In her book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, Harvard postdoctoral fellow Jennifer M. Silva (who spoke with IFS here) makes the point that though they face similar problems, working-class young adults “have no sense of ‘we.’” Rather than turning to others for help with their problems, Silva’s interviewees said things like, “I’m like a rock. I like to figure things out for myself, so I really don’t go looking for help.”
Silva’s insight sheds light on something that’s been puzzling me for over a year now: my friend and neighbor Stephanie’s resistance to outside help. Every week we find ourselves chatting about her struggles. She is a 26-year-old mother of two, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that she and her boyfriend are always on the brink of crisis—financially, medically, in their relationship. Her boyfriend works at a landscaping job, although Stephanie is never sure if he’ll actually get up in time to get there, or if he’ll instead spend the day playing video games or smoking weed. He’s a nice guy, with a big heart, but he struggles with depression and refuses to take his medication or see a counselor.
Stephanie has a hard time keeping a job herself—she’s got several years of college but no degree—and she quit her last job as a nursing home cook because she was worried that her son was acting out in school because she wasn’t home enough. She’s now back in the job search again, for the third time this year. On top of that, Stephanie’s kids get sick often, as do she and her boyfriend, and trips to the urgent care center and the ER are commonplace. With all the stress, she and her boyfriend argue frequently, and think often about breaking up (and sometimes do, only to get back together weeks later).
Mostly I just listen, but sometimes when Stephanie is venting to me I’ll try to say something helpful. I’ve given her the names and numbers of counselors who charge on a sliding scale, and told her of people I know who had their lives and relationships transformed because of some third-party intervention. I’ve introduced her to a friend who grew up in poverty and got out. I’ve given her the number of a financial planner friend who offered to meet with her for free. I’ve offered to sit down and teach her how to make a budget.
Stephanie pretty much sees herself as a lone individual fighting against almost-impossible odds.
But though she thanks me for the suggestions, she has never acted on them. Stephanie pretty much sees herself as a lone individual fighting against almost-impossible odds. She says that when it comes to relationships, she’s never really taken advice from anyone, and in general she says “there’s not that much you could tell somebody specifically, because it might be different for different people.” And “who knows what the right way is, anyway?” Stephanie asks.
Once, when I suggested that counseling might help her relationship with her boyfriend because “sometimes other people can see your situation better than you can,” she looked surprised that I’d say such a funny thing. I tried to explain that it’s kind of like the difference between being on the ground vs. seeing the view from an airplane. Sometimes others can offer us insight into ourselves, a different perspective that we wouldn’t see otherwise. Stephanie still looked perplexed, like she had never thought of that before. In her view, the only resources she can trust are herself and her own initiative.
Her boyfriend agrees, saying “We have the internet now. There’s no reason that we can’t learn how to do something if we just show a little bit of initiative. Sure, it’d take time and money and effort, but there’s no reason we couldn’t do it.” (I should note, however, that despite their resistance to other people and organizations helping them with what they see as personal problems, neither sees any problem accepting material aid from the government. They receive food stamps, are on Medicaid, and have an “Obama phone.” When their food stamps were recently cut by $30 a month they were not happy.)
Stephanie really does want to change her life, though. She talks about it all the time. She wants to go to school, get a good job, get her finances in order, buy a house, and get married, she says. She says she wants her kids to have a stable home, to eat healthy organic foods, to do well in school and in life. And there are weeks where she seems to be on the right track. Weeks where she’ll buy budget foods and make freezer meals instead of driving through Wendy’s. Weeks where she’ll call the local community college to inquire about programs. Weeks where she and her boyfriend seem to be getting along. Weeks where she’ll check out some books on home gardening from the library and plant some seeds in pots on the cement slab patio of their apartment.
Without institutions to help us do what is necessary to reach our goals, it is very difficult to become self-sufficient.
But with little support from friends or family and few models of success in her social network, despite her intentions, Stephanie finds herself repeating the same cycles of low-paying work to unemployment to low-paying work to unemployment and from living with her boyfriend to kicking him out to getting back together again even though little has changed in the relationship. Stephanie articulates what she needs to do, but then she doesn’t do it. “I need to budget,” she said over a year ago. “I need to budget,” she told me last week.
And I don’t say this to be judgmental—it’s a tendency of human nature that I see in myself, too. I’ve said that I need to exercise regularly for the past four years, but until I joined the YMCA a couple months ago, that goal that I frequently articulated was never a reality (and it still isn’t totally consistent). I could make a very long list of all the times I have done the opposite of what I knew would be best for me in the long run.
Without a supportive social network, without institutions to help us do what is necessary to reach our goals, to “automate” our behavior in a sense, it is very difficult to become self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency is actually an illusion—it’s healthy interdependence that most accurately describes the state of human thriving. We enter this world dependent on the parents who gave us life, and we continue in varying degrees of dependence on others for the rest of our lives. And often those relationships of interdependence are what bring the most meaning, the deepest joy to our human existence.
So perhaps the message that working-class young adults most need to hear is not one of independence, but interdependence: it’s okay to ask for and accept help.