Few living the American dream

Few living the 'American dream'
Monday, September 10, 2007 | 3:06 p.m. CDT; updated 7:24 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Rose M. Nolen

COLUMBIA — Most people I know who are retiring at 65 years of age are leaving their second job. More and more people seem to be opting for early retirement at 50-something. From what I hear about the workplace these days, I can understand why. I spent the majority of my work life on union jobs, so I’m not sure I could have survived long under today’s working conditions.

I hear from employees still on the job that employers who pay the least and offer the fewest benefits are those with the most difficult and least rewarding jobs. Apparently, loyalty between the employee and the employer is virtually nonexistent. A friend who walked off her job last week after nearly a decade didn’t even seem inclined to look back over her shoulder at her former workplace. That was a surprise, since she was one of those few people left with a strong work ethic. With money as the primary motivating factor where work is concerned, it certainly does not engender any positive virtues.

Millions of people in the workforce today, many of them earning salaries that keep them below the poverty line, have no health benefits and no retirement funds. A lot of these wage earners feel that they too should be able to afford to buy nice homes, drive nice automobiles and enjoy a measure of the good life. These ambitions inspire the unscrupulous subprime mortgage brokers and the payday and title loan companies. Certainly, these people, who often have bad credit, should not continue to jump in over their heads. But they are human beings and they frequently do go where angels fear to tread, so to speak. And, as is always the case, there are those who are willing to seize the advantage. Foreclosures and bankruptcies are on the rise as the working poor (formerly the middle class) struggles to hold on to some small measure of dignity.

And like others throughout the history of the world, we have the kind of government we deserve. We voted the people who implement it into office and we sit by while the people who own them, body and soul, write the laws that punish us and fill their pockets with the filthy lucre that keeps them in positions of power. And so busy are they, loading their wagons, that they seem to lose their ability to reason. With the cost of living rising and wage remaining stagnant, who can afford to buy the goods and services at the market place? Isn’t refusing to pay workers a living wage, refusing to help them maintain good health and not providing them with retirement funds sort of like cutting off the nose to spite the face? We are being told repeatedly that the Social Security program is going broke. So that means retirees who have been unable to save for their retirement (and who can?) will have no choice but to work until they drop dead, which without health care and the ability to afford prescription medicine probably won’t take long. Individuals who by choice allowed drugs and alcohol to kill their brain cells are being supported by Social Security Disability pensions, so that money is being spent wildly.

Michigan, the state with the highest unemployment rate, is starting a program called “No Worker left Behind’ in which state and federal funds are being used to pay junior college tuition costs for displaced workers to learn skills for available jobs. The state hopes to create a model for other states to follow to help solve the employment problem. At least these people are willing to try. To continue to pretend that the economy is great and that good paying jobs are waiting to be filled is insulting. The only job market that’s thriving is part-time employment in the service industries, with no benefits. For many families, this may be the first generation that has fared worse than the one before.

It’s hard to believe that despite all the evidence to the contrary, some people still insist that a person born dirt poor in Appalachia is born equal to a person born to privilege in a mansion on Beacon Hill and is, therefore, capable of similar achievements. The true irony behind the American Dream is not how often it is realized, but how few people ever experience it.

I doubt the labor unions will ever again rise to the prominence they once held. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have abandoned the principle that there is strength in numbers. As a people, we have become increasingly isolated from one another, both by circumstances and choice. Maybe it’s true that some people have to hit rock bottom to gain the incentive to save their own lives.

I think it may be too late to smell the beans burning, but there might still be time to keep the whole house from going up in smoke. If you are 21 or older and not brain-dead, it’s time to take a look at the direction the country is headed and decide if you want to go that way. It’s never too late to stop and turn around. That one action could very well constitute the terms of your own salvation.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling her at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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