Tell 'The Nation': Americans Ask the Hard Questions
In the latest installment of our reader-reported series about the effects of the recession, we received updates by readers of all ages from across the country. The news is not all bad--we heard from hopeful entrepreneurs and workers who were spared in previous rounds of layoffs--but everyone is encountering obstacles great and small. Read their stories and share your own using the form at the bottom of the page or by posting via YouTube and submitting the link. The previous collection can be viewed here.
Time for a People's Bailout
The pinch has been felt here in rural northern California by the middle class and the poor especially. I live in a small community that traditionally has been very conservative, but that is changing as even those of means have to do some belt-tightening to make ends meet.
My family was hit hard during the Bush recession that started in 2001. I was laid off in 2005 and remained on unemployment for more than a year. When I did find work it was only temporary, and I found myself on unemployment again in 2008 for six months. We have been able to maintain our mortgage payments, but our credit card bills have grown month after month. Our home was flooded in 2007, and we have been slowly rebuilding it. We had planned to refinance after the house was done, but now we find ourselves "underwater" again, this time with our overvalued mortgage, and we can no longer do a refi to solve our credit card debt. I'm left with consolidation or bankruptcy.
Mr. President, "We the People" need your help! To hell with these Wall Street bankers and insurance swindlers: pay the bailout money to "We the People" and we can then pay our creditors and mortgages, which will in turn take care of the bankers' issues as well. We can call it "trickle-up" economics, since the trickle-down variety has not worked.
The View from Wheeling
In my town of 50,000 people, I have seen several local stores go out of business, such as a second-hand children's shop, a bakery and a video rental store. I have noticed a wonderful reduction in traffic, which means less benzene, less noise, less accidents, less carbon and less gas usage--yeah! In my local newspaper, I have read that while our library's finances are in very good shape, our schools' finances are not. I have also read about several thousand layoffs that have or will soon transpire as local factories and larger businesses close. For the past several years, I have kept an eye on the police blotter printed in the local paper, because I care for two children and my elderly father and I feel it is important to know what types of crimes are committed and at what frequencies they occur. I have noticed a definite uptick in the number of burglaries and auto break-ins, as well as an increase in scams aimed at the elderly. I have not seen a large number of homes for sale--the number seems to be about the same as in the previous four years. On the positive side, I have seen quite a few temporary auto license plates, indicating that someone has the money to purchase new vehicles.
Julia K. Ambrose
Working Harder to Keep Working
I work as a secretary at a law firm, and I've already survived two rounds of layoffs. Those of us who are left have had our benefits cut, our workday increased from 7 to 7.5 hours, and the number of the attorneys each secretary is required to support increased from 2 to 5.5. I'm lucky to have a job, although the cuts have put me and the other secretaries more at risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome and other stress-related problems.
The recession was brought home to me by the need to "bail out" my parents when the tech startup my dad worked for imploded under specious circumstances (pump-and-dump criminals, who had been busted before, were linked to the management of the company despite being barred from serving on a board).
First, the company canceled the health insurance for its employees without telling them (a crime, but best of luck getting the cash-strapped California state government to lift a finger) and promised thousands of dollars in "bonuses," while at the same time becoming increasingly late with payroll. They continued to string the employees along with fabulous tales of funding to come and how it was taking some time to get the money transferred from San Francisco to Los Angeles so they could dispense the bonus checks. Finally, my dad had to go to the California state Labor Board, but although he has received a judgment against the thieves in question, that piece of paper isn't nearly as satisfying as the $30,000 in back-pay they owe him.
The SEC paid about as much attention as they did to Bernie M. before 2007. I don't feel compelled to shed a tear for the AIG clowns that won't be getting to keep their bonuses, either.
The current state of economic affairs in this country has and is drastically affecting my entire family. Our problem is immediate and, like global warming and climate change, the consequences in the foreseeable future appear dire and may become catastrophic if action is not taken.
