“The old American Dream . . . was the dream of the Puritans, of Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard” . . . of men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year. The new dream was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck. [This] golden dream . . . became a prominent part of the American psyche only after Sutter’s Mill.”
Historian H. W. Brands in The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, 2002,
I had been wondering about the mysterious disappearance of the American Dream when I arrived to work that day. I swiped my card and the Clinical Director of the substance abuse treatment center said he wanted to speak to me immediately. I hadn’t had much interaction with him before this so I knew this was serious and that something likely was about to go down. He said, in his observations I appear to be introverted and that my role at the facility requires a personality that can “fill the room.” He went on to state that they were now being dictated to by the insurance industry and therefore shifting to a new treatment milieu and had to fulfill their accreditation commitments. In other words, they were shifting from a nonprofit fee-for-service model to a for-profit model that involves accepting insurance plans and requiring only licensed clinicians. I believe he even went as far to say my dismissal had something to do with Obama-Care. Ironic turn of events?
The Pandora’s box opened further, as I also witnessed three other colleagues get fired for vague, ambiguous reasons. I learned the person I had replaced in the room I could not fill was also fired. I learned that all staff was expendable and that there was absolutely no job security. Most of my colleagues were employed less than a year and one always got the impression that they always seemed to walk on eggshells in the office.
One colleague had a mental breakdown and another suffered a stroke. My initial reaction was physical too. After all I was a bit blindsided with the suddenness of it all. I had the sensation of being kicked in the gut, followed by fear and then anger. However I was luckier than my colleagues. My negative emotions soon turned into a sense of relief, because during my short tenure, it had become apparent to me that the company was soulless. I had realized this workplace would soon suck my soul out of me.
No one else seemed angry. In fact there was this cloud of non-anger that hung over the center that day.
As I walked away from the center, I thought of the absurdity of why I was being fired and it occurred to me that the director had already demonstrated himself as someone who could not face or tell the truth and it was likely that I’ll never know why I was being let go. I had agreed to an hourly wage when I was accepted on board; yet after I received my first pay stub I noticed that I was on a set salary. In a two-week pay period I worked twenty hours of overtime and therefore, I would not be compensated for those hours. The person that trained me and one who frequently worked seventy hours a week, stated that the company offered compensation time but very rarely was anyone able to take it. It was obvious that I would not be paid for those hours. I never received a job description or a contract. I quizzed my colleagues and discovered they didn’t have job descriptions either.
Although New Mexico isn’t a misnomer “Right to Work State” during the initial probationary period, an employer can fire a worker for any reason. Although I believe and try, in general, to keep my deep-seated convictions about equality on the down low in these times of economic downturn, it is conceivable that I was “outed” for sharing with my colleagues the lofty thoughts and forgotten practices of collective bargaining power and mentioning the illegality of the company’s labor practices.
It was an environment where people were afraid. It IS an environment where people are afraid. The company, like many others around it, had a keen understanding that jobs were in short supply and finding one that pays a livable wage is nearly impossible. The company used this knowledge of difficult times to keep people down – rub their spirit in the ground. It was painful to the soul to see how afraid my colleagues were and to watch them be exploited openly.
There seems to be this non-anger in the air in America. Has America always been like this? Or is the first time that we are facing inequality and corporate bullying on such as massive scale? And people are bucking in, giving in to the pressure? Where are the wild horses of the prairies? Has our education system and culture tamed us into manageable and mild beasts of burden? I wondered.
One can only imagine a person with a couple of young children to feed. Does he or she have the time to dream the American Dream? Can this person in today’s America muster the audacity to dream the American Dream?
Unemployed now, economic hardship is a reality. The American Dream will have to wait. Assuming that I could collect unemployment insurance benefits I went in that direction. Little did I know I would be caught up in an uphill bureaucratic appeals process? The director who fired me had claimed that I quit my job. This wasn’t surprising, now knowing of his general lack of integrity. What can you expect from a corporate man who kicks a fallen worker in the teeth? However, despite my sociologically rambunctious nature, I decided that it would not be in my best interest to fight them on this. Looking at it from the perspective of a cost-benefit analysis, going through a long appeal would be time consuming and would not be incumbent upon me. A wise person told me once, that I must choose my battles and with so many challenges ahead, this hilltop is not strategically important. I realized that my defeatist attitude is perhaps common many of my ilk and that unscrupulous employers and corporate men rely on this defeat-ism frequently to win the battle of the balance sheets.
But for now this will have to be someone else’s battle. I was all out of the social-consciousness steam. I was also entering the state of non-anger. I was hungry.
Applying for food stamps is always a consideration for the hungry in America. I walked into a human service office and waited three hours and was never seen. I believe if I were willing, I could have spent the whole day and part of the next undergoing more scrutiny to determine whether I am among the deserving poor or not. The humiliation and thought of navigating through another bureaucratic system on an empty stomach was daunting, so I abandoned that idea.
It makes me wonder if the system inefficiency is deliberate. I have to chuckle over my growling stomach when I think how conservatives and some so-called moderates rant over alleged systemic welfare fraud. Although countless studies have dispelled the myth that “those poor people are cheating”, reactionary politicians continue to beat the dead horse. They continue to scream: the poor are cheats; the poor are looting America. And as attributed to Hitler and his public relations team in Nazi Germany: You say a lie a thousand times and it becomes the truth.
My position after this experience is that if anyone is clever enough to manipulate these bureaucratic welfare systems, then he or she deserves it, because they are capable of performing incredible magic feats. I have been chastised by this experience. The naked reality of America stares at me. Can I afford to dream?
