“I’m stuck and I feel like I’m stuck forever,” says Heather, 20, from West Plains.
“It’s difficult to start and I don't know where to start. I’m afraid time is running out so quickly, I can’t believe it," says Andreea, 27, from Bucharest, Romania.
Heather, a freshman at a junior college in West Plains, wants to get out of the poverty her family has always lived in and build a good life for herself. But she fears she lacks the guidance, the tools and the work ethic to get it all going.
Andreea, an ophthalmology intern in Bucharest, wants to get out of the country where she earns roughly $300 a month after eight years of medical studies. She hopes to immigrate to France or Belgium with her boyfriend. But, she fears she won’t be lucky enough or good enough to compete with the thousands of other Romanian doctors hunting for jobs abroad.
Andreea knows that nothing better than what she currently has will be offered to her if she stays. Society has taught her that since her first year of medical school.
Heather’s society taught her something different. It promised her that if she works hard enough she will get a well-paying job, be able to buy a house and a car, and have a comfortable life together with a loving family. Society taught Heather the American Dream.
Disappointed in the dream
In 40 years of communism, Romanians learned that nothing would be offered to them. My parents’ generation waited in lines for rationed food and when they got sick of it, they made a revolution. After the fall of communism in 1989, they worked hard to make sure that we, their children, would have better opportunities than they did. Their ambition was a better life for them and for us. Our ambition was to change the system.
Many of us grew up with a glimpse of how life is abroad, and we wanted that for ourselves. We wanted a civilized society, politicians who respected us, good jobs and the chance to see the world. When we figured out it wouldn’t happen, many of us left. I remember the summer of 2010, after the Romanian government cut public salaries by 25 percent and increased taxes. Every month, my friends and I would have two or three farewell parties for friends who were emigrating. Young and educated people left the country, disappointed in a dream that was not clearly defined in the first place, to find a better life that they could only afterwards describe.
Millennials in the United States had a different perspective. They were raised in times of economic growth, in a country that both they and their parents saw as the best place in the world: a place where anyone who wanted to could work, achieve what they wanted and make a difference.
The Great Recession turned young Americans’ plans upside down, but the American Dream remained a strong concept. During the months I spent working on the American Next Project together with a team of reporters from the Missouri School of Journalism, traveling across the state and gathering young people’s definitions of the American Dream, I got to listen to the hopes and wishes of about 20 young Missourians. Their dreams came in different shapes and sizes. For some, owning a house was not a priority, mostly because they couldn’t fathom taking out extra loans on top of their unpaid student loans. Others placed family and friends — not work — at the center of their lives. Yet others wanted to live off the land and use as few resources as possible.
But, almost all of them believed in the underlying principle of the American Dream: that through hard work and perseverance you can achieve anything you want in life.
Yet here’s the peculiar thing: Most of the young people I talked to believed in the American Dream theoretically but didn’t think they could live it themselves. Yes, in theory, young people can climb the social and economic ladder if they work hard enough. But not them, personally. As individuals, they felt they lacked the opportunities and the support they needed — from their parents, from their schools, from society.
So I wonder, if the American Dream is a valid concept, but young people don’t believe they can personally achieve it, does it still exist?
The poverty divide
The first TV series that aired on Romanian public television after the fall of communism was "Dallas." I grew up thinking that all Americans are rich and wear cowboy hats. I later found out that both were false. When I came to the United States in the summer of 2011, I didn’t expect poverty to be one of the biggest issues on people’s minds and in the public officials’ discourses.
Poverty in the United States is different than poverty in Romania. I first realized that when I was covering a story for the Columbia Missourian about Christmas gift donations at a local church. I saw poor people loading their presents into huge trucks. In Romania, someone with a car, especially a big car, wouldn’t be considered poor. In Romania, people who don’t have anything to eat are considered poor.
Another difference that I saw between the U.S. and Romania is the so-called “culture of poverty.” In Romania, there are certain categories of people who are often very poor: Gypsies, people living in remote villages, retired people or people living in cities and doing menial jobs. The government supports the unemployed for a few months, after which it cuts the financial aid and expects them to get jobs. In the United States, I encountered people who lived on welfare their entire lives and didn’t put in a lot of effort to get a job. The government provided them basic support, so they chose to live off it. In some of the cases I saw, poverty became generational; children who grew up living off the government came to see that as their destiny. Some told me they wanted to make it on their own, to shake off their dependence on welfare, but confessed they didn’t know if they had the skills or drive to do so.
Another big difference in poverty concerns generations. In Romania, the old are more often than not poor. The 17 lei monthly pensions (roughly $5) are a sad reality of my country. In most cases, pensions are more decent, but still small. Meanwhile, younger Romanians flourished (relatively speaking) with the recent expansion of multinational corporations in Romania and often have corporate jobs that pay them better than their parents. By contrast, in the United States, the wealth gap between the young and the old is increasing, with the old (over 65) holding wealth almost 50 times greater than the young (under 35), in 2009, according to a study by the Pew Research Center based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
More than just economics
Poverty muddles both Heather and Andreea’s youth. Heather feels stuck in an inherited poverty and in the inertia of a family that has learned to rely on government aid rather than on working wages. Andreea was born into poverty of a nation and economy, but with a wealth of support and work ethic from her middle class-working parents.
The girls’ struggles show that poverty is not just economic. There is also a poverty of vision, of sense of possibility, of expectations.
Andreea lives in a world of restricted possibilities but fights for her way out, even if it means leaving her country. Heather lives in the world of the American Dream and abundant opportunities, but lacks the guidance and the knowledge for pursuing them. This might be why, against all expectations, Heather’s poverty is more acute.