Burned Out at 30: The Rise of the New Underclass

This is part 2 of a series on economic injustice. Click here to read the introduction.
“Stop punchin’ the clock
Punch it with all of your rage
Put the men in office
For a minimum wage
Rats, fighting for scraps
Siphon the gas from your tank
Left your pockets empty
As they laughed at the bank
They speak about draws
But make no mistake –
They’re shaking your head while they spit in your face!” –Billy Talent, Viking Death March

It was a regular trip to the DMV. My partner and I share a bus pass for the various errands we need to run, and for him to get to work (I work from home). I slipped it out of his wallet, brushed my hair, pulled on shoes, kissed him gently, and reminded him via Facebook messenger where I’d gone in case he woke early and got worried.

I couldn’t text him, because we haven’t been able to refill his phone in a couple of months. It’s not too much a hassle, just an inconvenience and worry before he logs in to his work wi-fi to tell me he’s arrived safe. What takes a car twelve minutes can take him anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour, and the walks between bust stops are painful with his undiagnosed but chronic pain. Late shifts and insomnia keep him awake at all hours.

We have so much to be grateful for, though. After two months of sleeping on stage blocks in a garage, and a third month sleeping on the floor of our newly acquired apartment, having a mattress is doing wonders for our pain. I chuckle ruefully as I take my depression prescription – the government can give us pills, but not stability. I don’t blame the government or my parents so much as human nature for these inconveniences, but the lack of stability I’ve had is one I am not alone in experiencing in this country. It is only because I am lucky enough to have very kind people willing to help me, that I have a roof over my head, and a new mattress to cushion me from the hard floor. We’re investing bit by bit and piecing together rent each month, asking for help and taking as many freelance and odd jobs as possible.

I puff on my vape pen, a gifted hand-me-down from a friend. It gives me some gentle and sweet relief from my morning anxiety, and the soreness of adjusting to a new mattress for the first time in a while (well, I’m always in pain, it’s just pronounced this week, and the mattress is already a welcome comfort that will grow softer). I scroll through Facebook, have a few morning rants, and read half a chapter of a book on my library app. Someone from across the world gave me an Amazon gift card. I’ve got one paperback on child psychology on its way in the mail, and I’m still deciding which precious e-books I’ll buy with the rest of it – ones that are hard to find through public libraries.

It’s not called “DMV” in this state, but I knew I’d found it when I walked into a short and unattractive building, which greeted guests with a large “PICK A NUMBER” dispenser upon entering its overly secure double doors. I was not prompted to sit in a disjointed room with haphazard rows of plastic chairs that promised a lengthy wait, but I did so. There were people with clipboards acting more important than their paychecks would ever reflect, being pestered while various lines sprawled around the chairs. Even the effeminate, computerized voice that announced numbers sounded like it had given up on trying to sound cheerful.

I waited half an hour, reading some more – no harm done. We’d saved $20 after covering bills and needs for me to renew my driver’s license. We don’t have a car for me to drive, I really only need it to acquire tobacco, weed, and alcohol. I don’t even drink, so the alcohol one I rarely use (I’m not religiously opposed to ever touching An Alcohol but I’m only in the mood like twice a year). Before my number was called, someone came around to answer questions, and we realized I had none of the paperwork necessary to prove my residency.

Updating my address with USPS would cost $1 to my debit card, which has covered basic needs already, and my birthday will have passed by the time it arrives, when my license needs to be renewed. I ask if I can call my leasing office – I’ve just moved into a local apartment complex. We go through everything on the list, and finally find one document I qualify to prove I am an adult over the age of 21, living in the United States of America. Why? I’m a virtual freelancer – I don’t receive paychecks from a local address. I’m on a shared lease, because I can’t afford a whole apartment on my apparent worth to society alone, so a utility bill is out.

I smiled politely. I’ve worked customer service, I know he can’t change the list, only help people with it. “I just had one last question, it said online that renewing your license costs $20, is that correct?”

His face dropped only slightly, his customer-service game face was on and I knew it well. “Um, it’s $89, ma’am.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t have been able to get it then, anyway,” I said, trying to take it well.

“Yeah, because it’s actually $35 for just the application fee, then $54 for the license itself.”

I left, crushed. I’d rushed out the door for a place in line and skipped my breakfast for something that’s compulsory in my country. If I acquire tobacco, borrow a friend’s car, smoke marijuana, or drink alcohol, I must be able to prove that I am responsible. Fair enough! I want to live in a place where there are consequences for doing all of the above at the same time. Sure, we should all carry licenses, you only have to update them every few years. The anarchist in me prickles at the surveillance, but I know I won’t live to see Earth become Alderaan.

