Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Ladders to opportunity: Sandra

Sandra cropped“I grew up with farmers and mechanics, and those types of jobs were the middle class. And it just doesn’t seem that way anymore.” 

Sandra grew up in a time when many hard working families were able to join the middle class, thanks to workplace benefits like health care and access to financial aid for college students. But Sandra has seen these benefits dwindle.

Despite humble beginnings, Sandra was able to gain access to college through financial aid. “We were poor. We didn’t own a home. My dad had an eighth grade education… I was the first in my family to go to college and at least for my beginning degrees, financial aid was fairly accessible and so it was fairly affordable.”

Sandra’s ticket out of poverty was her college degree. But she sees how students today struggle to pay basic tuition. “[Back then] financial aid was a little more available. It really changed. People take on tremendous loans to get a basic education.”

Similarly, Sandra has seen drastic changes in health care benefits. Initially, she had access to health coverage, so she could go to the doctor when she needed to. “I think definitely in the 70s and 80s… the health benefits were simply covered and you didn’t have to pay premiums. When I initially worked in the airline industry (it was a union job with Northwest), we didn’t pay premiums, and we just paid the copay…the coverage was great. I had a hospital stay and it was completely covered.”

But, throughout her career, Sandra watched as these benefits began to shrink – benefits that businesses used to consider employees’ rightful due. “As negotiations changed and they negotiated salary, it came on board that we’d pay part of the premiums. And then the next time I was hospitalized, I owed $1,300, so it took me like a year to pay that off. I never had medical bills before. But that’s going to change…It’s a big difference when you’re just barely getting by.”

Sandra has seen the middle class get smaller and smaller, with more and more families struggling to make ends meet. “I grew up with farmers and mechanics, and those types of jobs were the middle class. And it just doesn’t seem that way anymore.” Even with her master’s degree, Sandra struggles to find a job that pays a living wage. “[I’m] trying to find something that at least covers my main expenses and allows for some savings. But that may not happen. I may still have to just keep getting by. Savings, I don’t know, could just be out of reach.”

Today, while the rich are seeing  more profits than ever, working people like Sandra have to work harder just to keep their heads above water. But it doesn’t have to be this way. America has the resources to institute universal healthcare and adopt creative higher education funding solutions like Pay It Forward. It’s time to return to the spirit of our more prosperous days, when we recognized that the key to a strong economy was an educated and fairly-compensated workforce. America is at a crossroads – we have an obligation to our children to choose the right path.

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

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