Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Too Poor to Make the News

Too Poor to Make the News




The New York Times

June 14, 2009 Op-Ed Contributor




THE human side of the recession, in the new media genre

that's been called "recession porn," is the story of an

incremental descent from excess to frugality, from ease

to austerity. The super-rich give up their personal

jets; the upper middle class cut back on private

Pilates classes; the merely middle class forgo

vacations and evenings at Applebee's. In some accounts,

the recession is even described as the "great leveler,"

smudging the dizzying levels of inequality that

characterized the last couple of decades and squeezing

everyone into a single great class, the Nouveau Poor,

in which we will all drive tiny fuel-efficient cars and

grow tomatoes on our porches.


But the outlook is not so cozy when we look at the

effects of the recession on a group generally omitted

from all the vivid narratives of downward mobility --

the already poor, the estimated 20 percent to 30

percent of the population who struggle to get by in the

best of times. This demographic, the working poor, have

already been living in an economic depression of their

own. From their point of view "the economy," as a

shared condition, is a fiction.


This spring, I tracked down a couple of the people I

had met while working on my 2001 book, "Nickel and

Dimed," in which I worked in low-wage jobs like

waitressing and housecleaning, and I found them no more

gripped by the recession than by "American Idol";

things were pretty much "same old." The woman I called

Melissa in the book was still working at Wal-Mart,

though in nine years, her wages had risen to $10 an

hour from $7. "Caroline," who is increasingly disabled

by diabetes and heart disease, now lives with a grown

son and subsists on occasional cleaning and catering

jobs. We chatted about grandchildren and church,

without any mention of exceptional hardship.


As with Denise Smith, whom I recently met through the

Virginia Organizing Project and whose bachelor's degree

in history qualifies her for seasonal $10-an-hour work

at a tourist site, the recession is largely an

abstraction. "We were poor," Ms. Smith told me

cheerfully, "and we're still poor."


But then, at least if you inhabit a large, multiclass

extended family like my own, there comes that e-mail

message with the subject line "Need your help," and you

realize that bad is often just the stage before worse.

The note was from one of my nephews, and it reported

that his mother-in-law, Peg, was, like several million

other Americans, about to lose her home to foreclosure.


It was the back story that got to me: Peg, who is 55

and lives in rural Missouri, had been working three

part-time jobs to support her disabled daughter and two

grandchildren, who had moved in with her. Then, last

winter, she had a heart attack, missed work and fell

behind in her mortgage payments. If I couldn't help,

all four would have to move into the cramped apartment

in Minneapolis already occupied by my nephew and his wife.


Only after I'd sent the money did I learn that the

mortgage was not a subprime one and the home was not a

house but a dilapidated single-wide trailer that, as a

"used vehicle," commands a 12-percent mortgage interest

rate. You could argue, without any shortage of

compassion, that "Low-Wage Worker Loses Job, Home" is

nobody's idea of news.


In late May I traveled to Los Angeles -- where the real

unemployment rate, including underemployed people and

those who have given up on looking for a job, is

estimated at 20 percent -- to meet with a half-dozen

community organizers. They are members of a profession,

derided last summer by Sarah Palin, that helps

low-income people renegotiate mortgages, deal with

eviction when their landlords are foreclosed and, when

necessary, organize to confront landlords and bosses.


The question I put to this rainbow group was: "Has the

recession made a significant difference in the

low-income communities where you work, or are things

pretty much the same?" My informants -- from Koreatown,

South Central, Maywood, Artesia and the area around

Skid Row -- took pains to explain that things were

already bad before the recession, and in ways that are

disconnected from the larger economy. One of them told

me, for example, that the boom of the '90s and early

2000s had been "basically devastating" for the urban

poor. Rents skyrocketed; public housing disappeared to

make way for gentrification.


But yes, the recession has made things palpably worse,

largely because of job losses. With no paychecks coming

in, people fall behind on their rent and, since there

can be as long as a six-year wait for federal housing

subsidies, they often have no alternative but to move

in with relatives. "People are calling me all the

time," said Preeti Sharma of the South Asian Network,

"They think I have some sort of magic."


The organizers even expressed a certain impatience with

the Nouveau Poor, once I introduced the phrase. If

there's a symbol for the recession in Los Angeles,

Davin Corona of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy

said, it's "the policeman facing foreclosure in the

suburbs." The already poor, he said -- the undocumented

immigrants, the sweatshop workers, the janitors, maids

and security guards -- had all but "disappeared" from

both the news media and public policy discussions.