Now I’m being told that if I don’t fork up another ninety bucks on top of what feels like shoveling cash onto a raging fire, I can’t buy any recreational drugs or drive.

This is literally a price trap – damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. I could possibly scrounge up $90 extra, but it’s impossible to explain to middle-class people what life below the poverty line is like. But if I don’t replace my identification card, I can’t legally buy or sell or do specific things. The punishment for breaking this law, which is out of the question, is more debt for someone like me, but it’s a slap on the wrist compared to what a person of color in the same situation could expect. In the United States today, marijuana is now legal in states where prisoners are serving lengthy sentences for what free pedestrians do every day.

Poor, young people like me, who are both underemployed and living with invisible physical or mental illness, don’t have $89 to spare. That price tag reads as a giant “No.” I can’t have it, even though I am a responsible adult nearing 26 years old who works as hard as my body allows, knows how to drive a vehicle according to local laws, and may need to in certain situations. I smoke to help with my symptoms, but I don’t mix driving and being under the influence. I can easily take a test, pass their vision check, answer questions, and provide information. This would be even more difficult for someone without my privilege, I think ruefully, but even for me, this is out of reach. You can drown in two feet or twelve feet of water, as they say.

Walking is getting harder for my man as his pain spreads, and we only finally got him in to see a doctor three days ago. I walked the five blocks and found the bus back, plus the final few blocks once the bus dropped me at the nearest intersection, in an angry, disappointed haze. There had been one rolled cigarette left that morning, and I told my love that I’d pick up some tubes – $5 for 200 of them, so cheap that, contrary to popular belief, the addiction is cheaper than caffeine. Brand-name packs of cigarettes are an occasional splurge these days.

“It’s robbery,” I fumed to my partner. I was shaking as I finally rolled the first cigarette from the new box of tubes, having wasted three hours that could have been better spent writing or applying for more freelance jobs. I’m trying to gain weight after years of this nonsense harming my weight, so I make a chocolate-banana-strawberry-yogurt protein milkshake, in our little $20 blender, replaced last week because cheap blenders burn out or fray, like the last one did. He said, “It is, they’re squeezing us dry. You should blog about this little injustice, because it’s exactly what is constantly getting in our way.”

He’s not wrong. The trouble finding the right paperwork, and the steep price, shows that I don’t fit their system, one that is older than me, but has already aged and exhausted me. So I will wait, and just keep doing what I’m doing.

Waiting in the gridlock has taken such a toll on me, I often wonder how much of the trauma is my upbringing, or my inability to get stable enough to recover properly. Every time I find a doctor, I need to be sure I’m going to be living in the area for the next few months while I wait for an appointment. And I’m one of the lucky ones – I’m white and I have a platform that many do not. No matter how many people donate to my Patreon, however, that money is still being funneled back into the system built on hundreds of years of exploitation. I’m just exploiting the more fortunate back a little, and there are some wonderful people in the world who don’t mind that, because they recognize that the system is broken, and it is an act of rebellion to support art and real solutions in these unstable times, in any way you can.

The unemployment rate is incredibly low, despite the grim tightness with which so many of us are clutching our wallets. But the majority of the employed are underemployed in this economy. Anyone who has been optimistic since 2008 hasn’t been paying attention, and from what I hear from locals and travelers, a lot of Europe and many other parts of the world are watching their infrastructures implode in different ways in the shock of the past decade. The years between 2008 and 2018 have, for many of us, felt like one long, miserable, exhausted road trip with no destination, sleeping in our breaking-down cars periodically as we go.

2015 feels like a long time ago to many people my age, but it was then that the CEO of Gallup criticized the US government’s data gathering techniques, and the media’s eagerness to celebrate a low unemployment rate. He wrote:

“The media loves a comeback story, the White House wants to score political points and Wall Street would like you to stay in the market. None of them will tell you this: If you, a family member or anyone is unemployed and has subsequently given up on finding a job — if you are so hopelessly out of work that you’ve stopped looking over the past four weeks — the Department of Labor doesn’t count you as unemployed. That’s right. While you are as unemployed as one can possibly be, and tragically may never find work again, you are not counted in the figure we see relentlessly in the news — currently [2015] 5.6%. Right now, as many as 30 million Americans are either out of work or severely underemployed. Trust me, the vast majority of them aren’t throwing parties to toast ‘falling’ unemployment.”

