Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Hard work pays off.
Everyone has a chance at the American Dream.
These are commonly held beliefs in the United States. The idea is that anyone can achieve success, no matter how low they start.
But it isn’t true.
I have tried very hard not to be bitter about this. Sometimes, though, I can’t help but feel jaded. When I was growing up, I had to watch my step father work 60 hours a week doing manual labor and still fail to put food on the table.
Isn’t this hard work? I wondered.
When I would visit my friends homes, I would look around at everything they had. A four bedroom house for four people? It seemed like a mansion compared to the two bedroom apartment my six person family was living in.
The thing that really stood out to me at their homes was the food. They would sit down to dinner every night as a family, eating a home-cooked meal with quality groceries. We got most of our food from the local food shelf.
Eventually I would ask these friends what their parents did, trying to get a better understanding of what we were doing wrong. I never did find the answer.
Of course, none of this dissuaded me of the illusion that if I only worked hard I would succeed. So I went to college. I started out at a community college, going online full-time so that I could work full-time to support myself.
I’m working hard, I thought. Soon I will be rewarded.
I wasn’t. I had to keep working hard, moving four hours away from home and into my own apartment at age 19. I worked over 50 hours a week while taking 15-credit semesters. When other college students complained about being busy, I thought they meant they were busy like me. I quickly realized they weren’t. I felt completely alone in my struggle, unable to explain the pressure of being a first-time college student paying her own way through college.
I knew I would have to work hard to make a better life for myself, but no one ever told me just how hard it would be. No one told me that I would get to a point where I would rather drop out of college and just commit to working because it would become nearly impossible to pay my rent and bills and keep up my GPA. No one told me because so few people experience it. And those who do are too busy to speak out.
I share this story not for pity and certainly not to gloat, but to show that working hard is rarely the answer. We don’t all have a shot at the American dream. Some of us get sucked into generations of poverty that are impossible to break out of.
And, like CHUM and the UMD Honors Program know, many of us will face homelessness. Not because we didn’t work hard enough, but because the system failed us. Our society likes to think that those who face homelessness do so because of a mistake they made. “It’s because they drank their money away,” we say. This allows us to distance ourselves from the truth of the matter: you can work harder than anyone else and still become a victim of homelessness.
We don’t want to believe this truth because then we have to face our own roles in perpetuating the system. We have to face the fact that we stand on other’s backs to raise ourselves higher. We rely on cheap labor for higher profit margins while looking down at the homeless people cluttering our pristine streets, begging for change. If we don’t see them as people we don’t have to feel guilt or responsibility. If we pretend they are less than human we don’t have to help them.
But I challenge us to change these beliefs. Look at the woman on the street and see her story. See a woman who struggled to raise children while working three part-time jobs, eventually losing them to people with more education than she could ever hope to receive. See the man as a father with inadequate medical insurance who eventually had to be hospitalized and was forced out of his home when he couldn’t pay the bills. See the child as one who hasn’t even had a chance to make something of herself, because she was held back three grades after missing too much school because her parents could no longer afford a car.
See them all as the people they really are. Be willing to hear their stories and consider changing your own.
BY APRILL EMIG Student Life Editor