According to CNN’s middle class calculator, my family lands firmly in the middle class for Chittenden County, Vermont. I checked other sources as well, and sure enough, it appears we are a middle class Vermonter family. Well… pop out the champagne glasses, folks! It appears we’ve made it. But, have we?
My husband and I have good jobs. We have a roof over our heads. We have reliable transportation. We have healthy food on our table. We have a beautiful son. And, we’ve been fortunate to avoid major catastrophic events, like a house fire or serious illness. As someone who grew up in a low-income home, I know exactly what it means to struggle. So, I considered myself very lucky to enter this life as a middle class Vermonter. And yet, I can’t help but question why the reality doesn’t seem to be the golden ticket I once thought it was.
Growing up, I knew the American Dream was out of reach in my lower-income home. In my vision, the Dream was being in the middle class and being able to afford the nice car, the white picket fence, the perfectly manicured lawn, and the 2.5 kids. I strove for that vision. I graduated from college with honors. I had my first job before graduating. I’ve worked long hours that led to several promotions over the years.
So, here we are, firmly in the middle class, but that vision of the American Dream? It’s still out of reach. Why?
In the dozen years that followed graduation, my husband and I worked really hard (and slowly) to acquire our vision of the middle class Vermonter American Dream. We got pretty close. We adopted a dog. We purchased our first home. We bought a nice (used) car. We even bought a boat. When we had enough money saved, we invested in upgrades to our fixer-upper house (the investment before the dream home). We were on a good trajectory. We were comfortable. Then, we decided to take the next step and start a family. In 2016, we found out we were expecting a baby boy. We were beyond excited.
As parents, you all know the drill. Important choices needed to be made. We realized we couldn’t afford to lose any income, so that meant we’d have to pay for full-time childcare. We sold our boat to help with expenses. We set aside the nice car for a more practical one. I was fortunate to have my own health insurance covered by my employer. But like most Americans, we couldn’t afford the almost $1k a month additional cost for family coverage, so we resigned ourselves to the additional $490 per month cost to cover a dependent on my insurance plan. We found a great daycare that was more affordable than others in our town, but it was still nearly $12.5k per year. After our son was born, we had multiple medical expenses and we didn’t qualify for assistance, so we set-up minimum payments (we still owe more than $4k).
I’m not oblivious to the plight of those less fortunate than my family.
As I said, I grew up in a low-income home. Whenever I feel deflated, I imagine someone on minimum-wage, with a child, working full time. He or she would make roughly $22k a year, before taxes. The cost of insurance, childcare and medical expenses that I’m facing would be insurmountable. Factor into this the high cost of housing in Vermont, and you can understand the need for resources that help to subsidize costs. Resources that wouldn’t be needed, if wages, affordable housing, affordable health care, and affordable childcare were accessible to all people.
In general, we consider household income to be an indicator of wealth, without really accounting for the disposable income that remains after essential expenses. With our one child, in our county, just two bills cost my family almost $19k a year – childcare, and our son’s health insurance. Now, consider that the U.S. Census Bureau showed the median household income in Chittenden County in 2016 to be $67,833. You can do the math. Deduct monthly rent or mortgage, utilities, medical or vet bills, clothing, food, home or car repairs… It isn’t hard to see how difficult it is for many families to meet that vision of the American Dream. I ask myself, was my vision of the American Dream wrong this entire time, or was it just that – a dream, never to be reached?
In my middle-class Vermont American Dream, we’ll get by. We’ll call our fixer-upper house a home for longer than planned, but we’ll have a roof over our heads. Our lawn will stay just a bit unmanicured, but we’ll have food in our cupboards. Our fence will remain a decrepit, decades-old chain link, but our dog will still have a yard to roam. What’s most important is, we have our health, and we have each other. No, we aren’t suffering, but I don’t know if we are living the dream either.
And there’s this overwhelming tension of fragility.
What happens when our health fails? Well, we’ll be like so many others, forced into an impossible situation. As a Washington Post article aptly noted, “Being in the middle is supposed to keep you economically safe.” The reality is, one twist of fate, one lost job, one serious illness could be all that it takes to knock us down. We can put our one child in daycare and provide him with health insurance, and I’m grateful for that. But “economically safe”? Heck no. Plain and simple. We are one catastrophic event away from economic insecurity.
The reality of my middle-class status is not the American Dream I envisioned in my youth. I know many feel the same. For now, or until affordability is addressed on a massive scale, we may need to redefine our vision of that elusive dream. For my family, that might mean only one kid and an old, ugly fence. But hey, as dreams go, that’s not so bad. And every time I look into my son’s hopeful, innocent eyes, I’ll remember that the only dream that really matters, is already there, staring right back at me, calling me his “mama.”
Brianne is a busy mom and full-time marketing professional. After spending a couple of years in NY, she and her husband decided to settle down in Vermont, where they both grew up and learned to love the great outdoors. She has a B.S. in Public Relations and has been writing in various forms for more than 20 years. She currently lives with her family in Chittenden County.
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