I had breakfast with my two oldest nieces earlier this week. One is 28 and is in love with her husband. That's the good news. The bad is that he has a low-paying security guard job, which has forced them to live with his family in an overcrowded, two-story house. Apparently, between siblings, cousins, and children, there are 11 people in the house. It sounds chaotic. She wants to find a job, but everyone else in the house wants her to stay home to babysit the kids so they can work. It is a frustrating, confined world my oldest niece married into.
My middle niece, now 22, is in college after transferring from another. In the process she lost quite a few credits and a lot of confidence. The transfer has everything to do with a man. She'd moved in with a Navy man, which ended badly, and now she's trying to get refocused on school. She wants a part-time job, but so does every other student in her college. Pickings aren't just been slim — they're non-existent.
Sitting with them, I wanted to offer some encouragement and hope. Yes, we are all proud that there's a black President. It is a huge, historic deal. But my two oldest nieces, now young women in their 20s, are living through the harshest economic times since the Great Depression. In such an environment, an awkward personal decision — marrying into a family of limited means, a sudden break-up — can leave you incredibly financially vulnerable.
I gave them both some cash — just some pocket change to buy some food, really — but the economic opportunity that can enrich their lives and make their long-term dreams seem feasible, I can't provide. I can be a stopgap. The real opportunities can only be created by a vibrant economy and smart government. I believe, at some point during the Obama years, these forces will come together. But, as the daily economic news indicates, it's gonna be a least a year (fingers crossed) before we see any real turn around.
I have a memoir coming out next spring, City Kid, which is about my journey from a poor family in the projects to some acclaim as a writer/filmmaker. Both my nieces are minor characters in the narrative. Looking at the book after our breakfast, I realized how much of my career had been aided by a growing economy of the '80s and '90s that sustained the magazines and publishers that made my journey possible. I worry now that, despite the work and ambition of my nieces, their sense of possibility will be permanently damaged in a period when lay-offs are commonplace and jobs disappearing. The 21st-century sequel to my story, which my nieces are writing right now, may have a big ending, but right now it is very bleak indeed.