I know if I lived in a just world this wouldn’t happen. I have always felt or argued for the poor in a bookish way. However, now I am feeling more compassion for people that have known poverty their entire lives. Even before this experience I have often longed for revolution; in the comfortable confines of my college classroom or my art studio I have argued fervently for change and for character and for standing up to exploitation and fighting injustice. But now I know I will most likely accept the first job that rolls down the pike. Like my international comrades from south of the border, I will become part of the mob that waits outside the day labor pool if I must.
The experts talk about the changing face of poverty in United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau the number of Americans living in poverty in 2013 edged up to 46.5 million in 2013 even though the economy has shown signs of recovery from the 2007 “recession”.
This also marks fifty years after President Johnson’s War on Poverty State of the Union Address. Since then many of the programs that reduced the rate of poverty have been gutted and programs like Social Security, which has prevented millions of older Americans from falling in abject poverty, are under constant attack. The income gap is now wider then it has been in over a century.
Although majority of the poor are still disproportionally people of color, women and children, but increasing in the ranks of the poor are those people who have previously experienced the middle-class rites of passage – they have tasted education, career, homeownership, and savings. They have watched their quality of life erode after the mortgage meltdown.
For the millions of people who are either out of work or underemployed, the American Dream is a nightmare of stagnant wages, wage theft (by unscrupulous employers), foreclosures, joblessness, homelessness, criminalization of the poor and a pseudo-science that makes claims of a culture of poverty.
For a change my experience matched the numerical data. The Census Bureau’s findings coincided with my own observations and personal experience. I realized I had become one of the numbers. And I had been treated like one – from the time I was fired to the unsuccessful attempts at getting the government to help me through its legitimate programs. I had thought America does not treat its people well. Now I realized they do not even treat their numbers well, except of course if those numbers are the incomes and earnings of the top 1%.
Last week I volunteered at a food pantry in a very affluent community in Colorado. I was dumbfounded by the number of people lining up around the Health and Human Services Building; all of whom apparently qualified for a free bag of groceries.
The demographics were not exactly what I expected. About one- third was Latino, two thirds were White and none were Black. The gender was an equal split between male and female. I learned that most of the people had jobs, some were homeless and that many had been a part of the community for at least a decade. Only one person I spoke to was transient.
The first person I engaged with was unloading a truck from the Colorado Food Bank. He was a tall white man and likely an old ski bum with weathered skin who looked to be at least 60 years old. I recognized him as a project supervisor from a job I was on years back installing art for a large multimillion-dollar home. He told me the company he worked for went belly-up and it resulted in him losing his house, car and eventually his wife. He claimed even though he had over forty years experience, he was too old to get hired to do construction. He told me for a while he turned to a bottle for comfort but it was only temporary. He is now living in a local homeless shelter.
I also met several young Latina women who were all housekeepers for the Ritz Carlton Hotel. One of them told me they had multiple jobs and although they worked seven days a week none of them earned enough to make ends meet. I also spoke to a middle-aged white male who said he held a finance degree from Tulane University. He foreclosed on his house and now has been branded as someone with bad credit. He continued to say because his credit was poor he cannot get a job in a bank, even as a teller. He said he has been trying to get other jobs but hasn’t had any success. He’s also homeless.
The stories are endless. A friend, aware of my situation, shared that her friend had to foreclose on her home because the nonprofit where she worked at for twelve years folded. This is a person with advanced degrees from two Ivy-League Universities. Even with her high credentials, she wasn’t earning enough to pay for a house that has zero equity.
My immediate situation isn’t what I consider to be ideal, but I have become resilient. I have adapted to a lifestyle of voluntarily simplicity. Aside from books, bicycles and art supplies, I don’t own much personal property. Most of what I have I can store in a 5’x 5’ storage locker.
I lost my studio, and I’ve spent a few nights outside. Even with hard work the American Dream is something that has eluded many others and myself. However I am intent on believing that humanity will not fail us. I still hold on to the youthful idealism of: “A better world is possible”. I dream of a world where there is less suffering, less greed, and one where humanity is regarded before profit.
One cannot argue enough for why we need a global paradigm shift. The reasons stare at us in the face; they growl at us from our empty stomachs of children and families; from the lines outside food distribution centers; from crowded shelters. It is crystal clear that the current means of production is not sustainable for the economy, the nation, the planet, or the future. We ask for bread. And what do we get instead? Obama-care; which ironically was the reason given for downsizing some more people from the health care industry including myself.
“Why don’t you go on west to California? There’s work there, and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why, there’s always some kind of crop to work in. Why don’t you go there?”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939
In a few days, I plan to leave for Los Angeles, where I will be exploring a new California Dream that deviates from the 19th Century dream of gold and prosperity. However, my ambition is no less humble. I am dreaming of a new world. I will begin with myself, with one less automobile. I will be exploring the global city on my bicycle.
And then I wondered: Had the American Dream really disappeared?
The Dream Continues…
Crossing the Southwestern desert hearing the fervent moans, as battalions of tumbleweed assault my chrome bumper.
Narrow road, hypnotic gaze, This dream, have been here before.
Romanticizing the great American tale, grasping prosperous visions, bright vermillion, desert mesas, ocean ahead.
Blinded by uranium clay, clutching violently, Historical Route 66.
Salt in Red skin, white knuckles, musk odor- fixed-gear bicycle.
Dreaming of prosperous visions on the left-side horizon, on the road again, vagabond.
© Dennis Dodson, 2014
Photographs and painting , courtesy Dennis Dodson, 2013