My wife is a victim of "downsizing." She was laid off in February after nearly ten years on the company roster and forty years of continuous employment, first for law firms, then in middle-management positions and most recently in midlevel pharma. My son is an independent artist, and our daughter is newly employed in the entertainment world. All have very real experiences regarding loss of income, relocation upheaval and unexpected layoffs. Our situations are diverse, stretching from New England to Fort Lauderdale and New York City to the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Basin.
As for myself, the adjustment period regarding my wife's termination lasted two days. Our search for her new "career" and added employment for myself to help prevent a Katrina-style levee burst in our finances is in full swing. I am dedicated to food service in one form or another. I have had four jobs in forty years, beginning with a 1960s health food store/Christananda yoga ashram, to convenient store management, to the California State University Dining Services Division, to my current position with a prominent grocery-store chain.
My wife and I have between us nearly eighty years of consistent taxpaying employment. We have raised our children and have had two homes, one in California and one in Massachusetts, where our kids were able to grow up. Like many middle-class Americans, we are losing most of the value of our 401(k)s, what few stocks we had invested in over the years, including our retirement funds and, if Social Security is privatized or eliminated as the likes of Grover Norquist, the AEI, the Heritage Foundation, the conservative far right--the "economic royalists," as FDR called them--have their way, it won't be long before we are in line asking, "Buddy, can you spare a dime?"
But more to the point, my dilemma is this: I am a part-time employee. Like most retail companies, the company I work for is not hiring full time in this economy and has not done so for years, which wasn't a problem for us when our children were growing up. I would (and still do) begin work between 3 and 4:30 in the morning. In our younger days, the early hours were good so that I could be home when our kids got home from school in the afternoon, making childcare or baby sitters an unnecessary expense.
In the wisdom of the Lady Galadriel, "The world is changing, I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth"--and my wife and I feel it in our bones. Our children have grown up, and I am looking for part-time and or full-time employment to supplement my job. But I am not allowed to seek employment in my chosen field of experience because I will be fired; that is, if I'm even able to find a job stocking the shelves of another food store. I'm told it's a "conflict of interest," but I call it paranoia and corporate-mindset syndrome! The other grocery stores in our area will not hire me because I am employed by their competitor, and I will not lie about my work status. I am very proud of my employer and my local union and, above all, I am honored to associate myself with all of my co-workers--including the management.
What threat does someone like me represent to a local, district, regional or international corporate/conglomerate ideology? I am not a top-level company officer or a district manager or a store manager or an assistant store manager. I am not even a department manager or an assistant department manager--I am not even a full-time employee. I am a part-time, bake-the-bread-before-the-sun-rises worker who just needs to supplement his income to shore up our family, stay in our home and keep our children's inheritance intact.
Entreprenuers vs. Locusts
We are not wealthy but are more fortunate than many people. We have a family-owned business and, while things are a bit slower than normal due to cuts in client spending, we have been able to pick up new clients. Running our own business, we see first-hand the changes and cutbacks all companies have to make to remain competitive in this economy. The good news is there are still entrepreneurs undertaking new ventures, developing products and services and growing!
Working with these dynamic people is not only encouraging; it has changed the way I look at the economy. Whereas in the previous recession I saw mostly gloom, I now see opportunity. We are taking advantage of the slowdown to make changes in our company and to provide training programs to add to our service offerings, with the goal of taking advantage of the changes in technology, the marketplace and future economic growth.
One cannot help but see the contrast between entrepreneurs who are investing in their own companies to create wealth and the locusts who have swarmed over Wall Street, sucking the life out of the economy and society. Instead of government propping up the behemoths that have mired us in defaults and debts, we would have a better chance at innovation and growth if government provided incentives and funded investment in entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Treating the Symptoms
I'm in my last year at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine. My school operates a handful of free clinics across town that help to provide coverage for people who otherwise would have nobody to turn to for medical care.
