Many are falling short chasing the American Dream
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” -The Declaration of Independence
Most of us have been given the same directives: go to college, get a good job, get married, have kids, retire. As a former Alumni Advisor of a High School Charter Network, I can assure you that narrative is still alive. We are given this narrative (by well-meaning people who love us) long before we can form a definition of what happiness and the pursuit of it 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.
I was no different in receiving these directives and somewhat following through. Admittedly so, I too wanted a piece of the American pie. For my part, I thought following these steps was a direct route to the American Dream. I earned my bachelor’s degree from Loyola University New Orleans in three years, I landed a job in my field prior to graduating that would build my resume. This job expanded my expertise and services within the legal field, and was met with the infamous glass ceiling right at the intersection of being Black and being a woman in the South.
Nationally, Black women are paid only 63 cents on the dollar compared to our white male counterparts. In the state of Louisiana where I was born and raised, Black women are paid 47 cents on the dollar.
In 2012, I took a new job on the Deepwater Horizon Settlement program and I thought I had broken through that glass ceiling, but the job was temporary and if it wasn’t for the overtime I would otherwise be making $45,000. It was good money at the time. I was single, no kids, and minimal bills with more money than time to spend it. I was in graduate school at that time, sure to increase my earning potential and another chance at the American Dream.
2013 took an odd twist of events, my earnings stalled out, and by the beginning of 2014, I was flat broke, divorcing, pregnant, and in grad school. Graduate school was the only glimmer of hope I felt I had at that time. My growing belly gave me motivation to apply myself 100% to ensure a bright future for me and my unborn child. During my pregnancy, I didn’t want preferential treatment from my professors. I worked through it all, it kept me busy and busy kept me sane. After my son was born, after coming into consciousness after an emergency cesarean section, I grabbed 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 with more than enough resources to support my lifestyle and take excellent care of my son. I was told to go to college by several sources. The people who I trusted most said that I’d have a shot at increasing my earning potential and living the life I wanted, and I believed them.
Even after obtaining my master’s degree in Public Administration in 2015, that security did not materialize. After working in social services for years and being slighted for better paid positions even after obtaining a master’s degree; I decided I needed a change.
In 2019, I switched gears to work in public education, and, at first, I absolutely loved my work there. I worked with young people. My day to day was so varied and rich. I was up close and personal with young, brilliant minds and my job was to make sure they knew their options and resources so they too could freely pursue their happiness from a well-informed position of power. I was happy until I realized that people of color across the board were getting paid significantly lower than their white counterparts for comparable or even the same work.
The organization claimed to be anti-racist and that they wanted to retain Black and Brown talent but remained complicit in cohering with the structures of racism that they openly benefited from by playing keep away with access to power and better wages. I was severely underpaid given my work experience and education and was given no explanation as to why they couldn’t magically transfer me into a position of my liking as was done with many of my white co-workers. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, America took on a new color for me. I read the message loud and clear: “As a Black woman in America, I was to know my place and not complain about the conditions because my Black body should be grateful to be in the room.”
I fought this invisible yet palpable narrative by speaking my truth, facilitating a BIPOC action team and establishing a post-secondary program for students with exceptionalities. Of course these extra initiatives were unpaid, but I fought hard. I fought for the kids. I truly believe they are our future and the integrity of their essence should be protected. I realized that beyond this particular organization, there are several organizations that feed into the machine of systemic racism; more particularly, through the education system. Oppression deeply affected both students and school support staff. The powerful administration fell short on providing a quality education to all children in spite of receiving millions of dollars through private funders. Those with power also sought to silence support staff through retaliatory action and selective empathy and understanding.
Juggling credit card debt to make ends meet and raising a child under the age of ten alone was overwhelming. After pouring myself into this organization and my students, it was evident that I was subjecting myself to valuation by people who had the audacity to decide my place based on personal biases and not merit. My time had run its course, but instead of trying to hold on to a weak and antiquated structure that elevates white supremacy, I chose to enter the great financial unknown.
I decided that this was a toxic place for me to be not just career-wise, but mind, body, and spirit. It was tough leaving my students. I enjoyed our heart-to-heart conversations and helping them navigate the world of financial benefits and financial burdens that comes with attending higher learning institutions. They’ve also been given the directives from the people they love. Go to school. Go to college. Get married. Have kids. Retire. Be happy. The American Dream. I realized that hard work and dedication doesn’t always get you to the American Dream as long as there’s a hoarding of discretionary funds that could be used to improve the lives of many Americans.
This highlights an even bigger issue beyond education, and raises the problem that the institutions here to help us are crippling us through ulterior motives that are not in the best interests of the people or our children. We can change the narrative through more equitable decisions which include subsidies for families living check to check who may not traditionally fit the low-income profile. According to CNBC, 63 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, and half of that percentage are six figure earners. Perhaps this statistic includes you, the reader, which is why it’s all the more important to exercise your right to shape your experience in this country. 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. This matter requires all of us to do our fair share for our voices to be heard.
Call or write your representative, ask them where they stand on supporting financial subsidies to counteract rising costs and low wages, or join a political action organization who rallies around this cause, like RESULTS. Our silence is costing us a better future; remember, elected officials work for us. Finally, my message to our American government: don’t sell the American Dream if the price of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are wrapped up in a dangling illusion.