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No more faith in the US system

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By Casey Kauffman

Economic hardship can impact voting patterns and voter turnout. But it can affect so much more, and even tarnish the very model of upward mobility that American society is built on.

This is especially true in the African-American community, where faith in the American system of social advancement is viewed with skepticism in the best of times.

A history of discrimination and poverty has taught African-Americans that following the rules and working hard is not always a failure-proof formula for success.

"I felt like somebody stabbed me in the heart," said Willa Booker. "It's just like someone is taking your life away, and there is nothing you can do to get it back."

After 17 years of continuous employment, and stellar performance reviews, Willa Booker was fired in one day.

There was a budget cut at the county hospital where she worked in the administration branch. She was laid off in 2008 and hasn't been able to find work ever since.

"It doesn't only affect me but it affects my family," said Booker.

"For instance my daughter needs braces, I can't get her braces now. The lights are off, the gas is off, got a notice for my water now, the next thing is the frame of the building. It's very very scary, every morning I wake up and I'm scared.”

Her job is gone and now Booker could lose the home she and her 15-year-old daughter have lived in for 16 years. And all this after a university education, steady employment, and a lifetime of responsibility.

"Who is there to help me now?" asked Booker with quiet disillusionment across her face.

"Who is there to say you have done good all your life? This is what they want you to do ... grow up, go to school, do the right thing, get an education. It makes it difficult when you have done all these things and then the system fails you."

But the real tragedy, she says, is that her own experience makes her question the example of success she promotes to her daughter and other African-American teenagers she knows.

Youth in poor black neighbourhoods are confronted with different models of success at a young age: play by the rules and wait for the system to pay off, or engage in the underground economy and reap the benefits of street life now.

"I want to be a mentor out there and show them, hey, this can really happen. But now I even find myself saying 'why would my daughter have to go through school just to be kicked down like I was?'.

"Why does she have to get into more debt to get a bachelor's degree so someone can tell her: 'No, you can't do this'.

"Society teaches us to go to school, be a mentor to kids, it would lower the crime rate, but when people like myself have done everything right and then they turn around and kick you in the tail, how can I actually tell another child or someone who is looking up at me, 'hey, do this and do that and it will really work'.

"They have stepped on me, and it really hurts, it hurts a lot. I don't really believe in the system anymore, I used to, I just didn't think it could happen to me, but it has."

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