Monday, September 24, 2012

Victoria Barrett's Voice

Dear Mitt Romney,

In January of 2011 I started a publishing company. Good for me, right? To save up seed funds, I built websites, taught extra classes, picked up whatever freelance work I could. Though it hasn’t yet, the company I started will eventually create jobs.
I’ll wait here for your congratulations.

Meanwhile, let’s review my path to January of 2011. We’ll pass not one but two public universities where I studied and a third where I teach (still, until the publishing company creates a job for me.) A mound of student loans subsidized by the federal government. Four jobs waiting tables where, yup, I earned too little to pay federal income tax, despite working 60 hours some weeks while I was still in school.

Then there’s the year I dropped out, so burned-out by the pressures of financial insecurity (my own and my family’s), studying, a social life trying to participate in activities I couldn’t afford. One of the waitressing jobs was that year, at night, after eight-hour days dispatching truck drivers. At the day job, I was the first female summer temp to be promoted from clerk to dispatcher, ever; I was promoted because I was driven, I was responsible, and I had the nerve to walk into the vice president’s office and ask for the job. Not a victim, no. Still, because the costs of education even at a public institution were beyond what I could have afforded, because as the first temp female dispatcher I was paid 2/3 what the men made, because even with the second job waiting tables four or five nights a week and two or three shifts on weekends I could never accumulate that kind of money, I would need those federal loans to go back to school. 

See, Mitt, I couldn’t ask my parents to pay for it all. Where would they have gotten the money, working a clerical job and driving a truck, supporting two households on those jobs, because they’d been divorced for years and years by then?

Before that, I did ask. I stood in a courtroom and was told by the circuit judge that, according to my state’s guidelines, he should not require my estranged father to contribute to my educational costs, since those guidelines predicted that a child whose parents had not attended college would not succeed at college. Neither of my parents graduated high school. But because I carried a 4.0 GPA, a part-time job, and a spot on the cheerleading squad, he felt it was reasonable to make an exception and ordered my father to contribute. A whopping $900 per academic year.

Even earlier, at a number of intervals, there was occasional government assistance. Free school lunches. Greasy blocks of cheese. You know the list. I doubt that my mother ever paid federal income tax during those years. I know, with my after-school job at Pizza Hut, making $4.05/hour (again, less than the boys, whose raises doubled mine until I pointed the discrepancy out) that I never did.
Do I sound angry? If not, you should read more carefully. Because I am profoundly, inexpressibly angry.

My life. My existence as an employed adult American who contributes steadily to our consumer economy and who pays a higher federal income tax rate than you do—you have dismissed this life, and the lives of millions of other voting, spending taxpayers with a wave of your hand. You have participated in the creation of an evil, soul-crushing myth: That people who use public services without contributing in the one category that you’ve cherry-picked to make your point—federal income tax—are irresponsible, victims, exhibiting an unearned sense of entitlement. I’ll go ahead and be crass: Bullshit. The number of layabouts on welfare is entirely negligible. It’s not a fraction that would even register on your pie chart.

This myth you’ve helped create has imposed a deep and abiding shame on your countrymen who accept the help their government offers them in times of need. It is as divisive as any policy or platitude: it results in people making minimum wage checking groceries shunning people who would otherwise be unable to feed their children. It results in some families failing to feed their children because they are too proud to accept “a handout,” knowing that they cannot bear that encounter with the grocery store clerk.

Shame has never motivated anybody. It only gets in the way.

I was 36 years old when I started Engine Books. It’s growing faster than I had imagined, but I’ll still be well over 40 by the time it begins to provide anything resembling a salary, and by the time my own writing generates income. When I look around at the books my writer friends have published, at the accomplishments of the supposed slackers of my generation, I’m reminded that I’ve always been a late bloomer. See, you spent your formative years at an elite private high school developing the mean-spiritedness that would carry you through politics; I spent my formative years ashamed, trying to hide who I was and where I had been. I spent my college and grad school years beginning to understand that my life didn’t have to be dictated by the misfortunes I inherited, and the years after that trying to figure out what should guide this life, the one I have now created. So I’m a little behind. I’m behind because the shame your rhetoric reinforces, shame you could never in a million years understand, held me back, despite all that drive and hard work. And I could not possibly be more pissed off at you, and at people like you, who don’t care at all, who never will. 

Victoria Barrett 

Victoria Barrett is a writer, editor, and professor. Her own fiction has appeared in Colorado Review, Massachusetts Review, You Must Be This Tall to Ride, and Confrontation. She has recently completed her first novel, Four Points Gin.