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home : commentary : columns October 22, 2017

Life was hard 50 years ago but better than now for young people

By Moises Sandoval | Catholic News Service

In the fall of 1959, when I began my working life as a reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune, my salary was only $100 a week. I was already married and my wife, a stay-at-home mom, and I already had two children.

The younger one, a boy named Mark, had been born with a heart defect. We took him to heart centers in Iowa, where I had worked previously, and in Denver, but medical science then had no way to correct the problem. He eventually died.

Times were tough. I supplemented our income with my pay as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and with occasional freelance photography. Nevertheless, as I reflect on the Labor Day holiday, which honors the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, laws and well-being of the country, I consider myself fortunate to have lived in those times.

With the perspective of half a century, I now see how fortunate I was. I was a full-time employee, with two weeks of paid vacation a year and, most important, health insurance paid by my employer.

Two decades later, on a visit to the Tribune, I found it now had a new class of reporters who worked only enough hours so that they would not be considered full-time workers. They received no benefits: no health insurance, no paid vacation, no retirement.

That has become standard practice throughout the nation. Universities have their adjunct professors; businesses, industry and institutions, secular and religious, their part-time workers and independent contractors. Many have to juggle two or more jobs to survive. Others seem to have given up.

In Utah, one of the states with the lowest unemployment in the nation, 3.1 percent, employers have difficulty finding workers. Yet, according to The New York Times, 31.7 percent of adults in Utah were neither working nor looking for work last year. 

While that can be the effect of many causes -- export of jobs overseas, losses in union membership, the opioid epidemic and the aging population -- the loss of full-time job opportunities with benefits has to be very discouraging. 

In the three years I worked at the Tribune, we had two more children. While I do not remember the details of our health insurance, it paid for all the prenatal doctor visits, hospitalization and postnatal care. We never lost any sleep over the medical bills, even though those for Mark's visits to various heart centers took us a long time to pay.

Today, the bills for a pregnancy can run to $30,000 or more, which can devastate families without adequate insurance.

I marvel today at what we were able to do with the income I was able to bring in. One year, we were able help a poor family avoid being evicted the day before Christmas; I paid half their month's rent and Catholic Charities paid the other half.

We were even able to buy a house, at a cost of $12,000, with a small down payment lent to us by Tom Brennan, my best friend in college. He was returning a favor; I had lent him several hundred dollars while we studied journalism at Marquette University.

Our elder son Michael was born in an Albuquerque hospital in 1961; in the 1990s, his older daughter, Kathryn, was born in our living room while we were away on vacation. He was working as an electrician, but he had no health insurance. The only medical attendant was a midwife. It's no wonder many see our best days behind us.

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