By Rowan Kane
As I was sitting on the couch in my room with my computer on my lap and Carlos, who barely speaks any English, vacuuming my room, I reminded myself about how little I have worked in my 24-½ years. Don’t get me wrong, I have held jobs. I worked during university as a bouncer, I worked in high school at a golf course and on a sailboat, and I have done some intermittent manual labor for family friends and helped with the upkeep of my childhood home where my father now lives. But even if I worked everyday for the rest of my life I still don’t think I would be able to equal the amount Carlos has worked in his.
Carlos and his wife, Ruth, are immigrants from Uruguay and come to the house I live in once a week to vacuum and mop the floors and clean the counters. The house I live in is big and without their help my mother, who gets the house with her job, would not be able to keep up with cleaning it. The 30 minutes after Ruth and Carlos leave, the house is in the best shape it will be in until they come back. It’s a working home, with a dog and two cats and two people living in it who track in mud and dirt, and who light fires that send dust and ash around the room, and who know that Ruth and Carlos will be around next week to clean everything up and take out the trash next week.
For the past four months I haven’t had a paying job. I have been writing regularly and that has filled my time, but every week when Ruth and Carlos come, the contrast between our lives reemerges; the relative ease of mine compared to the grind of theirs. I’m not necessarily ashamed of this, I believe I have worked when given the opportunity and I will continue to do so, furthermore, I realize this is a socio-economic reality. They need to work to eat, to pay the family’s medical bills, to fix their car, etc. To say that they work to survive would be melodramatic were it not the reality. What my mother pays them helps toward those daily realities but it’s certainly not charity. The only other things I’ve ever seen them accept were some hand-me-down clothes and much of that was for their grandchildren.
I don’t want to paint Ruth and Carlos as heroes of the working class. They are much too modest for that and I don’t think they would accept that label. Who am I to force it upon them, even in a post they will probably never read. But for me they are heroic. They represent a work ethic that is admirable. Yet Ruth and Carlos and millions of others like them who live in poverty are degraded daily by Americans who believe that the poor are a burden on society or that poverty is due to laziness or other character traits or that a livable wage would lead to downfall of the American Dream. The reality is that a livable wage is the American Dream.
My father rarely fails to remind me that he never turned down an opportunity to work and that I am never too good for any job. I don’t disagree with him, especially on the latter point, but I also believe in working towards something, in working for more than just a paycheck. This is admittedly dependent on my continued socio-economic good fortune, especially the ability to pay off student loans. That good fortune is the consequence of my family having long since secured itself in the American Middle Class through higher education and a good deal of hard work and sacrifice. Yet today, hard work and sacrifice are not rewarded with a livable wage and thus achieving the American Dream, providing comfort for your family and education for your children through pay from a stable job, is becoming less and less realistic.
For past generations, the American Dream has been a personal goal. Founded on opportunity for all, it is supposed to be solely reliant on the individual’s work ethic. While the historical reality of this ideal is debatable, there is little argument against the notion that this country was built by immigrants who made better lives for themselves and their families. Indeed this is exactly what Ruth and Carlos are trying to do today. However, the reality for them and millions of others living in poverty, is that they and their families will be stuck there and joined by millions more families who should be or once were in the American Middle Class.
There are many paradoxes inherent within the American identity. The notion that working men and women do not have to be paid a wage that can support themselves and their families should not be one of them. Equally paradoxical is the idea that those who achieve the American Dream abdicate their responsibility to those who have yet to achieve economic stability. This generation, my generation, must move to outgrow these paradoxes and develop the American Dream. It must encompass the individualism so sacred to our national identity, and realize that individual success is incumbent upon collective strength.