My Opinion

The prosperity of the middle class. How did we survive? My life, my story

Times are tough, really? No doubt if you are unemployed and have been for an extended period, times are tough. But for the bulk of Americans times are not all that unusual. The stock market goes up and it goes down. Inflation is a non issue.

Our politicians and many liberal economists tell us that income inequality is hurting the middle class, that the wealth of relatively few in some way takes from others. The solution is always the same, transfer wealth from some so that government can provide “assistance” to the bulk of Americans.

Our President had this to say in 2011 building his case that hope is lost, that opportunity is gone unless the government does more, and more, and more.

President Obama forcefully articulated the case from the left in an address on Dec. 6, 2011 at Osawatomie High School in Kansas:

This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try. We tell people — we tell our kids — that in this country, even if you’re born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class. We tell them that your children will have a chance to do even better than you do. That’s why immigrants from around the world historically have flocked to our shores.

Enough!

The fact is opportunity always exists, the fact is decisions individuals make in life impact their state in life good or bad, the fact is when one door closes you look for the key to another door, you keep trying, you look for alternatives, opportunities, you do what it takes to move forward.

My sixty-nine years of life experience leaves little room for today’s complainers and excuse makers. Our politicians and press have done their best to make us feel like victims, depressed and in search of scapegoats. Their divisive message says people don’t have opportunity or everyone does not play by the same rules. There is no positive tone, no pulling up by one’s bootstraps, only somebody did this to us, someone has more than we do… and that’s not fair. Of course, whatever has happened in our lives more often than not we did to ourselves.

If you are so inclined, read my life story and the story of millions of other Americans who found the American dream from the middle class.

Studebaker Lark

My father was nineteen at the start of the great depression, my mother was eleven. Immediately after that decade they faced World War II. They were married in 1942 and I was born in late 1943. I suspect that was a stressful period of fifteen years in their lives and the lives of all Americans, even the 1% of the time. In fact, it was probably the most stressful fifteen year period affecting virtually all Americans economically and socially in the history of the Country.

I was told my father had several jobs in his life including milkman, but I only recall him being a ticket agent for the Lackawanna Railroad and an automobile salesman. I remember vividly him working seven days a week from 8:00 AM till 8:00 PM until a state law mandated Sunday closing. Before receiving a salary years later when he was a manager at a new car dealership, he was paid only when a commission was generated by a sale. In weeks when there was no sale, he could take an advance on future commissions. For most of my youth, we did not own a car, but the first one my father could buy was a Studebaker Lark. I remember him being so proud the year he earned his largest income, $25,000. It’s funny how some things stick with you.

Debt was never a problem in our home. Having been stung by the depression my parents spent only what they could pay for in cash and avoided all forms of investment in favor of a savings account and checking account (a decision they probably regretted in their later years). Their ability to save was always modest. The one exception to debt was their home which they finally were able to purchase when my father was age 60 and then only with my sister’s family. When my father turned sixty-five he was called into the office and told he was no longer needed, no pension, no retirement savings, my parents lived on Social Security until they died. To this day I can feel my fathers absolute devastation. A few days later his boss called him crying and apologized for the way he treated my father, but nothing changed…he received a watch. This may be the reason I am so obsessed with educating people about retirement planning and saving.

While growing up my parents and sisters and I lived in a one bedroom apartment (my parents converted the dining room into their bedroom) and around age twelve I began sleeping on the living room couch. By today’s standards of what is “necessary” our apartment would be a good size master suite sans a walk-in closet.

That's me as a boy on my parents luxury estate

That’s me as a boy on my parents luxury estate

I don’t recall going without any necessity, we had everything we needed even a television which arrived with the premier of the Mickey Mouse Club. I never received an allowance or lavish gifts but it never seemed to matter. I always earned what I needed raking leaves for the folks who did have houses, shoveling snow, running our own carnivals with the neighborhood gang (think Little Rascals), shining shoes with my sister or returning soda bottles from the garbage for two cents or five cents depending on the size. Since we lived in an apartment I also helped collect the garbage via a dumb-waiter each evening, I shoveled coal into the furnace and carried out the ashes – man were those cans heavy.

When I was thirteen I talked my way into a job at a local pet shop for five dollars a week and a free tropical fish now and then. I even tried raising fish to sell…they ate their own. When I was fourteen I got an after school job at the local library running a mimeograph machine and shelving books for $.75 an hour. In between, there was selling greeting cards door to door… I still have the .22 single shot rifle I earned from that venture.

My education was not dissimilar to every other kid in the area, our schools were fully integrated with 30% to 40% of my high school being minority or Negro as was the correct term in those days. I never heard the word college mentioned in my home, my parents graduated high school, my grandfather eighth grade. As a result, my high school courses were labeled “business” as opposed to the other choices of general and college preparatory. That meant in addition to the basics of English, Social Studies and arithmetic (different from math), I took bookkeeping, typing and mechanical drawing (I harbored a secret dream of being an architect). Those courses prepared me for nothing in particular as I later learned, but I could write a check and balance a checkbook and thanks to a few great teachers (Mrs Bower, Miss Wheatley, Miss VanBuskirk, Mr Snyder, Mr Weaver and Mr Sherman) I learned to be inquisitive and to think about things and ideas. Who says good teachers don’t leave a lasting impression, they taught me between 1954 and 1961.

