The airwaves these days are thick with concerned talk about the world we are leaving to our children and grandchildren. Occasionally statistics are even thrown in – usually compiled by old folks like we are, the beneficiaries of our country’s most affluent generation. But statistics aside, how are our hard-working young people getting by these days, out in the world where lives must be actually lived?
With some time to kill between interviews on a recent sweltering afternoon in downtown Ukiah, I chatted with one of them: 19-year-old Kierra Baker.
She was cheerfully hard at work at Jax Boutique, on the corner of Perkins across from the entrance to the courthouse. A Ukiah resident since she was three years old, Kierra could be a poster child for vibrant youth: smart, energetic, confident and beautiful. And she says she loves Ukiah and is happy, though what she has to do to live independently sounds more like my grandparents’ young lives than my own generation’s.
Kierra has three jobs. One pays California’s mandated $11.00-an-hour minimum wage but the other two, mostly local restaurants with fewer than 25 employees, pay less. When you add up all those part-time hours Kierra works 70 hours a week, not counting the additional 10 hours a week she works at a local vineyard in exchange for part of her rent on a cottage on the property. “I have Sundays off,” she said. Those local jobs have something important in common: no health insurance, no vacation or sick time, no pension, no profit sharing, no other benefits. She walks between her jobs in downtown Ukiah. A car is out of the question. “Car payments are ridiculous!” she said. When it’s too far to walk, she rides her bicycle.
As she turned, smiling, to greet a customer, Kierra said that she’s healthy, happy, and harbors no bitterness toward the earlier generations that re-shaped the economy to feather their own nests while leaving young people’s nests so barren. And some readers of her story will undoubtedly conclude that her life exemplifies the gritty American spirit, that hard work and struggle are good things that build character. I get it; almost all of us started out with less. And we had dreams of doing better one day, our paths paved with high-quality affordable education and lots of good-paying jobs (even without college) – all with benefits. Kierra says she has dreams, too; she plans to somehow find the time to earn a 4-year degree in fire science. But in the world’s richest country, in the country’s richest state and with college’s lifelong debt looming, should it really be this hard for a smart, hardworking, motivated and promising young person to get ahead?