Thursday, October 30, 2008

Things are not fine for the middle class as I know it.

I listen to right-wing radio and for the most part agree with what I hear, but I can't help getting annoyed at the pundits who keep insisting that the Obama tax refund plan is meaningless to the middle class. Twice today I had to stifle the urge to call in (Gallagher and Hewitt) to tell them that I don’t care anymore that we’re not technically in a recession yet. It’s coming. It will hurt. And it’s going to hurt families making on less than $150,000, all of whom are, we are told, getting a refund. But when a man promises my family $1,800, that’s not nothing.

I could use that money for the great Democratic boogey-man, those “unexpected health care expenses” used to justify every ill-advised expansion of welfare boondoggles. Oddly enough, I have some of those. My toddler started day care eight weeks ago and has been ill for the last seven. We have world-class health insurance through my employer, even though it takes a big chunk of out of my take-home pay. Still, ER copays aren't cheap. At least competition in healthcare is alive for now -- we’ve gotten to to try the sparkling new local ER, where a child-phobic respiratory therapist accidentally hurt our toddler with a too-large suction catheter, and then last week we got to visit the run-down dump of a downtown children’s hospital where the cheerful effociency of the pediatric nurses nearly distracted us from the holes in the drywall. End result, we’re down hundreds of dollars this month in copays. But finally, we pray, she is safe and well. Our family is happy. Our fundamentals are strong.

Our finances are not.

According to the Interactive Class-Finder on New York Times website (how British!), I’m high-upper-middle because of my “prestigious” attorney job, but Obama just thinks I’m middle-class. I make less than $100,000 per year, but I’m likely to hit that number in the next 2-3 years. We live in a decent older house in a nice city just 30 minutes commute from downtown. Our daughter goes to a lovely church-run daycare while my husband goes to graduate school. We’re the American dream family: just starting out, working hard, and stretching, stretching to reach something better.

But there’s a pretty good chance we won't make it. We gambled by buying a high-priced house at what turned out to be the market peak. We hedged out bets by paying extra to fix the rate, which apparently makes us suckers - no balloon-payment holiday for us!. The mortgage is hefty. Both of them are, actually. They eat 80% of what I take home. In the meantime, the family eats well enough, because I now cook everything from scratch. Even though we’re poorer now than ever, I actually feel more connected to traditionally conservative values – it’s hard not to identify with my foremothers while I’m baking bread, soaking beans, boiling sugar for desserts and jams. But some of the fun leaves my one-time hobby when I have to calculate the cost-per-head of everything that goes into the dish.

But we get along ok as we dance right along the line, generally spinning just this side of solvency but occasionally skipping over it. We still buy books and lunches and basic cable TV, and if our kid wears clearance Garanimals then at least she always has the expensive best-quality diapers next to her skin. Scrimping is our new normal; our definition of "splurge" has changed radically. We’re lucky enough to have student loans and credit cards get us down the home stretch, just 24 months until my husband gets his professional degree and starts working. We've bought the American dream, and are leveraging into it everything we can grasp. The expectation of riches doesn't make the rags anymore fun to wear.

$1,800. That's a lot of money to buy nice things with, things that would make a difference in our daily lives. It's a smaller dream, to be sure. But it's the bigger Christmas celebration with more people I've been wishing for. A trip to the overseas military base to see my brother's new baby. New suits for a new body instead of wedging into the industrial Spanx (generic-brand, of course) to fit into pre-pregnancy clothes. Hell, it’s three pairs of earrings! Or it’s one little thing every month with the money freed up by paying down a credit card.

So what’s the problem? I pay taxes. I wish I paid fewer taxes. I’m not going to have to pay more, if I can take Obama at his word. I’ll get what I want and others will pay. I ought to be happy that Robama Hood wants to steal from the rich and give it to me.

But I'm not. Why?

Obvious knee-jerk lefty response: I’m too stupid to know what’s good for me. But that’s not it, precisely the opposite. I’m against this stupid “tax cut” for pure self-interest. If I let him soak the rich now, I’ll never be rich. Debts must be paid, books balanced. If he taxes the rich and the corporations, there will be fewer jobs. When my husband graduates, his student loans will come due, job or no job. There is no way we can pay them on my salary alone. If we default, we’re just contributing to the financial downward spiral. That’s not going to help the large financial instutitions. Any more bad investments and the insurance investors are going to feel the squeeze, giving them less to spend on . . . cha-ching . . . lawyers like me! As the maxim goes, good attorneys are easier to replace than good secretaries, so let’s see where that leaves us. . . ah yes, not able to make the mortgage payments we were making previously. Thus continueth the circle of failure. And that presumes that everything that Obama is saying is true: that there will be a tax cut, and that I will get it. Already one of my state's U.S. Representative had the brilliant idea of having the federal government cut tax cut checks directly to the states, not the people. Federalism, indeed.

The country needs economic growth. I need economic growth. I’m not selling my future for 1,800 pieces of silver, even if it comes from “the rich” or corporations or robber-barons or even those making just a little bit more than me. I don’t give a rat’s ass about fairness in the tax code or “helping” the middle class at the expense of anyone else. Obama is right that things are not fine. They’re not fine for me. But there’s not-fine for right now and there’s looming disaster, and I’m ok with sucking along at not-fine for awhile while we regroup and beat it together, instead of whining about who should be hardest hit.

So when I hear right-wing pundits claim that no one needs any of Obama’s tax-refunds, I get frustrated. That argument doesn’t persuade me, and I’m on your side. But in the meantime, there are people suffering as there always are. We don't need to belittle the plight of those desperate for some relief who reach for the dreamlet Obama dangles. We need to tell them about the better dream they’re selling out.

I am middle class. I am struggling. And I am voting against Obama so that one day I won't have to struggle.


Roger said...

Very well put, however the lefties will still think you just don't get it. I sure hope that people who still care about the American Dream show up to vote on Tuesday, because it will get a lot worse over the next four years if we let this guy slide by.

Athena DePaul said...

That's what gets me so angry. I've got things to do in the next four that don't involve being homeless and unemployed - like advance in my career and have more children. I don't HAVE four years to waste with this nonsensical ruining of the economy!