I’ve been given countless tidbits of useless advice. “Get a job” becomes “get a better job” in a matter of moments when I try to explain that poverty has no easy fix, no reliable solution. Even though the evidence backs me up – the book I’m reading is a new release from June 26th of this year, called “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America” by Alissa Quart. A part of the overworked vanishing middle class herself, she addresses in 320 dense pages how bad it already is and is projected to get. In the introduction, she describes how her parents could afford full-time jobs with benefits – “nothing fancy,” as she puts it, but nothing like the housing crisis that’s now facing the majority of Americans. After assessing her own disappointment in reaching her mid-forties and feeling crushed by impossible debt, she writes,

“I felt juvenile, but also suspected that the game was rigged – that unlike me, the very wealthy who now filled the city of my birth didn’t lacerate themselves for small missteps. This personal experience was partly how I arrived at the mantra of this book: It’s not your fault. It seems key to me – to recognize that feeling in the red or on the edge isn’t all your personal problem. And while some psychological analysis or boosts may help, the problem of not being able to afford to live in America can’t be cured by self-help mantras. It can’t be mended simply by creating a resume that utilizes several colors of printer ink or a regimen of cleansing green juices. The problem is systemic.”

Why a low unemployment rate no longer means domestic success

Because the unemployment rate was such a major factor in the Great Depression, with the number of unemployed Americans reaching 25%,[1] it should come as no surprise that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is burying the numbers on current employment.[2] Having a part-time job isn’t a number recorded on this year’s employment situation summary – rather, the dividing line of part-time work is just whether people are working more or less than 35 hours a week – regardless of whether they are working multiple jobs to do so.[3] That means when BLS also reported in 2017 that only 19% of part-time workers have access to medical care benefits, they are not gathering or reporting data on how many people are actually working multiple part-time jobs without benefits.[4] They know how many people are working multiple jobs, though: 7.5 million.[5] In their technical note on that report, BLS admits that it does not include the self-employed in its percentages,[6] despite the fact that we make up 20% of the job market today.[7]

An independent (but oft-cited) study predicts that freelancers will make up the majority of the economy by 2027.[8] By contrast, people who HAVE jobs are fairly confident that they’ll be able to keep their jobs in the near future.[9] But those who are piecing together a living with odd jobs are struggling with inconsistent budgets month to month.[10] The problem of pay equality is very hidden, especially because only 58% of workers are paid by the hour,[11] leaving the remaining workers’ compensation in the dark: how fair are contracts? I once got paid $1,800 for two and a half months of 70-hour weeks, and the contract stated that any necessities required from my employer – sold to me by my employer – would come out of my paycheck.

It’s also expected to get worse. One oft-overlooked fact is that while the unemployment rate is incredibly low, another number is growing at an exponential rate: people who are just done looking for work, exiting the workforce for a multitude of reasons. A blogger’s analysis reports on this buried demographic from the 2016 BLS report:[12]

From January 2000 to January 2016, the number of citizens Employed rose by 11%, Not-in-Labor Force by 37% and U6 Unemployed by 57%.  Since the end of the Great Recession in 2010 through 2015, Unemployment dropped by 40% but voluntary workforce departures continued a steady exodus reaching a high watermark of 94 million able-bodied adults who choose not to work.  If this trend remains unabated, Jobenomics forecasts that America’s able-bodied, not-working population could equal its working population by the mid-2020s, or sooner if the United States slips into recession.

By not including the able-bodied, not-working population in State of the Union deliberations, policymakers play a statistical shell game with American citizens who cannot be expected to comprehend the intricacies of labor force statistics. Sooner or later, the American people will figure out that it is theoretically possible for the United States to have a zero rate of unemployment while simultaneously having zero people employed in the labor force. The reason for this disquieting statement involves how government measures unemployment. To be classified as unemployed, one must be looking for work. Able-bodied Americans who quit looking and voluntarily depart the workforce are accounted in the Not-in-Labor-Force category—a category that is generally never mentioned in politics or the media.

The U6 category is defined as follows:

The four survey questions that government interviewers use to record a person as unemployed include… (1) Do you currently want a job, either full or part time? (2) What is the main reason you were not looking for work during the last 4 weeks? (3) Did you look for work at any time during the last 12 months? (4) Last week, could you have started a job if one had been offered?” If a person answers yes to all four questions, that person is considered Unemployed. If the answer is no to any of these questions, that person is enrolled in the Not-in-Labor-Force category.

