Ladders to opportunity: Angela

Angela cropped“I’ve been promised a dream that doesn’t exist anymore.  The rich are getting richer; the middle class are getting poorer… I think that’s really sad for our country. I’m waiting for us to step up and do something right and start taking care of each other.”

To call Angela strong would be an understatement. Even though neither of her parents finished high school and her mom never made more than minimum wage, Angela wanted more. She decided to put herself through college and didn’t stop until she held a master’s degree – all while raising her kids single-handedly. But now, with more debt than she can ever hope to pay off, she questions whether the “American dream” is just that – only a dream.

It wasn’t an easy decision to pursue higher education. Angela had a lot stacked against her. “No one in my family had ever been to college, that wasn’t something we did—we’re not smart enough, we’re poor welfare people. [We were told] our type doesn’t go to college. I never thought was going to go to college.”

Despite the obstacles, Angela knew her path. “Everybody knows that college and education is part of the American dream—you go to school, you go to college, you get educated, you make more money… So I decided to go to school, realized I was good at it and I was getting straight A’s and I decided to really go forward and finish up and get all my degrees.”

Angela has a strong sense of integrity and wants to pay off her loans, but as each year passes, that becomes less and less of a possibility. “I’m the type of person who pays my debt. I’ve never missed a credit card payment, I’ve never missed a car payment, [but] I don’t see myself ever being able to pay off those loans—cause I’m 46, I’ve only got, what—20 more years. I’m now 85 thousand dollars in debt with student loans…If I pay my student loans in the full amount, I figure by another 20 years, they’ll be up to 200 thousand.”

“We’re going back to that place where only the wealthy can get educated and that’s unfortunate.”

Even after earning her master’s degree, Angela still struggles to find a job that pays a living wage. “I did everything I was supposed to.  I’m a McNair Scholar, I have a 3.95 cumulative GPA…I am really good at what I do. But I shouldn’t [be working] for ten dollars an hour—I just shouldn’t.”

High loan payments and a lack of living wage jobs means that Angela isn’t able to afford health insurance or build any retirement savings. “[Retirement] just doesn’t seem realistic for me..My lifetime savings is fourteen hundred dollars… and benefits?  I’ve never had benefits in my whole life.  At this point, I don’t even dream of having benefits.”

After everything Angela has been through, it’s hard not to feel discouraged. “I think I’ve been lied to. I think I’ve been bamboozled into taking out all these loans and going into debt and promised a dream that doesn’t exist anymore. The rich are getting richer; the middle class are getting poorer. Nothing’s getting better about our economy. We’re just going to be a country of haves and have-nots and there’s just not going to be any middle class and I think that’s really sad for our country. I’m waiting for us to step up and do something right and start taking care of each other.”

Despite the obstacles, Angela took the risk to pursue higher education. Years later, she still struggles to find work that offers a living wage, making it impossible to ever pay off her student loans or save for retirement. But it doesn’t have to be this way. A comprehensive package of policy solutions that guarantee a living wage, affordable tuition, and worker benefits can change the American landscape. Education and retirement should not be luxuries for a few, and workers need to be paid their due. It’s time to take down the barriers to opportunity and restore the American dream.

For more about economic mobility, including other Ladders to Opportunity stories, please visit this page.

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