Last fall I was one of the millions who descended on New York (and cities around the globe) to proudly declare that I was the 99%. But it turns out I was wrong. I’m not the 99% – I’m the 47%.
Yes, the same 47% percent Mitt Romney referenced in the now infamous video of his rant against what he might call the ‘entitlement class’. As he said, “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what…who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.” (Read the full transcript of the video here).
Right. Well, due to some unforeseen (and some foreseen) events, I find myself – for the first time in my life, applying for unemployment. Coupled with my applications-in-process for affordable health care and fuel assistance, I am officially – if unwittingly – a part of the 47% that has become tethered to the term ‘entitled’. Now, as a cultural scholar I would be more comfortable talking about the social assistance programs and resources I am applying for – but the linguistic shift that the media has propagated in its adoption of the term ‘entitlement programs’ is so disturbingly pervasive that it seems almost as if these services were always (and only) known by that name (a tip of the hat here to the brilliant PR spin doctors who partook in this revisionist history). So here’s the ‘entitled’ me in a snap shot:
I have spent all of my adult life working. I worked in high school, I worked during college, I worked through graduate school, and when I received my Ph.D. I worked some more – being, as I was, one of the lucky ones that landed an adjunct position at an institution of higher learning. That’s right, up until a month ago – I was your child’s professor. Last semester – or in the twenty semesters prior – it was my class your son or daughter might have talked to you about during winter break. I was the one who passed or failed them, I led (what I hoped were) thought-provoking class room discussions, graded their papers, met with them to discuss things they had difficulty understanding in class – or to help advise them on what other classes to take, what to major in, or just how to get through the semester without totally losing it.
As is common in academia my most recent one-year position was not renewed this past August. Now suddenly I am not your child’s professor anymore. After over a decade of paying my union dues, my academic dues, my insurance, my mandated retirement fund, my social security, etc. I found myself without a payment coming my way. Being familiar with the unpredictability of adjunct positions, I was not totally unprepared for the loss of my job, and I had decided over the summer to learn how to begin to support myself by starting my own business. I did my market research, I registered my business with the state and with my town, I got a business checking account, and suddenly I became that other ‘e’ word that Republicans love to use – entrepreneur. I even joined an entrepreneur incubator. And in the midst of meeting with consultants and accountants and business lawyers – to make sure I was doing everything a new entrepreneur must do – I happened to talk to the lawyer about how my health insurance (which had been deducted from my pay check all these many years) was ending at the end of the month and asked if I would qualify for Mass Health. Then I asked if I could qualify for unemployment. And what about fuel assistance?
I didn’t ask about these social assistance programs because I felt entitled – on the contrary, I did it because in trying to start my business with limited capital (and without feeling ‘entitled’ to ask for a bank loan) I didn’t know how I would pay my basic bills. When I found out I was eligible for some of these programs I pursued them – not because I could then sit on the couch and watch ‘Here Comes Honey BooBoo’ all day, but because they could provide me with the means of survival until my business got off the ground. It was like asking mom and dad for help starting my own business – like Romney suggested to young entrepreneurs (and you can read Julian Castro’s brilliant response to that here) except I was asking the government to make an investment in me – a government for whom, as a professor at a state college, I had actually been working for for over a decade. Because as it turns out, sometimes even the most educated, motivated and self-sufficient of us need help – as Mitt Romney’s own father had when, as a child, his family fled to the U.S. from Mexico and began receiving (what Mitt’s mother called) welfare-relief.
Filing for these ‘entitlement’ programs has not been easy. Indeed, anyone who has ever been on that side of the call or in those long lines knows that the word entitlement is so off base because nothing about the process feels entitled at all (in fact the only way the word is even remotely relevant in this situation is perhaps when after an hour – or more – spent on hold only to have a recording tell you to ‘please call again another day’ you feel entitled to something, even if it’s just a cocktail). The other reason why the word entitled is so wrong is because of the time it takes – and I don’t just mean the hours spent on hold on the phone lines – I mean the time it takes for the entire benefits (sorry, entitlements) process. To wit:
Fuel Assistance: that was “please call on October 1st to schedule an appointment” and then at noon on October 1st it was “sorry, the voicemail box is full and unable to receive any messages”.
Health Insurance: that was “yes, we received your application but it is currently taking us 8-10 weeks to process applications” – meaning more than 2 months for my information to be entered into the system and god-only-knows how long for them to determine if I am eligible.
Unemployment: that was hours on the phone and then a letter letting me know they would determine if I was eligible within the next 3-4 weeks, and then if I was eligible it would be several more weeks before I saw an actual check.
But no problem, right? Because most of those (sorry, us) entitlement moochers have a few months of rent, grocery, health care and utilities money saved up and stashed away (like most of the other 47% I keep my hoards of cash in the freezer right next to my lifetime supply of Bonbons).
The other day while I was on hold with unemployment (for 55 minutes – and that was my tenth call on that one day) I opened a window on my computer screen and started working on brochures for my new business. The dichotomy of that moment struck me – here I was applying for my ‘entitlements’ while simultaneously becoming an entrepreneur. During the Republican National Convention in August these two words seemed to be on an almost endless loop of repetition: while pushing to promote and support the ‘entrepreneur’ the speakers derided the ‘entitled’ – those hapless, lazy, do-nothings that felt entitled to mooch off the hard work of the American taxpayers. Back and forth, back and forth – the entrepreneur versus the entitled – a nice little Cartesian dualism the party had created to pit two ‘straw men’ against each other – those who move the economy forward versus those happy (sorry, entitled) to feed off the governmental teat. Listening to the rhetoric it would seem that it’s always been this way. But it hasn’t – not really – and it’s also not that simple.
I am not one or the other of those ‘e’ words that Republicans love to discuss – I am both. An entitled entrepreneur perhaps? At any rate – like most people applying for governmental assistance – mine is a complicated story – and it complicates (in a productive way I think) the one-dimensional stick figure image of the ‘entitled’ that both the Republican Party and the mainstream media seem bent on constructing.
The 47% that Mitt discusses are those who pay no income tax – most likely because they have no – or very low – income. I’ve never shirked my tax duty – I paid income tax every year that I worked, and as it turns out, if I am eligible for unemployment I will even pay taxes on any money I receive from that as well. I’m not entitled – I’m in a rough spot – and it turns out that this government might be able to help me out of this rough spot – and that, I think, is amazing.
In his vitriolic speech about the 47% Romney said, “my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives”. You don’t have to worry about me Mitt – I’ve got it covered, with a little help from Uncle Sam, for which I may not be ‘entitled’ but I am extremely grateful, just like your dear old dad.