Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Welcome to the Middle Class

My job gave me another day to teach, so I picked up three new students and actual office hours. The extra hours also qualified me for health insurance. Yes! This is why I went to Grad School and gave up three years of my life (and my family's life). All I wanted was health insurance, a little retirement and a steady paycheck. I wanted to be middle class.

When that first paycheck arrived back in September, I was ecstatic. At last, I am officially middle class. My husband and I together earn enough to pay ALL our bills and have a little left over for savings. We can even afford to go out to dinner at a nice restaurant on occasion, the kind of restaurant with cloth napkins and a wine list as long as the menu. We can go to the movies now and not have to sneak in our own drinks. And we can afford a tank of gas and groceries on the same day.

It seems that all of my middle class dreams have come true.

For the majority of my life, I've lived on some kind of government assistance. I grew up on government cheese and dental care from the free clinic. My parents worked, but they didn't earn enough to support two kids and not need Food Stamps. When I left home, I became a starving student, working my way through college with the help of Student Aid and two jobs. Then I became a mom, and when my daughter was diagnosed with disabilities, she received the support of Social Security, MediCal, and California Children's Services. We received In Home Support Services for her daily care, and I myself qualified for MediCal. Even when I married Rick, who has always worked two or three jobs, we didn't earn enough for health insurance. We did buy a house in an expensive area, but we needed to live in that expensive area so Queen Teen could go to the excellent schools there. Just making the mortgage every month was a financial juggling act.

I started my life as a kid on welfare, eventually worked my way up to "working class," and after more hard work, have reached "middle class."

I have no idea what middle class means.

On the day I calculated my yearly salary and then started leaping around the living room, yelling, "Oh my god, I'm rich," my husband sat me down and explained that after taxes and paying the bills, I would be broke again.

"But it's more money than I've ever made in my life," I argued.

"I know. But we're no where near rich."

A few days later, I bought a Motley Fool book determined to learn what "middle class" meant. I wanted to know why the middle class people I knew complained about being broke? Please! I'll bet not one of them has had to chose between groceries or medicine. Not one has had their power turned off. Oh boo-hooh, they can't afford cable. Whatever! Try not being able to afford gasoline.

I'm still reading the book, and I realize I don't have a clue how to be middle class. What is a 401(k)? Retirement? Do people still believe they'll actually be able to stop working someday? How the hell do you buy stock, and why would anyone in their right mind want to? Wait, you mean budgeting is more than just tallying your expenses at the end of the month while deciding which bill you can skip? Who knew?

I now realize that every social class has its own set of problems. Sure, many of the middle class have no concept of what real poverty is. However, they don't get much help sending their kids to college or paying their electric bill when money is tight. There are no programs to help middle class families pay medical bills that insurance doesn't cover (but I still want to kick a person if they bitch about the price of portabella mushrooms ).

I picked up the health insurance forms from work yesterday and I'm trying to figure them out. I'm also asking myself if I can actually afford health insurance. At 45, can I afford not to? But it's a big chunk of change out of my check every month. There goes any hope of buying a newer car  next year.

Hah! There I go. Sounding like a middle class person.

Oh boo-hoo, you can't afford to buy a newer car? Well at least you have a car! A car that runs! That doesn't break down all the time. And at least you can afford to take it to the shop to keep it running.

Getting used to being middle class will take time.


dlefler said...

The middle class is a great place to be. I have been VERY fortunate and we have been a middle class family forever, but I grew up in a family with a lot less money (thank God for food stamps). There are definitely still worries in the middle class (particularly when you are on the brink of becoming medically bankrupt), but it is nothing compared to the worries of having enough to eat, or a place to live.

Mother of Chaos said...

Welcome to the middle of the sandwich. It's a nice place to be - enough to have what you need and a fair amount of what you want, but without that constant pressure of EITHER not-enough, or too-much.

Barbara said...

I really enjoyed this post, Terena! You are a gifted writer.

On the topic, I don't have a lot to say, but Hubby and I learned about a teacher-of-teachers who seems to have figured-out how to distinguish the 'classes' in our society.

Her name is Ruby Payne. Search and read her for some interesting stuff. I referred to her in this post: http://www.therextras.com/therextras/2009/02/more-than-just-backdrop-.html

I was not raised in poverty but I might have thought I was poor when I was a kid, so frugal were my parents - both very poor children during the depression.