By Mary Keck
Mary Keck is a professor of English and Gender Studies as well as an associate editor of Southern Indiana Review. As a freelance journalist and fiction writer, she explores issues of class, labor, and gender in contemporary American life. Read her Open Salon blog, where this piece originally appeared.
Today, I went to the grocery store planning to write a check that would not be covered by the funds in my bank account. I had little food, I didn’t have enough gas in my tank to get me to work the next day, and I knew I wouldn’t see a pay check for my labor done two weeks before for at least another forty-eight hours. When the pay for my labor arrives, my bank will take almost half of it for overdraft fees. Then, I’ll use what is left for basic essentials like food and gas, and in two more weeks, I’ll get paid again. My bills will wait until more money comes my way. In the meantime, I hope the companies who provide me with hot water, electricity, and a roof over my head can be patient like I’m expected to be.
I have no health insurance even though I have two jobs. My only vehicle (bought used) has a low roar that concerns me, but I can’t afford to get it checked. I have two post-secondary degrees for which I’ve been awarded lots of student loan debt and jobs that won’t cover it. I gave up my cell phone months ago because a landline is cheaper. I don’t have a television and don’t pay a cable bill. I go to the laundromat even though I’d prefer to clean my clothes in my home at my convenience, and I buy what I wear at thrift stores.
Ron Paul and his audience at the recent debate would say I deserve this standard of living with all its stress and shame. They would consider me a scab even though I’m not on welfare. They believe I should be imprisoned for writing that bad check. If I were fatally injured, they would cheer for my death because I didn’t plan ahead by setting aside some of my monthly income for health insurance. Even though I work as hard as anyone else and I took the steps of getting educated for the purpose of being a productive citizen, they would think that I shouldn’t take pleasure in life by going to a theme park with my family or attending a rock concert in celebration of my wedding anniversary. Instead, I should use my monthly income to cover all my bills, purchase health insurance, buy gas and groceries, and if there’s anything left, I should save it. Finally, if I save all I can for years and years, when I’m seventy-six, too old for rock concerts and rollercoasters, then I can spend my well-earned savings on fun, frivolous things. Ideally, I would get more pleasure out of those experiences because they were gained through hard work, persistence, and sacrifice.
The system I’m in prefers that I am a drone, my mind captivated by reality TV, my body fattened by cheap, processed, high fructose corn syrup foods, and the majority of my time spent working for low wages, so the owners of my company can make more money. In the United States, my worth is measured in dollars. My imagination, my integrity, and my morals are not measured in dollars; therefore, they are worth nothing.
When I looked into the cashier’s eyes and asked if I could write my check for not only the measly groceries in my cart, but also for cash back to buy gas, I knew that she was a good person who wasn’t very different from me. If I were hungry, she would have wanted to feed me. If she knew me better and we were going the same way, she’d give me a ride. Yet, that’s not the sort of help that will get me out of my current situation.
The kind of help I need is compassion, another worthless commodity in the United States. I need my fellow citizens to agree that being impoverished takes away my freedom to choose a healthy lifestyle and even to be productive. I need them to admit that saving and working my whole life forces me to sacrifice my family, my friendships, and my happiness. Americans need to agree that I was left with no option but to write that bad check. The kind of help I need is a collective epiphany, a realization that it is immoral to measure a person’s worth based on the dollars in their pockets or the dollars in the pockets of their employers.
I am not asking for charity, though I need it. I am asking to be seen as a person just like you and just like all the people in the audience at the Republican debate. I am a coworker, a wife, a friend, another passenger on the bus, and just because you can buy Ralph Lauren and go to the opera doesn’t mean that you are entitled to enjoy the pleasures that can be found on this planet any more than me. It doesn’t mean that you deserve a better education, more quality time with the people you love, or health insurance. It just means you don’t have to purchase the cheaper, less healthy foods, you can have a cell phone connected to the Internet with movie-viewing capabilities, and you can drive wherever you need to go. It means you don’t ever have to write a bad check and feel ashamed because when it comes to a system that values people based on their wealth, you are worth more even if you aren’t compassionate, imaginative, or moral.