Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The economics of the creative life

Occupy Wall Street resonates with me because I was once young, out of college, and unable to find work. Even then,  it was hard to find gainful employment with a humanities (Western Civilization) degree.

But, in retrospect, things were easier three decades ago.  I moved from California to Idaho and soon found work at a local bookstore. My top salary there was $4.65/hour, which allowed me to pay my rent ($160/month including utilities for a one-bedroom apartment), buy food from the local food co-op, buy clothes and shoes, and go to movies and eat out occasionally.

I had no health insurance so, of course, I was one accident or serious illness away from debt. Still, I was able to go to the doctor for check-ups on my meager salary. The cost of my last doctor's visit in Coeur d'Alene, at a specialist's office, was $20—my insurance co-pay is more than that now.

Most importantly, I graduated from UC-Santa Cruz virtually debt-free. At that time, there was no tuition charge for state residents, only a quarterly fee of $300. My rent—in houses ranging from shabby beach cottages to elegant Victorians downtown—was never more than $160/month. My total debt after I graduated was around $1,500.

Now UC-Santa Cruz costs $26,000/year for room and board—just tuition and fees is around $13K. The average rent in Santa Cruz is around $800 for a studio apartment and $2,500 for a three-bedroom house. There used to be students living in makeshift tree houses and teepees in the woods—I imagine the woods are getting pretty crowded now.

And local bookstores are virtually gone, as are all the other former fall-backs for the well-read and over-educated—video stores, comic book stores,  etc. But even if they were around, and still paying a buck or two above minimum wage, I can't imagine how a graduate would be able to work there and live independently while paying off thousands and thousands of dollars of student loan debt.

Perhaps it is cruel to allow students of small means to continue to graduate with English and other types of humanities degrees, especially to take on massive debt in doing so. It was short-sighted when I graduated with no marketable skills—but the world was more welcoming then. I could make and live on a small salary without the despair of being indebted and stuck in my indebtedness. I went on to graduate school specifically to get a better paying job.

But I also don't want to imagine a world where only the rich can study literature and brilliant students with limited incomes must go directly to fast food or retail or whatever jobs will still be left in this country for non-math majors (or skilled laborers) in the near future.

I'm not sure that drumming and singing on the sidewalk is really helping. Yet, at least, it is giving voice to the discontent that has been welling up for years—a frustration that could, still, turn to rage.

Photo above: Lake Coeur d'Alene, circa 1984. Back then, the lake was just a few blocks from my cheap digs. Now houses along the lake go for more than a million bucks—so this is no longer an easy visage for the poor.

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