Monday, December 11, 2017

There is a catastrophe coming. How do we stop it?

I used to believe that all it took to succeed, at least in the USA, was to work really, really hard and not squander your money. I believed that one could always find a job, always find an affordable home and always pay all of your bills if you just worked and tried. The American Dream - I believed it.

When I graduated from university, I was lucky in that I was not in debt - but I also had no savings whatsoever. I went immediately into an unpaid internship - in fact, I paid to be in that internship, with money from my parents - the fee was to cover the cost of the dorm room I lived in that summer. By the time of my first post-university paid job, I was already a few thousand dollars in debt on a credit card, from living expenses (food and gas and a bathing suit). I worked full-time, I walked to work, I lived in a studio apartment, I went without a TV and cable, I accepted furniture donations from friends getting rid of a futon frame, table or chair rather than buying furniture, I used dishes, cookware and silverware that was extra from my Mom's house, and by the end of two years, I was still a few more thousand dollars in debt. Then I moved to California for work. I worked full-time, I shared a house with housemates and then, at 26, got a one-bedroom apartment in the back of a shack of a house - the floor tilted. I drove a paid-for used car - my first car, also used, also paid for, had been stolen when I was 24. I never, ever shopped for leisure, never fell for a rent-to-own or paycheck cashing service and wasn't ashamed to buy used clothes. And by the time I was 30, still driving car number 2, I was more than $50,000 in debt - just from living.

In that time of debt, I was always able to find a place to live. I thought anyone who really wanted to could. An ad for an available apartment would be put in the newspaper (yes, we had those back then), and there would be half a dozen people standing outside at 8 a.m. to meet the landlord at 9. Twice, when there were at least a dozen other applicants to live in an apartment, many of whom got there before me, I was able to convince the landlord that I would be the best tenant EVER, and I got the place I wanted. But it was only years later that I started to wonder what happened to all those other people that were just as desperate to find a place as me. It wasn't like there were several other places they could choose from. I realized at long last: I'd just been lucky.

Everyone I knew at that age was carrying about that much debt as well. Most of their debt was university debt. We just all accepted that this was the way it was: you are in debt until you hit 40 or so. You slowly get out of it over the years, but you just keep working hard and, eventually, everything is okay. For me, I did get out of debt, through putting myself on a strict budget, learning to cook, renting out a room in my house, being lucky and having no substantial health issues when I had no insurance nor any unbudgeted-for car problems, always being fully employed and, eventually, landing the high-paying job that lifted me out of debt and allowed me to, at last, start saving for retirement. I was about 38 when I got out of debt - and that was five-10 years sooner than I thought I would.

And here's the thing: I know now I was lucky. Things are way, way worse now than they were then. People are desperate for rentals all over this country, particularly in places like Portland, Oregon and the San Francisco Bay Area / Silicon Valley. People with full-time jobs are living in their cars and RVs, driving around each day after work looking for a place to park for the night. I love Judge Judy, but she drives me crazy when she tells people living in substandard rentals that are unhappy with their landlord's inaction, "Move!" There's nowhere to move to, Judge! And while lots of jobs are being created, they are low-paying jobs. You cannot drive to a job, nor take the bus to a job, on $10 an hour, and get out of debt, let alone stay out of it and save. Have you seen the longer and longer lines of people going to food banks, the growing number of seniors signing up for Meals On Wheels? If you haven't, then you are not paying attention.

The American Dream is a myth for millions of people. Millions of hard-working people in the USA are one medical emergency or one car emergency or one house disaster away from losing a home, losing a car, losing a livelihood. And there too many people that have no home at all. 

I know that, if I were 30 years younger, following the same path I followed back in the 1990s, I would be living in an RV or my car now. I would. Or I would have to move back in with my mother, who lives several hundred miles from me, and the only jobs availble to me there would be $10-$15 an hour jobs. And I would be lucky to have that safety net.

It just so happened that, when I was ready, financially and personally, to buy a house for the first time in my life, the world was in a recession. Had I been ready one year before, or one year after, my story would be VERY different. My husband and I looked at more than 30 houses before we bought this one. We could take our time - we were in no rush. We got the house we wanted, without any competition from anyone else. We knew this was a very special moment in time. None of that happened because we are especially smart or savvy or hardworking; we are all those things, but our ease in buying an affordable home happened because we were lucky.

Now, just four years later, our house is valued twice as much as we paid for it. Small homes in our city sell within weeks, sometimes days, and any size home in Portland has potential buyers lined up from the moment of sale announcement. Rentals of any size are a piping hot commodity anywhere in this area, with people posting repeated online via Facebook, begging friends to help them find a place to live. We could easily rent out the extra bedroom in our house regularly on AirB & B - and we're seriously thinking about it.

People so desperate financially and regarding a place to live keeps them away from paying attention to politics. It's impossible to register to vote if you don't have a permanent residence. Debt and financial worries are keeping people away from the polls.

How to change this? This situation should be on the TV news every night, it should be talked about daily in every major newspaper and online media outlet. But it's not.

Every election, I get involved with get-out-the-vote efforts. But what else can I do? What is the Democratic Party doing to address this growing catastrophe - that the Republicans say isn't actually happening at all?

Now what? I sometimes dream of workshops all over the country that teach people how to avoid debt, how to get out of debt, how to stay away from predatory lenders, etc. But, honestly, even that isn't enough. So many people in debt are NOT there because they didn't spend their money wisely. Also, how does that help someone living in a car?

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