I have a friend named Grace. She’s 52-years-old. She’s a professional make-up artist. Then she went back to school and became a licensed aesthetician. Today, she has four more classes until she gets her AA degree. She has ten dollars in her pocket.
Politicians, activists, commentators, and pundits talk about big business, conglomerates, multi-nationals, millionaires, and billionaires. At a drop of a hat, they’ll talk about the gravity of maintaining America’s middle class. One group I never hear discussed—the working poor.
I met Grace eight years ago when she was hired to work for the company I was studio managing. I worked Monday through Friday, 9-5. I was divorced and had a two-year-old daughter. I was hustling my girl to a 9-hour shift at daycare, then going to work, then hustling back before overtime kicked in for the daycare worker, then hustling home to make dinner, bathe my daughter, read her stories, etc. My ex-husband helped out when he wasn’t on a minimum 12-hour commercial shoot. Or, on location.
Grace and I became friends. A year later when I started my own business, I hired her to do make-up and hair for my clients during the week (when I had clients) and we both worked for my old company, and then another company, on the weekends.
Thankfully, I had friends who said, “Oh, yes!” when I asked if they would look after my daughter for eight hours on a Saturday or Sunday, or Saturday and Sunday. I paid them back by looking after their kids when they took an evening out. I didn’t have evenings out. No time. No money. Grace didn’t either—and this is her story.
After some years, Grace and her husband (a teacher, studying to get his degree) decided they wanted to go home. This sounds overly dramatic, but she pined for her city by the bay—with its rain and fog, hills and views of the water everywhere you looked. Her old car wouldn’t make the 6-hour trip on the highway that takes you inside the middle of nowhere, so they towed it on the back of their tiny U-Haul. She was thrilled to be back home. Then, she spent the next six months commuting back down south (and sleeping on my couch) to do a wedding, fashion shoot or work with me because she couldn’t find any work back home. Her husband couldn’t find a teaching post; couldn’t even land a job in a painting-store chain. It was on Grace to earn all of the money, to pay all of the bills.
Her mind was a hive of anxiety, her body granite with tension, her stress level beyond maximum capacity.
She finally landed a job back home as an aesthetician at a salon. Because of their convoluted payment scheme, her hours could not support her and she had to find a second job at another salon. New clients. Happy clients. Still not enough clients.
One of the salons at which she works is part of a huge chain, internationally known and respected; Grace has to bring in her own products. Executives flew in to commend the staff, telling them that their department had the most service sales and was selling the most products nationwide; they fired the woman who washed the towels to save money. Managers don’t know how to manage. Higher-ups don’t bother to listen to the employees down on the ground. Grace keeps on, though she’s increasingly discouraged about the inefficiency, the infighting, the accelerating shabbiness of the salon, and her paltry bi-monthly paycheck.
Grace only has health insurance because her husband has finally landed a teaching job. He also goes to school, though some semesters he can’t because the state college isn’t accepting anymore students due to budget cuts. Grace often talks about giving up her health insurance since it’s costing her $324 a month and she gets so tired of having to—one more time—call their kindly landlord and ask for a week’s extension. Well, maybe ten days. Yes, that would be great. Thank you so much. (Pride trampled; ego obliterated.)
Like so many politicians and economists recommend, Grace went back to school and learned a new trade (at which she is quite talented). Now, she’s four courses away from completing her Associates Degree. She buys textbooks used because she can’t afford them new. Sometimes she attends classes for over a month before any used texts are available to purchase. She has to take two buses to get to the college library to type her papers, signing in for half an hour at a time because she and her husband can’t afford to get their hand-me-down computer fixed.
She declines friends’ invitations because she can’t afford a whole meal out. She can’t go to a club that has a two drink minimum. She and her husband treat themselves to their favorite taco-stand burritos once a month. They haven’t had a vacation in seven years.
Grace is one of the hardest working people I know. She doesn’t know the words “stop,” “slow down,” or “take a breather.” But she has come to know the meaning of exhaustion, anxiety attacks, depression, and despair.
Grace has a lovely face and a brilliant smile. She’s intelligent, reads the paper, is up to date politically, and is socially conscious. She’s interested in, and can hold her own, on almost any topic. She loves good food. She misses traveling.
Grace has two vocations. She works six-day weeks. She has $300 in savings. She has no retirement account. She still rents. The shoes she wears to work make her feet cold as she walks because they have holes in the soles. She hasn’t bought a new bra in a year and a half.
You wouldn’t realize looking at her that the jeans she’s wearing are one of the two pair that she owns. You wouldn’t realize as you’re talking to her that her underwear is slipping off her thighs because they’ve lost the elastic but she can’t afford to buy more. As you’re discussing politics with her, you’d never guess that she watches the news on a small, bunny-eared 15” t.v. As you moan about the bad economy and complain about being broke, you’d never believe that you have no true idea what broke really means.
Grace has ten dollars to her name.
So, Mr. President, Senators, Representatives, and Americans: may I please introduce you to Grace. Do you recognize her? Have you seen her before? Have you smiled and had a bit of a chat? Never guessing, never knowing that…
Grace is a member of a substantial but invisible group in this country.
She’s the working poor.
©2011 Dear America: Do You Know Me? I Am the Working Poor by Kat Ward