Upon graduating high school I had no job prospects and no idea what to do. I spent the following summer working part-time at my library job and walking the streets of Newark, NJ applying for any job I could. My parent’s direction was to find a job with the phone company, utility or big insurance company and stay there. That advice proved to be prophetic. At the end of that summer with my mothers help I landed a job with a small sign company. I hated the job, they really didn’t need me and I was fired after a week. I was devastated at such failure on my part and to this day fifty years later I can still feel that pain. It was back to walking Broad Street in Newark.

In November I struck gold, I found that job with the local utility, one of the largest employers in the state. I was employed in a union job as a mail boy, I was paid $1.49 an hour, the lowest pay of 15,000 employees of the company. Four months later I walked in to my manager’s office asking to sign up for savings bonds. He said, “Don’t bother kid, you aren’t going to be here that long.” Another layoff was in my future only this time the union stepped in and asked the company to try to find something for me. I passed a typing test and was made a clerk in the employee benefits department, a professional area I would remain in for the rest of my career.

Somewhere around 1965 it finally dawned on me that a college degree would be a good idea so I applied to go at night. I quickly learned my high school education was of little value. I would have to go to college for two years at night just to get to the point of meeting the admission requirements. I was ready to give up right then not being a fan of classroom learning to begin with. However, the first semester I took “new math” and English composition. At the end of the semester I barely passed the math, had straight As in composition but failed a 100 question grammar test and thereby failed the course. I quite college.

In 1968 I was still a clerk when in March my National Guard unit was activated and I found myself in the army for the second time (during my first six month tour in 1964 I had a part-time job as well… shelving books in the post library, go figure). Yes, the national guard was called up for the Viet Nam war. In August 1969 I received an early out from the Army to go to college. For six months I went to county college full-time and worked full-time. Then I began a nine-year journey of college at night during which time my wife and I raised four children, my wife doing most of that job and not working outside the home… imagine that. Today we have so screwed things up inflating the cost of a home and resetting social norms, it can’t be done by most people. By 1978 I was a first level management employee (it only took me seventeen years) with a college degree. A degree paid in large part by veteran benefits.

In 1976 I started a side business preparing research reports on HR topics, it was a bust. In 1984 I purchased an Apple II and my fourteen year old son set up an online bulletin board on employee benefits for which I sold subscriptions via a 1200 baud modem updating the information each night after work.

Some time in the late 1970s I went to a financial planner. He asked me my financial goals which were college for my children and a vacation home on Cape Cod. He thought for a moment and didn’t say much, but his manner made it clear he was about to laugh in my face. I couldn’t afford anything except to die. That kind of ticked me off and as you now know, I never forgot that meeting.

Between 1978 and 1995 I published two newsletters, sold one, ran conferences and wrote for two national publications to make extra money, all after working eleven hours on my day job. Our four children graduated from private colleges and in 1987 I bought that house on Cape Cod; affording it by working two jobs and by renting it for most of each summer.

In the years between 1961 and when I retired in 2010 I received several promotions, was passed over for some, received a few awards and was occasionally sorely disappointed on the job. At one point I applied for a new job at another company. By the time I returned to my office the hiring manager had called my current manager who told him not to hire me … end of my job hunting… ah, the good old days.

I ended my career retiring as a Vice President with the company where I was once a mail boy. Today I still have two part-time jobs writing and consulting. It seems I have always had two jobs.

Now you know my story and why I have no tolerance for today’s complainers and those whose main goal seems to be to undermine the American dream. There are millions of Americans with a story similar to mine and many more who had a much tougher row to hoe, but still were successful.

So as you listen to our President tell you who to blame and how unfair things are, how more government programs are the answer and that somehow the middle class can’t get a break, you may want to look in the mirror before coming to any conclusion about your lot in life.

There is always opportunity, work hard, never give up.

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4 replies »

  1. Your point of never giving up and spending within one’s means cannot be stress enough. Saving for your future is not encouraged in today’s world. Spending all your money is encouraged by Wall Street and the government.

    In 9th grade, my parents got divorced. College was not an option for me. From that point I started on what I call “work release”, I would go to school for half a day and then work half a day. I eventually got setup in a printing apprenticeship in a non-union shop and went to night school for printing. I joined the NJ Air National Guard in 1981 for the promise of $200 a month in retirement. At the time IRAs were just being offer to the general public through banks. You could put $2500 away per year and have $50k for retirement. I made $5.25 /hr and saving for retirement was not going to happen. It looked like I was going to work until I die. I figure that today I will need about $1 million saved in my 401K before I can retire so how I was going to retire on $50k baffles me and the government still restricts individual IRAs to so low amounts.

