Most of us have been given the same life directives: go to college, get a good job, get married, have kids, retire. As a former alumni adviser for high school grads, I can assure you that narrative is alive and well.
We get this plan from well-meaning people who love us, often long before we can form a definition of what happiness means to us. There’s nothing wrong with these goals, of course. But they may not be for everyone — and in our unequal society, pursuing them can be a big risk that doesn’t always pay off.
For my part, I thought following these steps was a direct route to the American Dream.
I earned my bachelor’s degree in just three years. By 2012, I’d landed a job in my field that would build my resume. While the pay was modest, I was single with no kids and minimal bills. I was also in graduate school, sure to increase my earning potential.
The American Dream was in sight. But then I hit the infamous glass ceiling, which is doubly thick for Black women. Nationally we’re paid only 63 cents on the dollar compared to our white male counterparts. Where I live in Louisiana, it’s even lower — just 47 cents.
As my earnings stalled out, life happened. By the beginning of 2014, I was flat broke, divorcing, pregnant, and still in grad school. My growing belly gave me motivation, though. The moment my son was born via emergency c-section, I was grabbing my laptop to submit a final.
I pushed past my anxiety about unpaid bills and student loan debt, trusting in the promise that hard work and education added up to security and happiness for my family. But even after obtaining my master’s and working in social services for years, that security did not materialize.
I needed a change. In 2019, I switched gears to work in public education.
At first, I absolutely loved it. But eventually I learned that people of color in my workplace were getting paid significantly less than their white counterparts for comparable or even the same work. Our employer claimed outwardly to be anti-racist while gatekeeping raises, promotions, and power.
I worked for change within the organization and ran programs for students dealing with similar challenges. But I was severely underpaid for my experience and education, and this additional labor was unpaid too.
Hitting that glass ceiling again and in the wake of George Floyd’s death, I heard a message loud and clear: As a Black woman in America, I was supposed to know my place and not complain. I should be grateful just to be in the room.
Eventually, it became too much. After pouring myself into this job while also overwhelmed with debt and raising a young child, I chose to enter the quit my job to explore new career options that could balance fulfillment and stability with my mental health.
I chose to enter the great financial unknown.
My story shows what many Americans already know: It is possible to “do everything right” and still end up in a place of financial uncertainty.
One way or another, it’s a story that Americans of every race, color, gender, and zip code end up learning the hard way. Some 140 million of us are poor or low-income, while nearly half of us lack the cash on hand to cover an emergency.
But we can change the narrative. Call or write your representative, share your story, and ask them what they are doing to counteract rising costs and low wages. Join a political action organization that fights poverty and oppression like RESULTS, the group I now work with.
Our elected officials work for us — and our silence costs us a better future.