The Luxury of Not Putting Money First
The breakout Netflix hit Squid Game from 2021 had everyone abuzz — but I can’t bring myself to watch it. In the show, indebted South Koreans experiencing financial ruin fight to the death for a singular cash prize. While I’ve never been part of a dystopian horror show like Squid Game (debtors have never tried to assassinate me), I grew up with just enough money to get by, which provoked an intense fear of the precarity of life, an exhausting “what if?” that never ends. What if I run out of money?What if I end up homeless? What if I can’t find a good job? and on and on.
In theory, I shouldn’t feel this way. I’ve always had food on the table and a roof over my head, but living on the edge of poverty is a shadow that has followed me my entire life. Almost every major life decision I’ve made — from where to go to school to what to do for a living — has been driven first by my ability to afford it.
I grew up in a 26-story brick-faced public housing building in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In the shadow of urban blight, my parents earned advanced degrees while working full time, studying on nights and weekends and raising two children. They, and eventually I, all attended public university and graduate school in New York City. We ate “government cheese” and generic cereal from black and white boxes. Empty crack vials and used heroin needles dotted our asphalt playgrounds and the pungent smell of urine and cigarettes penetrated our hallways and elevators. My reality was a far cry from the 1980s sitcoms that blasted into our apartment everyday, where (mostly white) people lived in houses with lawns, played football, drove nice cars and solved even the worst problems by the end of each show. I wanted so badly to know what it was like to smell flowers instead of urine and to have the peace of a backyard instead of the noise of the streets. Common advice back then was that if we worked hard and went to school, we’d be able to escape poverty.
So as soon as I was able to work, I did. I was 14 years old when I landed my first job as an administrative clerk for an investment bank through a scholarship program. I made $3.33 an hour and worked 40 hours a week during the summer. I kept the job until college but my salary, frustratingly, kept pace with the minimum wage. I wasn’t able to save money since I spent every check on office-appropriate clothes. I never missed a day of work and always showed up on time, but I was never chosen to do any work beyond administrative tasks. I was proud to have a job in a fancy office with marble floors and fresh-cut flowers in the lobby, but I was still a young Puerto Rican woman making a pittance surrounded by almost all white men in suits. The biggest gap was knowing that many of them would go home to their Park Avenue apartments after work while I would go back to the projects.
The idea that success in the United States is a meritocracy glosses over the reality that people of color, especially women of color, experience major inequities in pay over the course of their lifetimes. In 2020, for example, Latinas made 55 cents to every dollar white men made, making us the lowest paid group among all women of color in the United States. That pay disparity has barely budged in 30 years. According to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center, Latinas stand to lose about $2,400 a month, $29,000 a year and $1.7 million over the course of a 40-year career.
By the time I was 17 and looking at colleges I already had an ingrained fear of debt. I was terrified to think of paying back money when I knew how hard it had been to earn and keep. I had received a college scholarship from an organization called the I Have a Dream Foundation, but it wasn’t enough to fully cover costs at Skidmore in Saratoga Springs, NY, a private liberal arts school that had accepted me. I remember sitting next to my father in the financial aid office on campus as the administrator spread a few papers on her desk. We would have to take out loans and find other ways to fund the $25,000 a year price tag. I remember my father’s baritone voice getting lower as he asked the officer a few more questions. I kept my eyes on the desk, a flush of embarrassment moving up my face. I was afraid to go into debt without knowing how I would pay it off after college, so I chose the more practical option: a state school where my scholarship dollars went the furthest.
But it wasn’t only the pay gap that would haunt me for the most of my career. It was also the fact that generational wealth didn’t exist for us. Researchers at the Brookings Institution describe wealth as “a safety net that keeps a life from being derailed by temporary setbacks and the loss of income.” But perhaps most telling is how that safety net “allows people to take career risks knowing that they have a buffer when success is not immediately achieved.” Owning a home outright, for example, is one way to accrue wealth over time. Receiving a cash inheritance is another. On average white American families have 10 times the wealth that Black and Latino families do.
Choosing a major was tough since I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor and I didn’t even know where to start if I wanted to pursue a law degree. So in the wisdom of my youth (cringe), I chose sociology — which at least had a practical statistical application and felt somewhat more grounded than, say, philosophy. When I finally hit the workforce armed with my degree, I knew I wanted to work in media. But the catch was that I could not work for free — and that meant no unpaid internships at fancy magazines or public radio. Instead, I worked my way up the journalism ladder by freelancing and ultimately attending a public graduate school (I couldn’t afford the private school options) until I landed a full time position.
Being childfree and living in a rent stabilized apartment for 15 years also made that possible. I put my career above all other ambitions and sacrificed many nights, weekends, holidays and gatherings to be on call for work. I kept thinking what I had been told: that if I worked hard, it would all pay off. And for a while, it did. Over two decades, I’ve worked at The New York Times, CNN and WNYC Radio.
And then everything fell apart.
At the beginning of 2020, I was in my mid-40s and pregnant with my first child. He arrived at the end of January and within six weeks we were in a full lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. I found myself alone and quarantined with a newborn in my apartment. Like many working parents, I hacked together a work space in a coat closet so I could host my radio show while a babysitter watched my infant son in an adjacent room. I navigated a crushing media cycle from the murder of George Floyd to the January 6th insurrection for millions of listeners.
By February 2021, I was completely burned out. It was around that time that I tweeted about having hit the “pandemic wall” and to my surprise thousands of people responded saying they too were burned out, deflated, exhausted from the crushing burdens of working from home while parenting in a pandemic. I knew something had to change.
But the fear of leaving the best-paying job I’ve ever had loomed large, especially as a solo mom. I had a mortgage and childcare costs to consider. But for the first time in my life, I also found myself considering my personal needs, my mental health and my well being. So in July 2021, I announced I was leaving my position at the station to explore new opportunities. And while the decision was daunting, I realized I wasn’t alone. From Simone Biles to Naomi Osaka to millions of everyday Americans, people have decided to put their well being ahead of their paychecks as part of the so-called Great Resignation.
It’s a decision that still scares me a little when I wonder what the future looks like or — always — whether I’ll have enough money. But if my past is any indication, things have a way of working themselves out. And I finally have earned the faith to believe that this time will be no different.
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