The Lost Americans

It has been two months since the world changed. I worked on March 13th, it was a Friday and in hindsight very fitting. I was called out of work on the 14th an 15th and received a call from my manager that I should come into the office on the 16th. I knew why. I went into work knowing what would happen but still optimistic that this would be a short-term situation. When I got into work there were already a few dozen people milling around. The most optimistic of us were dressed for work, the rest of us in our street clothes. Almost everyone in my company was laid-off at the same time, right then and there. Our company was good about the whole thing and promised that when things settled down, we would all be brought back on whenever that may be. They even let us keep our phones and tablets in the hopes that it would be a short respite.

Work had already begun to slow in the weeks before that meeting, so we knew that this was inevitable, but it was still a gut punch. I have been truly fortunate in my life to always work. The few times where there have been short gaps between work I was always prepared and therefore they were manageable. This was the first time that I had to face this situation with no plan.

Late last year I quit my job and moved 2,682 miles from Alexandria, VA to Los Angeles, CA. The job I left was a government job in Washington D.C., the salary wasn’t making us rich, but it was stable and as much as I enjoyed my time there my heart was no longer in it. I wanted to pursue my dream. My dream of writing in the entertainment field. I know that sounds insane that at 45 years old I would take such a risk, but this is America. This country was built on dreamers and risk-takers. We are all taught early in life about the pilgrims and pioneers risking life and limb for the freedom to pursue a better life. I wanted a better life for my family. I wanted to embark on an adventure that would satisfy my heart, mind, and soul while also providing a better quality of life to those I love.

Was it a selfish endeavor? Yes, of course, it was but so is anything we do to improve ourselves or our situation. Self-improvement is, by its very nature, a selfish endeavor. I wanted pleasure in my work and more money in my pocket. I wanted to pursue my definition of the American dream. A dream of being fulfilled by my work and just a little less stressed about when my next paycheck was going to come.

Writing is an incredibly hard field to make a living in. The competition is fierce because to be a writer you don’t need an advanced degree or any degree for that matter (although it helps) and you don’t need money or a leg up to start in your career. You just need a pen and paper (or a laptop in today’s age), a story to tell, and most importantly you need passion. I have the pen and paper, I have stories upon stories to tell, and I have passion in spades.

To pay the bills while I pursued my dream, I took a job working as a chauffeur. It was a good gig. It offered decent pay and freedom to write during the downtime. Chauffeuring affords you the opportunity to meet a diverse group of individuals along the way which, for a writer, is a gold mine of data. New people and new experiences are the lifeblood that sustains a writer. We thrive on them because they are the fuel that keeps our creative fire stoked, the gas that churns our mind’s engine. You have to experience life to be able to write about it.

The job was going well too. I was earning money, we were slowly branching out and exploring our new city, and our dog was loving the hiking we were doing on our downtime. I was three-plus months in and working hard at both my day job and my writing when the world shifted and came grinding to a halt.

And here I now sit. Unemployed, struggling, and seemingly out of options. I know I’m not alone. I know this is not just isolated to California and I know that there are many people out there who are in situations direr than my own. I am not ignorant of the fact that I have, for the most part, led a privileged life and I know that in many ways I am still very blessed. My wife and I are healthy, all four of our senior parents, siblings, nephew, and extended family are all healthy right now. That is a blessing, but a blessing doesn’t put food on our table and a roof over our heads.

It has been almost two months since I first applied for unemployment. It was a difficult decision for me. I’m 45 years old and have never before applied for assistance. I was always able to find work. I was very blessed in that way. But not this time. This time there was no other job and there was no other hustle to make a few bucks until something better came along. This time there was just an emptiness.

So, after 30 years of putting money into the system, I finally asked for some of that money back from the system. I was denied. I was told that I do not qualify for benefits and now, almost two months later, I still do not have a specific reason as to why I was denied. It could be amount earned or maybe because I moved and haven’t worked in California long enough or it could be another factor I haven’t even thought about but until I speak with someone I won’t know and as of right now there is no one to speak to. We have called thousands of times, sent countless emails, and even took to social media with no response from unemployment or our elected officials. My wife and I are nearly out of money and ideas. Our system has failed us.

Applying for unemployment was not an easy decision for me. There is no shame in leaning on a system built to help you when you need it the most but for 30 years I have paid into that system with the intention of never actually having to use it. I was proud to be able to work and happy to contribute pennies a paycheck to a program that would turn around and use my pennies to help someone else who needed it. I was raised on the belief that our society is only as strong as the weakest of us and if you can help than you help, and I always believed my pennies were helping.

What is so frustrating, and I know that I’m not alone in this, is that I don’t even want the money. I don’t want to be on the dole, I want to be working. I want to be earning a wage, I want to be putting in the hours, I want to be creating my art, I want to be pursuing my dream, I want to be living a life and not merely existing.

With unprecedented numbers of people applying for unemployment every week our systems have become overwhelmed. They are antiquated and, as we now know, they are unprepared for a true crisis.

We are the ones that our system is failing. We are Americans of every religion, every color, every sexuality, and every creed. We are the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers of this country. We are the young and the old, the 8th generation descendant and the immigrant. We are from every class and every walk of life and we all are struggling to find a way to stay afloat in the sea of nonsense that is our broken system.

There are Americans like me all over this country right now, millions of us who work our whole lives contributing to a system that has failed when we needed it the most. Americans who feel lost and helpless because we have discovered that a system designed to catch us when we fall is riddled with human-sized holes.

We are becoming lost in a broken system. We are becoming statistics, mere numbers in an oversaturated and impossible equation.

We are becoming the lost Americans.

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