I’ve watched some of the confirmation proceedings over the past week and I’m appalled by the sincere lack of understanding about what it means to live and work in America. It’s clear that many of these nominees have never worked a low wage job, not even in high school or college. Many seem to have never worked at all except in high level corporate positions. What’s that like, I wonder? I can’t imagine. And if I can’t imagine what that’s like, how can they imagine what it’s like to work so hard for paltry wages? How can they understand what it means to be an average person in America if they’ve never applied for a loan to send their kids to college? If they’ve never weighed the cost of paying the electric bill over a trip to the doctor? If they’ve never stood in front of the tuna display at the local grocery store and tried to decide if they could afford a can of the good tuna instead of the mealy stuff that disintegrates the minute you put a fork to it?
Every person who serves our country, either by appointment or election, should be required to live for three months on a low-wage salary. If you grew up in a home with generic toilet paper and parents who worked multiple jobs to pay the mortgage, you’re free to serve. If you worked your way through college and subsisted on ramen noodles for a few years after graduation, you’re free to serve. If you’ve ever scraped loose change off the floor of your car to pay for gas, you’re free to serve. But if you were raised in the land of trust funds and gold cards, you need to pause and live humbly for a period of time before agreeing to or aspiring to represent the people who live humbly by necessity and not by choice.
You would be required to live, just for three months, with no safety net and no line of credit. You would move your family into an apartment in a neighborhood priced to accommodate your new, reduced wages. You would send your kids to the public school in that neighborhood, because private school tuition would be a nonstarter. You would drive a car that you could afford on your new salary. If you couldn’t afford a car, you would take the bus. You would shop for groceries at the local market and you would stick to a strict budget. You and your children and your spouse would buy clothes with the money you earn. There would be no crossover from your previous wardrobe. If any of you get sick, you will have to decide if you can afford a trip to the doctor. If you have health insurance, you’ll have to figure how to pay the deductible. And you will work. Every day. You will stand behind a counter and ring up purchases or you’ll stock shelves or greet customers. Maybe you can get a job on a construction site or on an oil rig or in a mine. Those jobs pay better, but you probably aren’t qualified to get them. Also, they are dangerous and you could get yourself killed.
There are plenty of people on both sides of the political aisle who’ve never known what it’s like to worry about money. I don’t have anything against wealthy people. Some of them have worked hard for their wealth, but too many were born into it. That’s fine if you plan to spend your life representing yourself and your family. But if you want to represent average Americans, it would be helpful to gain some perspective on what it feels like to be an average American.
Look, my husband and I do okay now. We’ve worked hard for many years and we own our own home, we pay for own health insurance, we eat well, we travel occasionally. But we both lived through a few bleak years in our twenties when it seemed like we would never have enough. We both had months where we ran out of money before we’d bought enough food to really get us through. I didn’t know him during his lean years and he didn’t know me through mine, but we share the experience and it has shaped the way we spend money today. It has shaped our idea of what’s valuable and what’s expendable. We take pride in knowing we can live on very little. “We’ve done it before,” we say. “We can do it again.”
During my lean years, I ate my share of mealy tuna but I also read great books (thank you, public library) and listened to music and watched documentaries (thanks, Corporation for Public Broadcasting), stayed reasonably healthy and didn’t get pregnant (thanks, Planned Parenthood), and I learned how little I really need to survive. Sometimes I hated it and I wished for more. Many of my friends seemed to have so much more or, at least, they had lives subsidized by their parents. My parents couldn’t afford to subsidize my life and I never would have asked them to do so. As a result, I made my own way. It was hard, but it made me stronger and it made me compassionate.
I don’t look at people who have less than I do today and see them as less worthy. I don’t believe they are lazy. I don’t believe they are stupid. I believe they are doing the best they can and I want to do everything I can to help them succeed. I believe their children should have a chance at a good education in the neighborhood where they live. I believe they should have access to good, affordable health care. I don’t believe wealthy people’s children deserve a better education or better health care or greater access to services than the average American. It’s fine with me if wealthy people have better clothes and bigger houses and if they take more extravagant vacations and eat richer food, but there should be a level playing field for things like education and access to safe drinking water and the availability of nutritional food.
I wish everyone could come to this conclusion without having to live humbly, but this past week has proven that many cannot. It’s likely too late for the people taking office now, but I hope we can both elect and appoint people in the future with better experience and humbler histories.
Mealy tuna for everyone. It builds character. It builds compassion.