The Truth About What Hard Work Gets You These Days

Posted on 30 December 2011 by Cami Graves

One of the most common arguments I hear leveled against Occupy Wall Street is that we are young, entitled, and have no idea what hard work looks like.

Actually, it sounds a lot like what I’ve heard spoken about people from my demographic for as long as I can remember; I come from a low-income, inner-city, mostly black neighborhood in Indianapolis, IN. My family was so poor at times we lived without water and heat, and once I was embarrassed to find that the people doing work on our roof were from Habitat for Humanity. My grandparents helped us out, but times were often tough. I’m accustomed to being told by the world–principally by those on the Right–that I am lazy, stupid, and believe I deserve benefits I didn’t work for.

Here’s the thing: I went to Harvard. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that counts for something.

Usually, I don’t go around broadcasting that information. Frankly, revealing my alma mater mortifies me. People treat me like I’m some kind of phenomenon. No learning institution in the world garners as much awe and respect as Harvard, and it’s not every day that you meet one of its alums—at least not in the circles I frequent, since I didn’t leave college and immediately surround myself with other Ivy League graduates. But even as I blush and smile sheepishly when people still congratulate me years after graduating from Harvard, I also know that I deserved to be there. I worked really hard to get there. Really, really hard.

Before I go on, I have to be clear: I’m not saying this to brag; I’m saying it to illustrate a point.

I come from a family of hardworking people. Many of the men in my family served in the military, including both of my grandfathers, my father, and one of my half-brothers. My grandfather worked for 45 years at GM, my father for 30 as a bus driver. My grandmother was a nurse for 40 years. My mother sometimes held two or more jobs while I was growing up. My brother and I both started working at a young age—I found my first job when I was thirteen, cleaning house for an older couple at my church (I’m sure Newt Gingrich would be proud). At fifteen, I got my first legal job working at a newly established local café, and I kept working through high school and college.

I also come from a family of incredibly smart and talented people. Some are perhaps less obvious cases, never having been to or finished college: my dad has only given me one book in my life—The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich when I was ten, telling me it was one of the most valuable texts he’d ever read. And sometimes he likes to go on these long tangents about particle physics, which he learned from years of reading books on astrophysics and science magazines. Or there’s my mother. One day a year or so ago she surprised me by saying she had never cared for Ulysses. I knew she was a glutton for classic literature, but I didn’t know she had bothered to pick up Joyce. She’s the most emotionally intelligent person I know, and, perhaps I’m biased, but I’m convinced she’s just a genius.

Others are more obviously brilliant. Several in my family have advanced degrees, including an aunt who studied at Tuskegee, the University of Michigan, Oxford, and the University of Southern California. Another aunt started as a cashier at a hospital right out of high school and now has an M.S.N. in adolescent psychiatry. One of my uncles just received his masters in education and has decided to go for a PhD. My father’s mother was a classically trained violinist, which I didn’t learn until after she died. My brother is multi-talented, the kind of kid who pulled apart his electronics, knows how to work a room in any kind of social situation, and has a knack for refurbishing old furniture.

As for myself, despite holding down a job throughout high school, I was always on honor roll. I participated in multiple extracurricular activities—clubs, volunteering, local programs, you name it. My mother took me on my first college visit when I was thirteen, and it was my main obsession for the majority of my teenage years. For me, as for any teenager, high school was grueling, but I powered through it because I knew I had to go to college. I was promised by everyone I knew, by my family, by my teachers, by society, that if I went to college, I would never end up leading a sad life like the lives of so many people in my neighborhood. I remember being told that I would probably end up pregnant and on welfare by the time I was twenty, and I could never let that happen. Then came the unexpected reward of all my determination. During my junior year, I began receiving brochures from Harvard, Yale, and MIT. Previously, it hadn’t occurred to me to consider a top university, so being actively sought was astonishing. If college was the promise of success, a top school was the jackpot. I applied early action at Harvard, and I was accepted by mid-December of my senior year.

See? Hard work pays off.

But not really.

Now is not the time to describe what it was like coming from poverty and lack and entering a world where half my classmates were the children of the insanely rich and famous. Needless to say, I was unprepared, and if it wouldn’t detract from what this article is really about, I would argue that a person like me was destined for hardship in a classroom full of kids who mostly ranged from the upper middle-class, who had attended rather nice, if not the best, public, parochial, and private schools, to the wealthy, who had attended the likes of Exeter, Eton, and Harvard-Westlake. But I won’t go there, because I did okay. I at least made it out, and I made friends and learned some things in the process. (Not to mention that I would do it all again for access to those fabulous libraries!)

I seem like a success story, the poster child for all of that old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric. My family should be an example of what can be accomplished when yours is the American dream. Most of us, at one point or another, in some form or another, experienced severe poverty, abuse, racism, humiliation, and failure, but we pursed our lips and we persevered. Yet, we find ourselves up against a new wall, and I, upon graduating from college, found myself without any prospects. The one place I managed to get hired in the years after college was Starbucks. Yup. Starbucks.

I took all the right steps, made all the right moves. So where did I go wrong?

The answer is that I didn’t do anything wrong.

In 2008, a panic rippled through my class as those who had landed jobs at Merrill-Lynch and Goldman Sachs were discarded like dirty Kleenex. The recession was in full swing by May, and many in my class found themselves not jetting off to New York City, San Francisco, London, and Abu Dhabi, as they had originally planned, but returning home to Mom and Dad. I looked for jobs in my field at museums, thinking if I put in enough applications, something would happen. I had volunteered and worked in museums, galleries, and rare books libraries since I was eleven and majored in art, even studied abroad in Venice, so I seemed like a shoo-in. No such luck. Unable to find a job at any of the museums in Boston, I moved to the Bay Area, again, with no luck. I planned to move to Chicago, but inquiries there also had no success. In fact, museums and libraries were among the first organizations to begin losing funding once the financial crisis began, so the five or six dozen applications I submitted probably received only half a glance before they were tossed out.

