Ladders to opportunity: Jessie

Jessie Baines“You feel like you want to become an adult, live on your own, leave your parents, go to work, go to school, but financially, that’s really not possible.”

Jessie, a young man in his early 30s, has lived in Washington most of his life. He received his Bachelor’s degree at Washington State University and is now in school obtaining his Master’s degree at Seattle University.

Jessie grew up hearing stories of the discrimination his African-American grandparents faced and how they had to leave their home in the South to escape persecution. Knowing his family’s legacy inspired him to do what his family couldn’t – attend college and make lasting change for his community. “My grandma became a civil rights activist. She stressed the importance of education. [She] gave me the desire to want to be a change-agent and go in the world and make a difference.”

But school debt stands in the way of Jessie and his dreams. “I always wanted to go to college. I think I owe like $60,000 right now for a public school education. But with the interest rates and a couple of defaults, my loans just ballooned to an outrageous amount, almost double the cost of what they should be. When I finish, it’ll probably be about $120,000 total. I’m starting to feel like I’m back in the low-income [class]. Because I can’t financially take care of all my responsibilities with the amount of money I make. I can’t have all the debt. I can’t sustain myself well so in that sense, that’s not the middle class.”

School is hard enough, even without the high cost of tuition. “Being a black man, staying in school isn’t relevant to you. It doesn’t include you as a participant. There are a lot of things that try to incorporate us, but I feel like the system still outs us… The barriers for me came partially through discrimination, but also partly the transition of going to college. Financially, I think that was a struggle. Transportation, understanding how I was going to take care of myself. All of those things were a concern. You feel like you want to become an adult, live on your own, leave your parents, go to work, go to school, but financially, that’s really not possible.”

Jessie has worked since he was 14, but still has a hard time getting by. Even as a full-time worker, Jessie says he struggles to make enough to make ends meet. “Even with benefits, it’s not far from poverty…I’m not making enough money to save. I try not to think about it too much.” Jessie wants to save, but admits it’s hard with his current job. “If you’re not working and making a lot, then you won’t be able to exist in the future and take care of yourself…When you make less than $20,000 a year, it’s really hard to get by.”

For Jessie, the high cost of education and low-paying jobs are barriers that keep him out of the middle class and stifle economic opportunity. But it doesn’t have to be this way. A fair economy means the middle class is within reach for everyone – and no one who works full time should have to live in poverty. Instituting policies that ensure affordable higher education and a living wage can help make sure everyone has an opportunity to succeed.

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

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