    Today, I am 2-3 years away from my retirement goal if the market gods are favorable.

    By 1984 I saw that there was no future in printing. As it turns out by the late 1980s it was cheaper to print stuff in Europe and ship it to the United States then to print here and personal computers and home printers have totally changed the market today.

    Inflation during the 80’s was running away and I needed benefits. I went to work as a full-time guard member in my unit as a fire fighter which is what I also did as a volunteer in my home town. I also signed up for the Community College of the Air Force. My goal was to get an Associate Degree in Fire Science. I was going to need an edge being a white male during the height of affirmative action lawsuits of the time if I was ever to get a civilian firefighting job.

    In 1982 I got my first car loan at 18%. By 1984 I was able to start putting money into bank CD’s that by 1985 was paying 7%. I got my first mortgage in 1987 for 10% and I was happy to get it because in 1983 a co-worker got a mortgage for 14%. For the record, my current car loan is 0.0% and my current mortgage on my retirement home is 4.25% which will be paid off after paying on it for 3 years.

    In 1985 I started working for a large utility as a fire fighter. It took me until 1987 to understand how a 401K worked and that I was leaving money on the table, after all I had a pension plan so what did I need a 401k for? Every pay raise I got, a percentage went into the 401k until I maxed out the tax free portion.

    I took advantage of every educational opportunity that the company offered and in the process I changed jobs several times over the last three decades. I have several licenses, several certifications, and many specialized classes which do not mean a hill of beans unless you need that one limited requirement for a future job. So after 29 years, I finally earned my BAS in Nuclear Technology. I needed a way of wrapping up all those meaningless courses into one piece of paper for my next job.

    Across the street from my first house was a young man who went to school with my son. He dropped out of school in February of his senior year, got into drugs and wonders why he cannot get a job. The answer is because he gave up and expects everything to be given to him.

    It is hard to convince young people today that today isn’t so bad. But I warn them that things will get worst. I did not live though the Great Depression but I did live through the 1980s. Gasoline can be back to $4 / gallon tomorrow and interest rates can be sky high. Save your money and take advantage of every educational opportunity and you will survive. Never give up and work toward your goals.

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    • Very inspiring and important post. Thank you. My life story is very similar to yours only twenty-years earlier so I understand your perspective.

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  2. I am responding for several reasons not the least of which is that Quinn and I have very similar backgrounds. We both came from what I would describe as lower middle class families who provided for their children all the things that were necessary to get by and an abundance of love, direction, religion and a strong sense never doing anything to hurt anyone. As I sit here thinking about what exactly I want to say, all I can say is thank God I had the folks I had to help me through some of the most difficult times of my life and to care enough not to let me fail.

    How many of us reading Quinn’s blog can relate to what he has written. Probably many of us. Our circumstances may have been a little different, but in the end, we all struggled with part time jobs, educations gained a little at a time, apartments that were a little too small and perhaps, after all that struggle, a place we could finally call home, a real house. My Dad ran a Gulf gas station, never made a lot of money, somehow owned a home, always paid the bills and provided a happy and comfortable household for my Mom, my brother and me. How he did that I will never know.

    Like Quinn, I too am concerned about the direction our Country is going. The President says we are doing better since he took office. He recently said that we do not have a national spending problem. We are more secure than in quite some time and that there is opportunity out there for all of us. Well, for those of us that are retired, that may or may not be true but for those who need to work, have a family to support, a mortgage to pay and food to put on the table these are very difficult times. The President says we need more revenue and that the government will take care of us with a myriad of social programs many of which are not being funded appropriately. The wealth are not paying their fair share he says. This after he just raised the taxes on the folks earning $450,000 (family). By the way, he also said none of us earning under that number would see a tax increase, I guess he somehow forgot to tell us about the increases to the tax tables for 2013. Regarding our being secure, I don’t know about you but I certainly don’t feel more secure and I believe our County’s status around the world is not what it used to be and getting worse each day.

    I guess you can tell I am not a fan of the President, but regardless of my particular political persuasion, no one can refute the fact that our Country is not headed in the right direction. Opportunities are few and far between for many of us and those that simply don’t want to work there way our of this morass are growing in number. Why is this? Could it be that the current job market is not jobseeker friendly or could it be, for some, that social programs pay better than jobs? That’s not for me to say but when you can receive unemployment for over a year, food stamps easier that ever to get and yes, even a free cell phone to mention a few programs many take advantage of make’s it awfully inviting to those who would rather take the easy way rather than dig their way out.

    I guess the difference between now and the late 40’s and thru the 50’s, when I was a kid is that we were not given options to fail. You went to school, did your homework, had some kind of p/t job, played a bit and listened to your folks and said your prayers. Somehow, if you did all those things, you felt good about yourself, graduated high school, went into the service, college or trade school made some money, saved a little and lived on the be a decent human being perhaps even becoming a husband/wife and parent.

    What more could one ask for? I know, a chance to contribute to Quinn’s blog.

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