When I launched into my adult life as a rather average American woman, I held dear all the illusions that I could work my way out of any financial or societal calamity if only I had the spirit and drive to do so. I was so wrong. I was born into a working class family where my parents struggled and worked hard to make sure I was positioned with an education and life experiences to live a better life than they had and perhaps struggle a little less. It was all for naught.
No matter whether a Republican like Nixon, Ford, Reagan or Bush -- either one -- or Democrats like Carter, Clinton, or Obama, the real chances were always next to none that I would actually “make it” and also live a life of purpose I so desperately wanted. I once read a text in college about how difficult it really is for most people in America to break out of their native-born class standings. I didn’t really care much about that as my mom and dad did a wonderful job of providing all that I needed and then some. I would have been really happy if my hard work had been enough to secure that standard of living. But my work was all for naught too.
My dreams weren’t outrageous and of great wealth. No, my dreams were of a comfortable home, food on the table, children, a meaningful job, and perhaps the “freedom from want” signaled by not being terrified that I wouldn’t make it to my next paycheck. I wanted to pay the bills without fretting. I wanted an occasional vacation from work. And I looked forward to a little time in retirement with enough health left to spend with my husband, kids and grandkids before leaving this earth. Now I am so tired in my late 50s of the struggle and the futility of trying to be heard, that I am angry beyond belief.
Nothing in my dream was tied to massive wealth or domination over other people. But that killer instinct certainly is present in many people I know. That’s the instinct I apparently lack – the need to be rich and control others even if it means allowing those many others to suffer and die for my personal achievement.
My real situation is like millions of other people in America. I’ve worked hard – very hard. Vacations were almost non-existent as I either needed to use that time for sick leave when I needed to for children, my husband, or myself or I “banked” the time knowing the next financial storm would come. Retirement security? Come on. When the horrible and crushing moments of healthcare crisis came and funds were needed to pay deductible, co-insurances, and co-pays or other bills, any retirement funds were cashed out. I have had to start from scratch so many times on retirement savings that I know now that Social Security will likely be my only retirement resource – unless that is stripped away too. Home ownership? Yeah, way back in the 70s, 80s, and early 1990s. Then it was all gone. Still working hard and even harder than ever, it was all lost. I rent now. I will rent ever more. How will I pay these rents in retirement? I won’t.
“Death is one of two things. Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another,” Socrates in “Plato’s Apology,” as I once read. I always read it to be that either we have sweet and eternal repose or there is something very different awaiting us after death. While my faith allows me to trust in the latter, my life on this earth has made me sometimes long for either.
The American system – both our healthcare system and our broader economic policies – have been stacked against many of us from the start. And what makes me angriest now is that I instilled in my own children the same notion my parents instilled in me that hard work and ingenuity will get you where you want to go. I lied to them, and I didn’t mean to. Hard work might keep you afloat at times, but in these United States, it’s just not enough. Work 50 years? Believe you’ll retire in dignity? It’s an illusion. It’s a lie.
Those in the classes above us want it kept that way, and they will kill to do so. Whether it’s a slow and grueling death like mine through healthcare crisis, debt, and bankruptcy due to a healthcare system singularly beholden to profit or the swift and sure deaths in wars waged for profit or the brutality of what we do to our poor, the class in control doesn’t care how they stay on top. They do not care about you and they do not care about me.
Our ruling class doesn’t care that many people are disengaged from the process. The ruling class counts on that. They do not want you and me engaged, demanding a Medicare for all for life system or demanding a Robin Hood Tax. They know – they’ve studied us. They know we are born, we grow up believing we can make a difference, we spend a lifetime working for them and making them rich, fighting to stay afloat, and we wait to die nearly penniless having been lorded over by those without a conscience who could have changed our conditions and chose not to in favor or their own aggrandizement.
So, I am dead woman working. Like millions of my fellow Americans. I look at my bank account every day, wonder how long it will hold out, and pray to die with at least enough to have cremation funds available. Some American dream, eh? It’s not even a nightmare. It’s just a lousy reality.
Donna Smith is a community organizer for National Nurses United (the new national arm of the California Nurses Association) and National Co-Chair for the Progressive Democrats of America Healthcare Not Warfare campaign.