“A curious thing happens when you offer up your life for public consumption: People start to interpret your biography, to explain to you what they think it means. At book signings, in interviews, I’m often told that my story is uplifting, that I am a model of resilience, an “inspiration.” Which is a nice thing to be told, so I say thank you. But every so often someone takes it a bit further, and says something to which I do not have a response. I’m told, “You are living proof of the American dream, that absolutely anything is possible for anybody.”
“But am I? Is that what the story means?”
“After being tired, here’s what I remember most about being poor: a pervasive sense of costly trade-offs. Of course you had to take the maximum number of credits, because tuition was expensive; of course you had to pick up that second job, that extra shift, that third side hustle raking leaves or mowing lawns or shoveling snow. The only question I ever asked was how soon could they pay.”
. . . .
“To poor kids today, we present a no-win scenario. We shout shrilly that they must get a college degree, because without one they can’t hope to compete in the globalized economy, but even as we say it, we doubt our own advice. We know that we are asking them to bury themselves in debt at a moment when it is very uncertain what kind of job they will be able to get or how long it will take them to repay the loans. We know it, and they know it. For them, the American dream has become a taunt. Perhaps my story is proof not of the persistence of the American dream but of its precarity, even its absence.”