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Then and now: dream and nightmare

Exactly 50 years ago today, Marie Gates and I got married in the First Presbyterian Church in Bakersfield. Just like this year, Dec. 17 was a Saturday, and I was nearing the end of my first semester of teaching sociology at Bakersfield College. Marie, who had previously interned at Monterey County Hospital and at Massachusetts General Hospital, was finishing her final internship at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, California.

A few months earlier, when Marie returned to California from the east coast, we picked that date because it was the beginning of my Christmas vacation (now known as “winter break”), and she had the weekend off, with one week to go before she finished at Rancho. Our other choice was to “live in sin” until a more favorable date, perhaps in June.

Actually, I was all right with the living-in-sin bit, and I think Marie was, too. But, we had parents and other family members to think about, and it was 1966. Things were different then. There was still a stigma attached to being an unmarried couple, living together. And, there was absolutely no way that we could have afforded two apartments.

Our total wedding party consisted of seven people (my parents, brother, and sister-in-law; Marie’s mother, brother, and his fiancée). Marie’s sister and brother-in-law were in Princeton, NJ, where Nancy had just had a baby, and Tom was working on his doctorate in electronic engineering. The ceremony took place in the evening, and the flowers were left over from an earlier event.

The next day, Marie and I drove to her hospital and checked in at the Downey Motel, a room that had a kitchenette. Every day, Marie went to work, and I made stew (which was all we could afford) and polished my lectures. Marie’s internship ended on Dec. 23, and we returned to Bakersfield that evening. Between us, we had pocket change that totaled less than $1.

Fortunately, I had food in my small apartment, and I planned to visit the credit union on Monday to take out a loan that would last until my paycheck arrived on Friday, Dec. 30. However, among the mail that arrived during the days that we were gone was a congratulatory card from my grandfather in New York. It contained a $100 bill, big money in the mid-1960s to youngsters like us who got through college on tuna sandwiches.

Millennials and GenXers I point out these personal facts because of a Nov. 23, 2016, CNBC report: Most millennials (young adults between the ages of 18 and 24) have very little money. According to the study by GoBankRates, one-third have nothing at all, a little more than half have less than $1,000 in the bank (mostly in checking), and 15 percent have more than $10,000. GenXers (those between 25 and 35) do not fare much better.

Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner for GoBankRates, told CNBC, “Ideally, you want to have three to six months’ worth of living expenses saved in an emergency fund.” She added, “When you’re first starting there might be some other things you need to do before getting to that goal, such as paying off debt.”

No kidding. In our case, Marie had no debt. I had taken out a National Defense to Education Act student loan for $500 in order to finish my thesis. But, 10 percent of the loan was forgiven for each year spent working for a public agency (such as a college). Also, in those days, the government-guaranteed loans were interest free. (Over the next couple of years, I repaid the full amount because I was idealistic and thought that students behind me might need the money.)

But, what Ms. McClanahan seems to have missed is that the small salaries that are meted out to most young people today are barely enough to cover food and rent. There simply is no discretionary money for savings. Moreover, it probably takes two incomes for a young couple to meet their obligations. Marie and I were much luckier.

The American dream A couple of months after we were married, Marie started work for the Crippled Children’s Society in Bakersfield. Our apartment was close to the college, so I walked, and Marie drove our little car (no radio or heater) to work. Over the next year, we were able to put a little over $500 in a savings account by living frugally. In the fall of 1967, we bought a 1,550-square-foot house for $500 down. Our monthly payment, including property tax and insurance, was $102. The three-bedroom, two-bath house with fenced yard, garage, fireplace, and family room cost $17,500.

As the years went by and our salaries increased, we traded our equity in houses for better homes. Eventually, Marie joined with two physical therapists to open their own practice. I had the good fortune to land a contract for a college textbook, and it went through four more editions. We decided to have just one child, and he grew up in very different circumstances from either of his parents.

By the time Marie and I split after nearly 30 years of marriage, we had acquired several properties and a nice house of our own. In other words, we could have been the poster couple for the American Dream. When I look at studies, like the GoBankRates report, my heart bleeds for young people who are starting out with nothing, as Marie and I did.

The past half century has not been kind to our youths, and this is a different economy. Their chances of achieving financial security and a middle-class lifestyle are slim (at best) and none (more likely).

When the media report on the few whiz kids who make a fortune in the dot-com industry, they ignore the many thousands of young people who cannot even leave the nest on their own. They ignore the extremely high interest that is now placed on student loans. And, they ignore the cost of college, which has increased exponentially.

Of course, some people will say that Marie and I were able to overcome poverty because we worked hard, set the right priorities, and persevered. But, young people today don’t have the options that we had, even if they have the drive, ambition, and stamina. For them, the American Dream has become a nightmare.

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