Today I read a Facebook meme that put my back up. It read: “If you possess minimum skills, minimum education, and minimum motivation, why the hell should I pay you more than minimum wage?”
This is among the most offensive policy-led generalizations I have read in a long time, and it’s common. It seeks to simplify the identities of the poor in America, and justify your right to hate them.
It gets me mad because I was once poor. I was once living below the poverty line. I am educated, skilled and motivated, and I am also a statistical anomaly; I am among the few working poor who managed to escape. It makes me mad because many of my friends were not so lucky.
Here is my story, in fewer than 800 words.
Once upon a time, I was a cellist. In 1998, I dropped out of graduate school. I’d grown disillusioned with a career in music and quit the cello for two years to take a job in the café at Barnes and Noble in Bloomington, Indiana.
In those days, I found myself serving coffee to people who were kind, and those who were cruel. I smiled when I could—which was most of the time. Even when serving coffee to the man who gave me a failing grade in orchestra because he didn’t think a professional engagement at Carnegie Hall was a good reason to miss a school orchestra concert.
That failing grade resulted in the loss of my scholarship and could not be appealed. Not even by my cello professor, Janos Starker, who was generally thought to have sway at IU. In his words, “I couldn’t keep him from failing my own daughter or son-in-law. I can’t help you.”
Eventually I came to miss the cello. Near the end of my musical exile, I organized my forty hour a week schedule into four, ten-hour shifts. I’d report to work early in the morning, and clock out at 6:30. By 7:30, I was in the practice building at IU, sawing away on the orchestral literature required to win jobs. When the custodian came to lock the building, I’d have myself deliberately locked in and practice through the night. The next morning I was back at the café, bright and surly, sucking down product, and striving to distinguish myself through an exemplary work ethic. At the end of the day, it was back to the practice room for more; a typical work day was 72 hours. I slept on my days off.
This is how I won my first job as Assistant Principal Cellist of the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra, roughly $4k a year. I boosted my income by another $6k by adding private teaching and adjunct college teaching. I had a regular five-hour commute, but that’s comparatively unremarkable in a musical career. I had a lot of college debt—so my personal wealth was in the double negatives.
When the Principal Cello position opened up in Evansville, I took the audition. To my good fortune—I won. Now I was pulling down $25k, but the extra gigs and solo opportunities rounded my salary out to something just north of $30k.
Yet, now that I wasn’t busy every second of the day, I noticed that all around me, my friends were drowning. Everyone carried significant student debt, but the lifestyle I’d been doing for months, they’d been doing for years. They were just as gifted as I was, if not more so. They just weren’t as lucky. There were too many of them, and too few students. Too few jobs. My situation, by comparison, was very attractive.
Still, the insurance available to me was critically limited. My wife and I wanted to start a family, but the Philharmonic couldn’t afford to cover her. In this time, she was teaching 30 students, gigging in two orchestras, and working as a barista at Starbucks—the minimum weekly hours to get insurance.
So, my job searching continued. By 2008, I took a position at Indiana University South Bend as Lecturer in Music, (Cellist, Euclid Quartet,) which earned northwards of $40k. Additional private teaching, master classes and concerts, and the generous university benefits package pushed our finances into the realm of the “sanely” livable.
I was thirty-six by the time I crossed that marker, but many of my colleagues continue to live in poverty. Others who won jobs have since lost them, or else had them cut to the point where they’re back in poverty. (The latest orchestra in the news is Indianapolis.) The fact is: a living wage as a classical musician is becoming increasingly mythic for college graduates.
Admittedly, a career as a classical musician is a niche industry. But it’s just one niche industry in this country—one which underscores the folly of vilifying and generalizing the greedy, lazy, and unmotivated poor. Not every poor person is gaming the system, but, in a world where more money translates to greater ease in evading taxes, can the richest among us say the same?