This month, almost every patient I've seen at our downtown clinic has had deep financial worries, which of course exacerbate their health problems. A woman with barely controlled hypertension asked me, "Is my stress over my finances affecting my blood pressure?" All I could do was hold her hand and say, "Most likely, yes." Another gentleman built a solid and respectable life for himself as a self-employed carpenter, but business has been drying up for him. He's not sure if he can afford to keep renting his workspace, and his house was about to go into foreclosure--in fact, as I write this, it probably already has.
We're keeping prescriptions filled and making sure people have the medicines they need, but it feels makeshift when they're losing jobs and houses and contemplating life on the street.
San Diego, CA
Maybe We Can
I work in the industrial building trades as a worker or manager, depending on the project. We do not "share jobs" like we hear about in the media. When times become this tough, things only get more cutthroat than they already were. And if we don't work enough hours to qualify for health insurance, that's just tough for us. We lose a lot of talent that way.
In mid-2008, things started looking radically better. The high oil prices were bringing some very interesting technologies into play, and we were smack in the middle of the Next Big Thing. Around this time, I read a lot of articles in which skilled-labor shortage discussions were all the rage. The bad image of some of the trades was much discussed as these industries wondered whether smart young people would come on board. I talked to some colleagues about this, all of us thirty-year veterans of trades, plant operations or construction management, and every one of us had the same reaction: "Why should they?"
By September, projects started getting canceled that had equipment on order and seven-figure engineering tabs already bought and paid for. The money guys had screwed up, again, and the technical and industrial renaissance that we all know we need had to take a back seat to the financial services sector, again. This is familiar ground. We have been taking it in the ear from the financial wizards for thirty years (no new oil refineries have been built since the 1970s) and now they are scrambling for the TARP dough while we grubby builders and engineers are forced to once again wait for our turn.
What people don't understand is that the skills for the technical renaissance are generational in nature. They cannot be acquired in a two-year MBA program, and the average age of workers in these industries is in the late 40s. If we don't get millions of young people working right now, they will not have what it takes to take over after the five or ten years most of us have left.
And it's showing: President Obama has pointed out that batteries for electric cars are being imported from Japan, while wind turbines are coming from Europe and China. The technology to manufacture these components is daunting and, if we start today, the lead time to get the production up and running is five years at best. And in that time our competition will just keep on moving ahead of us.
The question then will not be "Why should they?" but rather "Can they?"
Questions From the Next Generation
I'm a senior in high school. I've been accepted to two colleges, both of which I can hardly afford. I've applied for a couple of scholarships, but sometimes they are so stingy with their money and other times you can't get them because you aren't what they are looking for.
My mom is a manager at a casino with a hotel. She and the other managers have recently received a pay cut. I'm not completely sure of how much; she hasn't told me that and I doubt she ever will because, well, she never shares her economic troubles with me. But what I do know is that she was the lowest-paid manager at the hotel, worked six days a week for ten to twelve hours a day and, instead of getting the raise she deserves, she got a pay cut that we can't afford. Our cable has been turned off, so we have to steal our Internet from elsewhere; and although we can buy food, it's hard to make it day by day.
I keep wondering when things will get easier. When I won't have to be afraid that my mom and I will be kicked out of our home because the rent rises above what we can afford. Or when I can actually go to college without starving myself to stay there.
I know that one day our economy will get back on its feet--and let's hope it's soon. I doubt that we could survive another depression. Today's generation "needs" too many things. They need their designer bags, their expensive cars and jewelry, their Visa cards and, most of all, they need their cellphones--otherwise how can they live?!
But my question is, When will it get better? Will I have to raise my children in a country that can't keep itself up without the help of foreign governments? Will I have to grow old in a country that becomes more and more in debt as the years go by?
These questions plague me even when I am asleep because I am always wondering, What if I become the next person on the street? What if I become one of those people everyone talks about, the person that works every day at two jobs and never sees her family, just to keep a roof over their head? Will I become one of those people? Will I become my mother in my search to find safety for my family?
Las Vegas, NV