VIEW: “Enough”

The American mythology of "pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” glosses over the hurdles and inequities of work and human value in our society. Labor and service work is undervalued and underpaid.

VIEW columns are made possible by MN Reconnect, a program designed for adult learners re-enrolling in college to help them complete their education.

VIEW columnist Suzann Willhite

March is Women’s History Month. It is a time to celebrate women’s achievements; educate people on women’s history; and examine equality and opportunities for women.

March 2021 is also one year after the pandemic hit the United States. We know that women and especially women of color have been more significantly impacted by loss of jobs and income, health disparities, and increased childcare responsibilities. As in our hidden women’s history in the U.S., there are unseen impacts and not enough basic supports for women.

We have the opportunity to do better.

In January 2020, a few months before the full impact of COVID in the U.S., I retired and was ready to travel and advocate for issues at the state and national levels, such as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Like everyone else, I had to readjust and postpone plans. There were no actions for me in person at the Minnesota Legislature. No walking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage route from France over the top of Spain. 

Luckily, I did not have to worry about COVID job challenges, or losing my housing or paycheck. I had planned for retirement when I started working full time over 30 years ago. My plan to retire early included having no kids, no debt, and investing all the money I could.

Optimistically, I had planned to retire at age 55, when I hopefully would have “enough” money to support a simple lifestyle. 

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Many people do not want to talk about money or think about how much is enough. Most Americans have no idea what the average wage, salary, or income is for the work they do or the lifestyles they live. This is a disservice to all workers, with women often earning significantly less than male co-workers in the same position. Equal work deserves equal pay and fair compensation. 

There is even less discussion of family or inherited wealth, which silently supports the next generation’s education, homes, and job options. It can erroneously look like some people are financially successful because they worked harder to get ahead — that everyone could, if they just worked harder or smarter.

Growing up on a farm in Minnesota, people often judged my parents as not working hard enough, or being irresponsible because they had so many children.

The American mythology of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” glosses over the hurdles and inequities of work and human value in our society. Labor and service work is undervalued and underpaid.

Current discussions over the proposed $15 minimum federal wage has highlighted this issue of devalued hourly work. Yet, “minimum” is not the same as a “livable” wage, let alone about being able to save money.

As I mentioned in my column last month, I benefited from affirmative action — working in state government helped me earn a livable salary and advance as a white women into higher paying management jobs. It was not until I made more than $70,000 per year that I felt financially secure as a single person. That is roughly $35/hour. That was a “livable” wage that allowed me to cover basic expenses and have some extra money for leisure and saving for retirement.

It was challenging and scary to think about how much money I needed to live the retired phase of my life. There are so many uncertainties — loss of income, investments, major healthcare costs, housing, food, vehicle — before even thinking about spending for extra things in life. 

I worked with financial planner Joan Gilles for a full year before I retired. I interviewed several financial planners and found a good fit for my needs. We walked through my investments, state pension, healthcare costs, housing, travel, and living expenses. The numbers added up. I could afford to retire early with a reduced pension in trade for more time and freedom.

“Someone else can have my job and a decent income.” That was my plan. I had enough money.

It is enough money that I can give to organizations and issues that I care about — to support change for equal pay, livable wages, racial equity.

It is a personal decision to determine whether to continue to work or retire, but I think many people who have more than enough money live in fear of scarcity.  Some people will never have “enough” money even when others have so little. 

The United States has a huge wealth gap between the rich and poor. COVID has magnified that gap for many people, especially for women of color. Former Minnesota U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone is known for saying, “We all do better, when we all do better.”

We can do better.

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1 Comment

  • marilyn j morrissette

    Nice column. I’m a few decades older than Ms. Willhite but having grown up in a single mother family where every penny was counted having “enough” was a serious issue. I, too, “made it” and “enough” now is a legacy for my family to try to assure they are college educated, debt free, and can go on from there with their lives with a little less financial insecurity. “Enough” is close and I am grateful. And, yes, I agree income inequality is a huge issue which is why the covid relief bill is such critical social justice legislation.. A raise in the minimum wage is also sorely needed.

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