Good Government Job, A Myth In Three Generations

My day job involves working for the federal government. My particular agency serves a vulnerable population, and as of this week most of my coworkers were deemed as essential. We’re part of that million plus going to work every day & hoping that we’ll get paid for it. Eventually. Like any job, I have a laundry list of complaints about my office even when the government isn’t shut down.  I don’t voice most of them in public (we are subject to all sorts of rules and in my position its easier to just steer clear of naming my agency at all), but I can’t resist the occasional bout of nondescript venting. This is not that. It could be, but really I’ve said enough, and recently I decided to leave my good government job. Because it really isn’t so good, and I’m tired of doing work I don’t love for a future that isn’t guaranteed.

I admit that like a lot of people of color, I was raised on the ideal of a Good Government Job. In my grandmother’s mind, a government job was the best anyone black could hope to achieve. You got a job with Uncle Sam or the state, county, or even the city and you stayed in it for 30+ years. It paid a living wage, and guaranteed a decent income in retirement. As the Holy Grail of jobs, it could come with any number of problems, and all of them would be worth it. You got your foot in the door and you stayed there. My grandmother preached the Good Government Gospel to her children and grandchildren. Mostly we listened, especially as it became clear that my grandmother’s friends with Good Government Jobs fared better financially than those without such exalted positions. Granted, my grandfather and grandmother never quite achieved that level of stability (they prospered from vice, small businesses, and a general ability to hustle), but then they were ones who went out to work young and who never had quite the same level of education and access that they sacrificed to obtain for their children.

Two of my aunts had Good Government Jobs that made it possible for them to sustain not only themselves, but my grandmother at times over the years after my grandfather passed and medical bills from his myasthenia gravis and my grandmother’s cancer ate up their savings. As state and city employees, they waded through rivers of red tape and came out the other side with some measure of stability. However, they are having two very different retirements. One aunt (a former state employee) is getting by on a fixed income that would have been comfortable pre-recession, and that is barely making ends meet now. The other (a former teacher and principal with Chicago Public Schools) is in better shape financially, but because Chicago teachers are excluded from social security, she is still working post retirement to make insurance payments until she is old enough to qualify for Medicare.  Neither of them are having the kind of retirement they were promised 30+ years ago.

Their retirements have been…instructive for me as I stare down the barrel of my second government shutdown. I’ve been essential both times (I was in the Army during the first one), and this time as I sit in a job that I hate for other reasons, I’m trying to imagine 30 more years of this kind of stress, as well as the chances that the promises being made now will be kept then. There’s this ongoing anti-government worker rhetoric that frames the services we provide as things that should be charitable donations.

The Good Government Job has long been the key to accessing financial stability for workers of color. I know more than one single parent who would not be in any position to care for their families without the benefits and pay offered. And make no mistake, despite the negative hype attached, government workers are doing important necessary work to run this country. But at what cost? Aside from the risks inherent in counting on a pension that may not exist, there’s the reality that government jobs don’t lend themselves to creativity.

Like a lot of us that grew up poor, I was always encouraged to think of writing or any other creative talent as a hobby. The Good Government Job was the best option, with a “real” job in the private sector as the second best option. Now, as I sit here with writing opportunities on one side, and furloughs and rhetoric on the other? I can’t help but think that the Good Government Job is dying on the vine, and just maybe it’s time to teach poor kids to reach for their dreams instead of wasting years on jobs that won’t keep their promises in the first place.  If we can’t have financial stability, at the very least we can pursue the things we love and hope that they can sustain us. What were you taught? What will you teach? Am I the only one that’s ready to give up on the idea of a single job being enough to pay the bills?


  1. dtafakari · October 4, 2013

    Funny enough, I’ve been trying to get a Good Government Job for ages and only recently gave up on that idea. My mother worked for the VA for years and, aside from the usual bureaucratic idiocy, rarely speaks negatively about federal work.

    But it’s precisely because i have a family member who did government work that I, too, am sensitive of anti-government worker rhetoric. When politicians talk about ‘inflated salaries,’ that’s my mom’s income they’re messing with. It helps me see that the Government is not some amorphous monster, but a machine staffed by people who have to feed their families, and contractors who need roofs over their heads.

    All that said, I can’t stomach the dry work. i’m actively working to freelance full-time in the next two years and leave my own private sector job. We’ll see how that goes. And by doing so, maybe I can set the example for my daughter that you can eat AND do the work you are passionate about. Great post.

  2. deereeder · October 4, 2013

    I too am in a Good Government Job, desperate to leave it but not finding any alternatives. I just signed on to spend quite a sum to work with a job coach because, I think another thing about growing up black and poor is that it can be difficult to figure out the criticality of networking skills to real opportunity. There are times I’m tempted to give up trying to escape and do as my mother keeps advising: “just stick it out for the benefits”. In 10 years I’ll be 50 and able to quit but get a monthly $1100 for life, so my mom wants me to set aside dreams of doing work I love, and at least wait until I have that check, THEN go and find another job. I’ll be ahead of the game! It’s such a different mentality than people who grow up observing their parents moving and shaking, creating opportunities not just being grateful for a paycheck. But there’s always that fear/memory of poverty lurking.

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  4. dziriate · November 2, 2013

    No, not at all. I was a teacher for several years a few years ago and finally quit sold all my stuff and moved to France to become a writer. I live in NYC now. It was/is not easy I fell on hard times when the recession hit and I’m slowly digging myself out. BUT, I am a child of folks who had a good gov’t job and another steady one who were horrified (and still hold it against me today to a degree) that I would give up lifetime job security and a pension to *eff around* with writing.

    I think go for what you want. I don’t have children, and I’ve had a measure of privilege in the way I grew up. I will say that, too, and at times I thought I was going to disappear it was so hard, but the first year I took that plunge, as hard as it was, it was the first year of my life I could say unabashedly that I had no regrets.

    The act and the subsequent struggles gave me the courage (and time) to develop what will be a legacy to my family and to the people. I have very quietly learned more about life, love, hope, stability, happiness and what they all mean AND I have actively worked on breaking the chains that tied me to a generations long family past filled with sadness and yearning to create a new blueprint for people who deserve satisfaction and peace.

    Anyway, if you haven’t already, I hope you do.

    I look forward to reading more and more.

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