Eventually, I ended up back in Indiana with my parents for a few months working at a Starbucks in a Target store. Museums in this fourth location also, of course, weren’t doing much hiring. It was intolerable. It wasn’t that I felt Starbucks was beneath me, but it felt like much more than a minor setback that I was doing the exact same job after getting a degree from Harvard that I had been doing when I first entered the workforce at fifteen. It didn’t seem right. I felt let down, robbed of everything I had been promised.

Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—I and many of my friends, all of whom also floundered in their first years after leaving college, were able to get into graduate school. Not the original plan, but sufficient for now. We’re not naive; we know that we’re accumulating student debt in the hopes that when we get our masters and PhDs, the job market will be a little more in our favor. As educational institutions continue to hemorrhage money, the forecast is woefully dim, but this is all we have to fall back on.

But most people don’t have my education and can’t retreat into the world of academia. Since 2008, the economy has improved, yet unemployment remains high. Some have lost jobs they held for ages, like my mother’s husband, who has been out of work for over a year. Some are underemployed and underpaid, like the aforementioned aunt who studied at four prestigious institutions to end up teaching middle school math. Others are undergraduates like my cousin, a freshman at Purdue who may soon find herself paying a higher tuition with perhaps less promise of a job as an outcome. (Thankfully, Purdue has gone against the national trend, keeping its tuition increases much lower than the 2011-12 average.) We’ve heard countless stories of how the middle class is free-falling into financial ruin, with one in two Americans now reported to be “poor” or living in poverty. It’s all over the news, and experts say that portrayals of poverty are actually inaccurate, asserting that things are much worse than we think. Economists are dubious of the 120,000 jobs created in November 2011, and with good reason–it doesn’t mean anything when CEOs are reporting that they have no plans to increase hiring in the next six months, with some actually planning to let go of employees. (I should note that unemployment is dropping, but at a slow pace. Further, what worries me isn’t the possibility that our economy won’t improve, but the possibility that if it does, nothing else will.)

Despite these staggering numbers, I keep hearing these accusations thrown around about the poor that are now being directed at those participating in the Occupy protests, that we just aren’t working hard enough, that we’re expecting free handouts, even that we’re envious of the rich and simply want what they have.

It’s unbelievable to me that the people who caused us to be in the state we’re in won’t take responsibility for their accommodation of corporate and financial interests over the needs of Americans, that they blame us for the conditions in which we live and threaten the programs that are barely keeping us afloat. Our current Republican contenders for president want to take away our health care, our social security, our housing programs, etc., leaving us not only at the mercy of the organizations they allow to prey on us and our wallets but also without the means to feed and clothe our families when we have no other recourse. It’s unbelievable to me that so many Americans won’t hold them accountable, that instead these perfectly ordinary people, often suffering themselves, parrot the party line like dutiful robots, oblivious to the reality of our dire situation. They think this too will pass, unaware that they are tools in their own subjugation. It’s unbelievable to me that all of these people ridicule and mock us when we fight back, while the government suppresses us, further deepening our misery and our persecution.

Corrupt politicians want us to believe that the USA is a meritocracy. Too many people do believe that the USA is a meritocracy. It is not, never in the past and certainly not now. Especially not if all these fantastical “job creators” keep receiving tax breaks, corporate welfare, and more say in elections while Congress hems and haws over whether struggling Americans deserve the same (see: payroll tax cuts, benefits programs, disenfranchisement and voter suppression).

If America is a meritocracy, then I should be proof that those on the Right are, well, right. I wish I was proof that they’re right. But they’re not right. Even without the recession and the economic turmoil, I would be dissatisfied with the way our country treats its poor. This isn’t just about a temporary lull in the economy; it’s about the disgusting and greedy attitudes that led to it, that still aren’t dead today, that will continue unless we expose and kill them. My post-college experiences just add more fuel to the fire of my anger, and I’m outraged not only at how the poor are treated, but also at how we all have been misled. I’m outraged at the lies.

I am not proof of how the American dream is achievable. I’m proof of how a poor little black girl from the “ghetto” can go to Harvard and end up without a future, not because of anything I did or didn’t do, but because I was fed an empty promise. I’m not lazy, stupid, or entitled, and I don’t come from people who are lazy, stupid, or entitled. I was taught all of the right values. Those who are supposed to be representing me were not. I believe the Occupy Movement’s goal is to protect and uphold those values when the American government won’t, just as the original Revolutionaries upheld the principles of (their version of) democracy when the tyranny of a rich and distant king had its vice-like grip on the colonies.

Yes, I’d call myself a pretty hard worker, just like those colonists whose memories we Americans are supposed to hold so dear. Just like them, I’ll do anything to secure a future for myself, for my posterity, and for those I love–which just happens to include a whole of people I don’t even know–and that includes fighting the established powers. We work like we’re supposed to, we play by their rules, and yet we don’t get what we deserve and need to lead comfortable lives. Now’s the time to refuse to play by their rules any longer. That’s the truth about what hard work gets you in America these days. Nothing. Nothing at all. At least not until you make it count, until you put your work into combating the twisted system that makes it worthless and the corrupt people who defend that system.