream is largely based on the notion that the United States is a meritocracy. Yet some of our readers pursuing the American dream via higher education felt that their knowledge was highly undervalued. owleyes laments, "We went to college, we found ourselves a profession; we did everything we thought we were supposed to do, and in the end it wasn't enough. I make $30K a year teaching high school. I love it and would never consider switching careers. Indeed, I feel very lucky to have the job I do. But I don't own a house or a car, and may not ever."

artkansas, using those higher-level math skills, conducted an "income/inflation inventory" in which he discovered that "despite getting a degree and 25 years of experience and continued study in a high-tech field, I was paid in real terms about what I made in my first minimum-wage job after high school."

cultureindustries, returning to graduate school after 20 years of working, figured out that "in the '70s I could pay my tuition with about 225 minimum-wage hours of work. Now my tuition is nearly 3,000 minimum-wage hours. In other words, you can't make enough money in a year of working more than full time to make the nut."

So, it seems we're all in debt. But how responsible are we for digging the holes we're in? laura153 says she has "the same story as everyone above. Five years out of college, lots of student loan debt. Good job, low pay. Live in L.A., can't afford to live. Blah, blah, blah. What I 'm not hearing, though, is anyone taking responsibility. I'll be the first to admit that racking up $20,000 in credit card debt when I was unemployed for a year and a half was a BAD idea. Even though it was for things like gas, groceries, electric bills, etc. And even though all those companies that I leaned on to provide me the credit to make those purchases are making an absolute fortune off the interest and fees they're charging me, I'm done whining about it."

johnjord thinks that college grads should take a more serious look at going into a trade. "I know that the old adage that without college you can't get anywhere … But there is an alternative way of making a living. It's called a trade. Funny I am as well off or better off than many of my peers who went to college."

NthnBrazil broke up the party by proclaiming, "I am mystified." Laying out his and his wife's earnings and expenditures, NthnBrazil wonders why it is that, as a member of the "lower middle" class, he feels that he's doing better than many of the other AlterNet commenters.

kelly.nickell shares a personal story in response: "In 2001, I too had a wife, a good job, a home, and was thankful for it. The job went away, then the wife, the home, then the savings, then 401K, then the credit cards, the self-esteem. Throw in a few natural disasters, a few self-inflicted bad decisions, a few incurable diseases, death, lack of health insurance, no credit."

While kelly.nickell's was a lengthy list of woe, ClaudLaw noted that the principle behind the story was applicable to nearly everyone: "We are all a paycheck away from disaster. Period. Ninety-five percent of us are just one medical bill, one layoff, one natural disaster, or one ill-informed decision away from poverty."

Perpetually flirting with financial disaster was most unappealing to those young readers considering children. Many commenters noted that adding children to the equation would simply break the bank. Fawkes13 writes, "I have a great life, some debt, I own my own home and make about $45K a year. I see myself enjoying myself as much as I do now -- going out to eat, international travel, movies, Manhattan nightlife once in a while, etc. But only if I NEVER have kids … What kind of "family values" make it basically impossible to afford children?

538T wanted to talk solutions -- and proposed community living as one of the few feasible options. "I work full-time, study full-time, and live below the poverty line, but I live a pretty comfortable life. Along with seven other like-minded students, I live in a nice, big house ran as an urban collective. Individually, we don't make enough to eat or pay rent, but by pooling our resources together, we prosper (it's all about the economies of scale)."

Project on Student Debt ended the discussion by pointing out, "The number of comments that have been made here is a testament to the magnitude of this problem. We all feel its effects, and it's about time that people started talking about it."

We couldn't agree more.

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