According to CNBC, economists have no idea what these 95 million not-in-labor-force people are doing.[13] The report includes some theoretical references that these people would just rather rely on benefits than work, but that doesn’t account for much – you can’t get unemployment benefits without actively seeking work; and only 41 million people are on food stamps,[14] many of them employed or disabled. These survey questions being asked leave far too many questions unanswered. Question 2 isn’t a yes-or-no question. I’ve been asked these questions many times while applying for benefits, and nobody bothers to ask me for specifics. I’d be happy to inform them, though, that I couldn’t start if I’d been offered a job the week my car broke down, or I had no money for bus fare, or I was unable to meet dress code standards due to not having expensive enough clothes, or I was sick, or I was in debilitating pain.

Due to these wild inaccuracies from our government, it is nearly impossible to gather information on the state of the union. However, many independent researchers and organizations are working hard to measure what inflation, and the new value of a job, look like. The organization Equality of Opportunity released numbers it called “The Fading American Dream” in 2016, showing that people born in the 1980s are about half as likely as those born in the 1940s to make more money than their parents did.[15] They also showed that in the southeast corner of the United States, upward mobility is gridlocked – people in the lowest 20% income bracket have a less than 5% chance of reaching the top 20% income bracket.[16]

All these numbers simply say this: working hard, and getting a job, may have been a route to success 60 or even 30 years ago, but it is now nearly impossible. That said, it was never an option for people with disabilities, people without access to so-called skilled work, and it’s still not an option for the septuagenarian workforce who seem to have missed their chance to get rich – and are working alongside millennials in low-wage positions past the age of 70, unable to retire.[17] And that’s not even to mention how the retirement crisis looks for people of color.[18] When I read the September 2017 recent report The Road to Zero Wealth, I wrote the following on my Facebook:

Holy shit this needs so much more coverage but it has been BURIED beneath headlines.

“While households of color are projected to reach majority status by 2043, if the racial wealth divide is left unaddressed, median Black household wealth is on a path to hit zero by 2053 and median Latino household wealth is projected to hit zero twenty years later. In sharp contrast, median White household wealth would climb to $137,000 by 2053…Even earning a middle-class income does not guarantee a family middle-class economic security, according to the report. White households in the middle income quintile—those earning $37,201-61,328 annually—own nearly eight times as much wealth ($86,100) as Black middle-income earners ($11,000) and ten times that of their Latino counterparts ($8,600).”

If you’re white and you think you couldn’t get by with $8,000-$10,000 in the bank, check your fucking privilege.

I have so much more to say, but I think this covers a sizable chunk of turning all this research into blog-size pieces.

Want to support my ad-free, anti-establishment work? I have a Patreon for that!


Sources Cited:

[1] https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1510

[2] https://www.advisorperspectives.com/dshort/updates/2018/02/05/the-ratio-of-part-time-employed-january-2018

[3] https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm

[4] https://www.bls.gov/news.release/ebs2.tn.htm

[5] https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat36.pdf

[6] https://www.bls.gov/news.release/ebs2.tn.htm

[7] https://www.npr.org/2018/01/22/578825135/rise-of-the-contract-workers-work-is-different-now

[8] https://www.upwork.com/i/freelancing-in-america/2017/

[9] https://www.thestreet.com/story/13141180/1/job-security-confidence-is-soaring-but-americans-still-dont-have-the-right-skills.html

[10] https://www.npr.org/2018/01/22/578825135/rise-of-the-contract-workers-work-is-different-now

[11] https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/minimum-wage/2016/home.htm

[12] http://jobenomicsblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/2016-U.S.-Labor-Force-State-of-the-Union-11-Jan-2015.pdf

[13] https://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/02/95-million-american-workers-not-in-us-labor-force.html

[14] https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/pd/34SNAPmonthly.pdf

[15] http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/assets/documents/abs_mobility_summary.pdf

[16]https://www.stlouisfed.org/~/media/Files/PDFs/Community%20Development/EconMobilityPapers/Section1/EconMobility_1-1Chetty_508.pdf?d=l&s=tw

[17] http://theweek.com/articles/749428/americas-reluctant-septuagenarian-workforce

[18] https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2017/03/09/the-retirement-crisis-facing-african-americans/#48821564f5ba