I had an exchange on Facebook just now regarding my rainy day post. A friend congratulated me on my ability to save that much loose change. She had, she said, only managed a jar with $60 in it at one time. It got me to thinking again about something that was in the back of my thoughts as I wrote that post.
I have a decent well paying job. An amazing one actually. I work for the Space Telescope Science Institute. We operate the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA, and I am part of the teams working on developing the Science Operations Center for the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. I have no college degree, just decades of experience developing business application software and I was hired on to do just that initially…the Grant Management System for Hubble Space Telescope grantees. Even the pursuit of science needs business systems software to track money and progress. That’s what I do. It probably puts me at the low end of the wage scale compared to the experienced flight software developers and the scientists and astronomers. But it’s still a Very Nice income and the benefits package is Very Very Nice and the work environment I live in on a day to day basis is both exciting and deeply soul satisfying. I am a very lucky person.
Even so, looking over that post and the expenses I listed I can’t help but be disturbed at how far out of reach the life I have may seem to others. To myself it just seems like a basic middle class life. And I don’t have a family or kids to support. It’s just me. But as I typed out that list of expenses for the quarter, I could feel the lives of some of my friends tapping me on the shoulder. It was uncomfortable. They all know I was there myself once, and I didn’t think I would ever make it out of living in a friend’s basement, and mowing lawns to make ends meet. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life until I got that phone call asking me to go for an interview for a contract programmer’s job. I’ve been there. But it was still uncomfortable. I hate what’s happened to our country and the working people in it since Reagan promised everyone a shining city on a hill.
The house adds a lot of expense. But I get some pretty big tax breaks just for owning it. That’s not something I approve of out of self interest. Home ownership was a dream I had from childhood. Mom could have bought us one back in the early 60s but the banks wouldn’t lend to a single divorced Woman With Child, even if she had the down payment money and a steady and sufficient income; and that was perfectly legal discrimination back then. I believe that home ownership is a stabilizing social force, that gives people the chance to own a piece of their community and thereby a stake in it. So that’s the kind of thing I think government should encourage. But the thing is it’s not about owning property, it’s about having that stake in your community and the Right just doesn’t get that way of thinking. So home ownership is elevated because…Property Rights! But jobs that pay the sort of wages necessary for home ownership are not considered important. Property is important, people’s lives are not, and community is…is…Communism! And nowadays I don’t think they want us peons to own our own homes anyway. They want those of us who have one to sell them to the banks via reverse mortgages. God forbid working class families get to inherit tangible property.
So yes, the house adds a lot of expense. But you can view that against the value of the house and how it fixes me as part of my community. It’s not rent money just going down the drain. I know how that is…apartment life was all I knew until I bought the house. Its…my home. The car is another major expense and you can argue that it’s indulgent, but I didn’t buy it because I wanted a status symbol, I bought it because I like having solid things in my life and that’s how they build them. My brother, who knows the value of solidly built things, was saying the last time he visited that if I take care of it I should easily get another 25 years of use out of it. That’s the plan.
But look at how much all that was. It’s stunning to a guy who grew up in the 60s. I just ran the numbers through an online inflation calculator. $4100 bucks is, so it says, the equivalent of $727 in 1972 dollars…the year I graduated from High School. Now that would have been huge to a teenage boy in 1972, I worked an entire summer in 1971, at a fast food joint for $1.78 an hour, to buy a $500 Canon F1, but I would have expected to be able to easily afford it once I got a good job.
But wages have no where near kept up with inflation. That’s what’s killing the U.S. work force today. I am not a wasteful spender, but I do try to buy things that will last and that costs more in the short term. Still…it’s disturbing how much I spend on everyday stuff and how far above the spending power of most folks that is. And I am not living a fabulous lifestyle, just your basic white collar office worker lifestyle. Well..okay…it’s a technical/engineering profession I’m in. That raises the bar a tad. But not all that much really. This isn’t the lap of luxury here.
And I’m glad I bought the house when I did. No way, even on the income I have now, could I afford a house in this area. Even renting would be more expense than I’d care for. When I first moved to Baltimore rents were easily a week’s take home pay. Now I’d have to spend nearly half a month’s income for something basic, small, but good. It’s scary.