Our American Dream: Two Sisters Losing the Middle Class

We grew up in a nice suburb of New York where you would run into a mall in 30 minutes any direction you drove unless you were to drive towards the ocean. Our dad went into the city daily for his job that kept him out late, mom stayed home and took care of us by trying to get me to do my homework and fighting the school system to ensure my learning-disabled sister got the access to the education she needed. Outside of my father’s raging temper and my mother’s relentless narcissism and hoarding disorder, life was pretty good. It was all we knew.

I definitely took my class status for granted, and my sister is now learning that she did too. My sister is seven years younger than I am, and with her learning disability also graduated college later than I did. Nonetheless, after going to a private school for special needs students, she managed to obtain a bachelor’s degree from a state school. Unfortunately, that degree didn’t help her much in terms of setting her up for the real world.

My sister was in a car accident a few months ago that wasn’t her fault, but because it was a hit-and-run the insurance wouldn’t cover the accident. I love my sister and I want her to be safe, happy, and secure, but I still get upset when my parents baby her as she’s now 26 and she has to learn to live on her own without their help soon or she never will. Luckily she walked away unscathed from the car accident, but she needed to buy a new car. Dad pulled out $15k from his bank account so she could buy a decent used car, and she’s paying him back $10k of that. He still pays for her gas and food. She works in an hourly job at minimum wage. I worry for her that she’ll never get out of minimum wage work. I feel a responsibility to help her, but I’m not sure how.

Meanwhile, I’m not exactly the beacon of middle-class stability. My only sense of zen is my $380k or so in net worth that I have to fall back on should things get really ugly. But just having $380k in my bank account(s) doesn’t make me middle class. Or does it? My income certainly makes me middle class but only if I can maintain that income… and I can’t… because I’m not cut out for corporate America. I am terrified of spending the rest of my life in a lower class than the one I grew up in. And that just might happen.

To me, being middle class is having enough money to afford a house (enough rooms for all the kids plus a guest room, and more than one bathroom), two cars, an annual vacation somewhere exciting, and enough money to send the kids to college and pay for retirement. Maybe this is possible somewhere else in this country, but I don’t know how. I wish I was able to maintain my current job – my current career, and to succeed – but I am about to throw in the towel. I’ve fought for a while, tried to pretend, try to be something I’m not… and it’s just about over. I don’t know what to do or where to turn.

I wish I could give my sister some helpful advice as she earns $10 an hour and applies to more job which pay the same. I tell her that she ought to take risks now, or, at the least, get a certificate in something that can provide her a decent job. For whatever it’s worth I had my writing to fall back on – my writing (which has never been gramatically perfect) has been the only reason I’ve been able to obtain good work in my 20s. My sister cannot write very well – despite graduating from college, she has never learned how to put together a complex sentence. I wonder if she could do administrative work. At the moment she lifeguards. I want so much for her life. And so much for mine.

This past week an acquaintance of mine wrote a post on Facebook about him being anti minimum wage, which led to my commenting that I’m pro minimum wage and eventually he sent me a very cruel message around how I am not allowed to comment on the topic because I just fib on my resume and jump around from six figure job to six figure job. Ouch. Although I was pissed at him for saying that, and I know he’s struggling in his own right in his career, I admit that it’s kind of true. I don’t deserve the salary I make now, that’s for sure (and my boss alludes to it constantly.) I don’t deserve the job I have either. I don’t really fib on my resume but I don’t know what I’m doing. I want out. I want a job where I can actually feel like I can consistently meet my goals – but one that still challenges me enough where I’m not incredibly bored. I just feel like it’s too late – unless I choose not to have kids (or I can’t) and then the rest of my life is open to try out new jobs as long as I can pay the bills. Add kids to the picture – and, well, I have to support them, somehow.

Another Facebook acquaintance recently left the Bay Area and purchased a home in the suburb of another Northwest city. She posts pictures of her beautiful home, backyard, and the area around her which is outdoorsy and lush, and I start to daydream about moving away from this place. That won’t solve my problems of being in the wrong career, but maybe it will take some of the pressure off to need such a high-paying job.

Meanwhile, my sister is stuck at my parent’s house, too scared to leave, and continues to apply for minimum wage, no benefits positions. I want my parents to cut her off – not because I’m jealous about the money they’re giving her – but I think they’re really hurting her in the long run. For better or worse, I am where I am because after college I left home and didn’t ask my parents for another cent. What is she going to do when my parents can no longer support her (or worse, when they’ve spent their retirement on helping her out?) I try to stay out of it – I have enough to focus on figuring out my own life.





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  1. Labangel says:

    Hi Joy (is this supposed to be an ironic pseudonym? you are always worried and stressed), I worry for your sister too. I believe 26 is the last year children can be on their parents’ health insurance plans. What is she going to do about going to the doctor and health care next year, especially if she has special needs? I hope this jolts her into becoming more independent. <3, labangel

  2. Azure says:

    I haven’t commented before but have been following your blog for a while. Just wanted to drop you a note to encourage you to keep posting! I can relate to your struggles with work–hope things get better!

  3. SP says:

    The bay area is tough. I feel middle class, despite a household income that is at least in the top 5% of the country. We have one car. We do have more bedrooms than people, but that would end if we have a kid, and if we have 2, a “guest room” is out of the question. We share a car. The life works so well for us because we currently both work close to where we live and either could walk to work in a pinch.

    I have a similar (or worse?) sister situation, but she is back in the Midwest. I worry about her a lot, but also don’t know how to fix it – it actually doesn’t seem fixable, and that kills me.

  4. Steve Reed says:

    I think you have a warped view of middle-class. The average American household brings in only about $50k a year. To live a middle-class lifestyle in the bay area costs $150-200k if you rent, $250-350k if you buy a home. Most PF bloggers are very educated individuals capable of making these incomes, especially with a dual income. However, the economy isn’t the same as it was for the boomers. There is no job security now. 2-5 years is considered impressive now. Keeping a high paying tech income for 5-30 years in order to pay off a $1mm starter home is way to stressful for me. Why struggle here when we can thrive elsewhere?

    1. Joy ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      That may be true. I don’t know how $150k is middle class here, though. That means you take home about $7k after taxes per month. Is that really middle class? To rent a house in the Bay Area it’s about $5000 a month (I rent a 1br in the suburbs and it’s $2500 a month.) So… how is $150k middle class? But I agree with you that it’s impossible to have job security long enough to be comfortable buying a $1M house even if you can afford it “now.” I think middle class in the Bay Area is $250k-$400k.

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