They have been married so long they barely remember the good times. Now, they haunt the untidy gravel lot hidden behind neglected commercial buildings on the outskirts of town and try to ignore the present. Blasted by freezing winds, they scour dilapidated cardboard boxes, seeking some discarded article they can use. She is a beautiful 65-year-old former lottery millionaire and he is a silver-haired 60-year-old former executive. Scavenging the shards of other people’s hard luck lives is but one of the strategies they use to manage Down Living: living at an economic level below what your education, job experience, work ethic and social contributions should have brought to you according to the tenets of the American Dream.
Inside a poorly heated, disheveled warehouse, they wait for several hours for the auctioneer to offer up something to sustain their meager existence, at a price they can afford: a dollar, maybe even two or three for a crucial item. Her hands get so cold; he helps to warm them as best he can while he stamps his own frozen feet against the floor to force the blood to flow. At the end of a long, icy day, they gather their tattered parcels and return to the $300,000 home they are about to lose. Feasting on bread so outdated most of it is tossed outside for the birds and raccoons, they consume packaged goods well past their prime. Their spirits are bright and optimistic. They have each other, in love and in laughter. Besides, things used to be better. Maybe they will be again. Maybe they will be saved. Maybe America will come to its senses. Until then, they must be very frugal. No food is thrown away. Plastic bags from infrequent visits to the grocery store, instead of Tupper Ware, are used and re-used to cover bowls containing leftovers. Waste water is saved for the plants. Many layers of patched clothing are worn to save on heat costs. Lighting at night is done with candles. Clothes are steamed instead of taken to the dry cleaners. They don’t eat out. They don’t go out. TV is their only entertainment, besides each other. Because of her bone condition, she requires a hot tub for therapy so they keep it functioning at all costs.
New is something they can no longer afford so old clothes must be mended, broken kitchen cabinets must somehow be repaired, malfunctioning appliances must be abandoned. Her precious wind chimes must be glued and re-wired so she can hear their sublime tinkling. Lack of money has curtailed for them many activities that most people take for granted but it has not yet denied them the ability to live with some style. They can afford no extras but insist on maintaining high standards for basic living–as long as they can. When it is on sale, they buy duck and chicken. The duck is roasted to perfection in a rotisserie grill they got for two bucks. In a crock pot they got for a dollar, the chicken becomes coq au vin. Deeply discounted lamb is barded with garlic and put in the rotisserie to produce a fabulous herb-crusted leg of lamb. When avocados are available for 78 cents, they make a big bowl of guacamole. A former bartender, she then serves up frosty, tangy margaritas. By carefully counting pennies and strictly adhering to priorities, they have thus far maintained a satisfying quality of life as their fortunes declined. But the simplest of misfortunes would be a disaster for them. A broken furnace, a major car repair, or a medical emergency would sink them. After a lifetime of paying their bills, paying their taxes, and paying back some to society they should have ended up in a better place than this.
Neither was born to privilege. She began life in a German concentration camp. Brought to America as a child, she grew up in the Philadelphia area, earned a college degree, married and had two children and settled into a career. Before winning the lottery in the 1980s, she had worked in the hospitality industry. With her winnings, she established a non-profit business that allowed her to make the kind of social contribution that deeply satisfied her sense of justice and mercy. Then the state where the business was located initiated a series of legal actions that forced her to close her business and left her personally bankrupt. She got a job as a social worker and she continues to give to society but she does not earn enough to keep her house.
He was born to working class parents, earned a college degree, served during the Vietnam war, earned another college degree, married and had two children, and established a business career. Along the way, he had established a program to help raise the self-esteem of poor kids in the projects, a program to help get kids living on the street off of drugs, had helped to stop unfair labor practices at his college and had assisted in the abolition of the privacy invasion doctrine known as in loco parentis practiced by his university and many others. Forced out of his career by the Tech Bubble collapse, he has been forced to deplete his 401k. He doesn’t have enough to save the house. He will go broke before he turns 62 and can draw early retirement from Social Security.
These two older Americans represent what has happened to the American Dream: educated, achieving, social contributors have been marginalized by government policies that crippled our economic performance. Tax codes and trade agreements destroyed our manufacturing base, exported good jobs and replaced them with low-paying service jobs. While devaluing our economy, runaway government spending forced us into recession. By deliberately making war on our prosperity, the government has promoted Ageism because companies have been forced to get rid of older higher-paid employees and to hire younger, inexperienced workers who could be paid much less. The older Americans who built the great American Prosperity are being systematically forced into poverty by the government they defended in war and the society they improved with their lives.
Our government has no bailout for these two Down Livers, no entitlement program, no grant, no disaster relief, no nothing. There is no federal protective category for the educated unfortunate social contributor. A mind may be a terrible thing to waste but an educated mind must fend for itself. That is the Law of the Social Jungle In the Service Economy.
Happily, these two star-crossed lovers will be dead soon enough and we can bury our shame in their graves. But fairness demands that we turn our gaze to the profligate Congress that forced them to die without dignity and, in a steadfast, menacing voice declare, “A pox on both your houses!”
Causes Michael Warren Supports