Living the Dream

November 4, 2014

This election day, I'm thinking about the American dream: the story that we can all make our way in the world if we're willing to innovate, take risks, and work hard. When I look at my own work life, I see that I've been trying to live out this dream ever since I graduated from college. For most of those years, I have rarely drawn a paycheck from a pre-existing business or organization. Instead, I've forged my own path as a writer, musician, community music teacher, and radio producer. I've started businesses and organizations, formed partnerships, and developed miniature alternative economies based on exchanges of creative products and community support. My journey has been full of mistakes, stresses and confusion, along with beauty, freedom and fulfillment. It's been wonderful and difficult, and I continue to choose it, despite the hard parts. Apparently I cherish my independence so much that I'm willing to go to great lengths to preserve it. In this way, I am quintessentially American.

Like many other people, however, my experience has taught me that the American reality often stands in direct opposition to the American dream. While we give lip-service to individualism and independence, the truth is that our economic system puts enormous pressures on all of us to join the herd, and often outright punishes those with independent impulses.

Nowhere has this been more evident in my life than in the realm of health care. Prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare), health insurance options were incredibly grim for independents like me. Costs were very high, benefits very low. For that reason, I went without health insurance for many years. Luckily I did not experience any major health issues during that uninsured time. However, when I heard politicians argue against health care reform and wax poetic about the virtues of a “free market” health system, I had a hard time not throwing pies in their faces.

When my financial situation improved slightly, I did purchase individual health insurance. It started out at close to $100/month, quickly rose to $150/month, and was scheduled to go up to $200/month when the health exchanges opened last year. For some, $200/month may sound low, but consider what I got for that money. I had a deductible of nearly $7,000. Zero coverage for preventative care. Basically, I was protected only in the event of a catastrophe. Whenever I actually accessed the health care system – updating my tetanus shot, treating a respiratory infection – I still had to pay for everything out of pocket. It made me feel foolish. Why was I paying for this health insurance I could barely afford when I still had to pay for all of my actual health care by myself anyway? But this crappy plan was the very best I could get, and I knew buying it was the responsible, adult thing to do. If I wanted health insurance, I really didn't have another choice. So much for the “free” market.

When the ACA finally did get signed into law in 2010, the impact on me was immediate. Suddenly, my preventative care was largely covered. I remember handing my insurance card to the bookkeeper at my doctor's office before my annual exam, and having her confirm that the visit was now covered. I felt my whole body relax – that was around $250 I would not have to dig out of the couch cushions. As I sat down in the waiting room I actually got a little teary. Every year, my annual exam had been a source of financial stress. Now it was my basic right as an American.

When I hear right-wing politicians to try to discredit and repeal the ACA, bemoaning the “nanny state,” I want to know if they have ever existed outside of the world of the “nanny corporation.” I want to ask them if they ever tried to get a quality, affordable, individual health insurance plan under the old system, or even just tried to get clear information about indie plans on the so-called free market. I want to know if they ever spent hours researching insurance options only to realize that they didn't actually have any. Republicans say private industry creates choice and the government takes it away, but my experience is the exact opposite. When health insurance was solely under the control of private companies, I had the following options: no coverage at all, barely-affordable coverage that covered almost nothing, or better coverage that I could not afford. Now, because of government involvement, I have multiple options for substantive coverage.

Because here's the punch line: I now pay $26/month for health insurance. Twenty-six dollars! My deductible? Zero. My coverage? Quite good. All of the health care services I am most likely to need are now covered. For the first time in my adult life, I have health care security and affordability. I don't have to choose anymore between caring for my body and caring for my pocketbook.

I had a very low income last year, and my premium will rise as I earn more. But I'm OK with that, because I am getting so much more now than I ever did before. Just look:


Republicans are still nattering on repealing Obamacare. Democrats can't seem to find the courage to take pride in it. Both responses frustrate me deeply. This law has been a life-changer for me. It is not a nefarious government intrusion, it does not impinge upon our freedom. It's just way better health care for way less money.

How does this connect up to the American dream?

In short, the old health care system punished me for choosing an independent path; Obamacare supports me in it. In my twenties, I could take the risk to go without insurance. In my thirties, I was able to squeak by on a junky plan. But this situation was bound to become untenable. Like everyone else, I'm going to get old and have more health needs, and under the pre-ACA system, the pressure to forgo my independent path simply to get secure, affordable health care might have eventually been too much to withstand. Those who loudly trumpet the seemingly endless virtues of the free market are completely out of touch with this reality. Their “freedom” was forcing me down roads I didn't want to take.

We say we're a nation of innovators. We espouse ideals of independence and risk-taking. But here's what we don't say: acute economic stress inhibits innovation, and there is a no freedom in a menu of bad options.

Corporations subsidize health insurance for their employees because they want their workers to be as healthy and productive as possible; the ACA simply provides that same support to those of us who work for ourselves. Do we want to encourage people who make independent choices, or do we want to push everyone to work for big companies and organizations? I will never understand why Republican leaders are fine with me receiving a health care subsidy from a corporation but not the government. I will never understand how they can claim to be on the side of innovation while enacting policies that make it difficult if not impossible to be a free agent in this economy.

There's something else we don't say. It's the elephant (or donkey) in the room whenever we talk about the American dream: we need each other. Individuals survive and thrive only with help from their communities. To see our successes as purely individual acts is arrogant; to see our difficulties as individual moral failings is blindered. We have some control over our fate, but not total control. Our brains and grit and willpower are important factors in shaping our lives, but so are the purely random conditions of our birth. It takes both pluck and luck to suceed -- but perhaps most importantly, it takes a village. Behind every story of a rugged individualist who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps and went on to do great things is a whole network of people and organizations who helped him on his way. This fact is consistently edited out of Republican rhetoric, and overlooked in the ethos of the American dream.

We need each other. This is glaringly obvious in my own life. What I've been referring to here as my “independent” path has actually been an experiment in fairly radical inter-dependence. Writing songs and giving concerts, organizing music groups, conducting interviews, making and sharing stories – it's all about communication, connection and community. And every step of the way, I have been dependent on other people to help me. Yes, I am a “self-starter” and a “sole proprietor” who can never find a job title in a drop-down menu that fits my quirky, independent career. But in order to follow my passions and exercise my creativity, I have been reliant on others, just like anyone working for a big company, a big institution, or (god forbid) big government. All of us, each of us, survive only in collaboration with other people.

We need each other. I do. Obama does. Every candidate running for office today does. We all need someone – many people – to help us make our way in the world. It's a key part of the human experience, and the sooner we can recognize that is also a key part of the American experience, the better off we'll be.

I don't want to abandon the American dream, and I don't think we ought to. But I do want to re-frame it to include and embrace our needs and vulnerabilities, both as individuals and as a country. I want an American dream that doesn't edit out all the ways our daily lives depend on connections with other people and with the wider world. I want an authentic story of freedom and independence, which is strong enough to acknowledge that none of us makes it alone.

It comes down to two simple questions:

Who helped you?

And who are you helping?

Pushing our politicians -- and ourselves -- to honestly answer those questions could go a long way toward making the American dream real.