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COVER STORY: Working-Class Aspirations

Diverging Dreams

Minorities still climbing America’s economic ladder are more optimistic than whites who have already plateaued. Here are their stories.

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From left, Dave Miller, Tierra Stewart, and Ambar Gonzalez.(Ron Fournier, Jon Silla, and Ralf-Finn Hestoft)

They dream in water, cotton, and brick. One of them is losing hope.

Not Tierra, who is black, and whose nursing ambitions could be delayed by another brutal electric bill. Not Ambar, a Latina and an aspiring lawyer who just lost the only home she ever knew.

 

Dave. Who is white, and who thought, finally, he’d made it. Who broke his back for a dream—a pension, a getaway cottage, security—that seems to be wavering in the Lake Erie haze.

He grew up in Detroit, where the upward mobility of the American middle class could be seen every Friday afternoon. Factory workers, driving cars they’d built, crowded I-75, heading north to their cottages. That was the deal that Dave Miller signed up for when he dropped out of Wayne State University and followed his dad into the firefighting ranks. The deal was supposed to include decent wages, health insurance, tuition, retirement, mortgages, and maybe, with overtime pay, a boat and a house on the lake—a physical reminder that hard work still pays like it always did.

“Here’s the ticket! Twenty-five years, a pension, health care, and nine working days a month—that’s how they sold it,” Dave says. Nobody mentioned going 10 years without a raise; or starting a construction company on the side to make ends meet; or wondering if he shouldn’t just sell the little lake cottage that his hard work bought, because he struggles just to make it up there.

 

Nobody said that one day Dave, 41,  would sit around a table with five other white firefighters and admit, to nods of approval, that his hope for his kids’ future “takes a hit when shit goes sour.” It is 5 p.m. on a Thursday. He was supposed to escape to the lake 36 hours ago. He feels like he is running out of time.

It is early in the evening on a Monday in South Carolina when Tierra Stewart, 22, leaves the maroon tents where her extended family has passed the day barbecuing and catching up. She loads her 3-year-old boy into her aunt’s Jeep, damp blades of grass clinging to his white high-tops. Her cousin points the car down the highway away from their small hometown and back to the little house that Tierra shares with her son, Quay.

There is a $300 electric bill waiting for her there, the second one in a row. Both have been surprises, far more than she expected when she moved into the house this summer. To pay one electric bill—just that bill—Tierra will work eight straight days in two jobs, caring for senior citizens and disabled people. She knows that one more unexpectedly large bill, or one more problem with the car that has already broken down once this year, would devastate her fragile finances. But still, she dreams.

Tierra dreams of becoming a nurse; of wearing cotton hospital scrubs; of traveling outside of South Carolina. She wants to own a house and a car. She wants to earn at least $15 an hour—an annual salary of about $31,000. “I’ve never made more than $13 an hour,” she says. “Thirty thousand would be good for me.” She has grand plans for the sleepy boy in the backseat. “He will go off to college,” she says. “I don’t want him to be here pining on any women, his mom neither. I want him to be somebody. I want him to be successful.”

 

It is mid-morning on a Thursday on the lower west side of Chicago, and the late summer air blows in a chill. Ambar Gonzalez pulls a gray hooded sweatshirt over her sweater. She navigates her neighborhood from the passenger side of a rental car. She is 25, and she has never lived anywhere but this neighborhood. There is my grammar school, she says. There is the school where my friends went. There is the coal plant; I think it gave me my asthma. There is my church. They just washed the bricks. It’s even more gorgeous inside. Turn here.

Suddenly the voice that crackled with possibilities during breakfast—a job downtown! law school in Washington, D.C.!—deadens. She is back on a block that she crosses only if she’s riding with friends and they forget where they are. There it is on the corner: weather-beaten yellow brick, with red-and-white awnings. It’s the home she grew up in, the one that the economy made it impossible for her family to keep. “Turn,” she says.

The house appears again, this time on the left. Freckles tighten around her light brown eyes. Do you ever think about buying it back? “Yes,” she says, instantly. “Even if I don’t live there, I want it to be my house.” It gives her direction: She will leave, she will learn, she will win the job that will bring her back to claim the cradle of her middle-class dreams.

THE DIVERGENCE

Like Dave, Tierra, and Ambar, others in America’s working class still dream of a better life and the totems—the cottage, the uniform, the house—that represent it, even in the grips of an economy that has snuffed so many hopes. The dreams vary with the color of the dreamers’ skin, though not in the way you’d expect.

This article appears in the October 8, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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