Disappearing with them is what may be the most

distinctive and compelling story of this recession.

When I got back home, I started calling up experts,

like Sharon Parrott, a policy analyst at the Center on

Budget and Policy Priorities, who told me, "There's

rising unemployment among all demographic groups, but

vastly more among the so-called unskilled."


How much more? Larry Mishel, the president of the

Economic Policy Institute, offers data showing that

blue-collar unemployment is increasing three times as

fast as white-collar unemployment. The last two

recessions -- in the early '90s and in 2001 -- produced

mass white-collar layoffs, and while the current one

has seen plenty of downsized real-estate agents and

financial analysts, the brunt is being borne by the

blue-collar working class, which has been sliding

downward since deindustrialization began in the '80s.


When I called food banks and homeless shelters around

the country, most staff members and directors seemed

poised to offer press-pleasing tales of formerly

middle-class families brought low. But some, like Toni

Muhammad at Gateway Homeless Services in St. Louis,

admitted that mostly they see "the long-term poor," who

become even poorer when they lose the kind of low-wage

jobs that had been so easy for me to find from 1998 to

2000. As Candy Hill, a vice president of Catholic

Charities U.S.A., put it, "All the focus is on the

middle class -- on Wall Street and Main Street -- but

it's the people on the back streets who are really suffering."


What are the stations between poverty and destitution?

Like the Nouveau Poor, the already poor descend through

a series of deprivations, though these are less likely

to involve forgone vacations than missed meals and

medications. The Times reported earlier this month that

one-third of Americans can no longer afford to comply

with their prescriptions.


There are other, less life-threatening, ways to try to

make ends meet. The Associated Press has reported that

more women from all social classes are resorting to

stripping, although "gentlemen's clubs," too, have been

hard-hit by the recession. The rural poor are turning

increasingly to "food auctions," which offer items that

may be past their sell-by dates.


And for those who like their meat fresh, there's the

option of urban hunting. In Racine, Wis., a 51-year-old

laid-off mechanic told me he's supplementing his diet

by "shooting squirrels and rabbits and eating them

stewed, baked and grilled." In Detroit, where the

wildlife population has mounted as the human population

ebbs, a retired truck driver is doing a brisk business

in raccoon carcasses, which he recommends marinating

with vinegar and spices.


The most common coping strategy, though, is simply to

increase the number of paying people per square foot of

dwelling space -- by doubling up or renting to

couch-surfers. It's hard to get firm numbers on

overcrowding, because no one likes to acknowledge it to

census-takers, journalists or anyone else who might be

remotely connected to the authorities. At the legal

level, this includes Peg taking in her daughter and two

grandchildren in a trailer with barely room for two, or

my nephew and his wife preparing to squeeze all four of

them into what is essentially a one-bedroom apartment.

But stories of Dickensian living arrangements abound.


In Los Angeles, Prof. Peter Dreier, a housing policy

expert at Occidental College, says that "people who've

lost their jobs, or at least their second jobs, cope by

doubling or tripling up in overcrowded apartments, or

by paying 50 or 60 or even 70 percent of their incomes

in rent." Thelmy Perez, an organizer with Strategic

Actions for a Just Economy, is trying to help an

elderly couple who could no longer afford the $600 a

month rent on their two-bedroom apartment, so they took

in six unrelated subtenants and are now facing

eviction. According to a community organizer in my own

city, Alexandria, Va., the standard apartment in a

complex occupied largely by day laborers contains two

bedrooms, each housing a family of up to five people,

plus an additional person laying claim to the couch.


Overcrowding -- rural, suburban and urban -- renders the

mounting numbers of the poor invisible, especially when

the perpetrators have no telltale cars to park on the

street. But if this is sometimes a crime against zoning

laws, it's not exactly a victimless one. At best, it

leads to interrupted sleep and long waits for the

bathroom; at worst, to explosions of violence. Catholic

Charities is reporting a spike in domestic violence in

many parts of the country, which Candy Hill attributes

to the combination of unemployment and overcrowding.


And doubling up is seldom a stable solution. According

to Toni Muhammad, about 70 percent of the people

seeking emergency shelter in St. Louis report they had

been living with relatives "but the place was too

small." When I asked Peg what it was like to share her

trailer with her daughter's family, she said bleakly,

"I just stay in my bedroom."


The deprivations of the formerly affluent Nouveau Poor

are real enough, but the situation of the already poor

suggests that they do not necessarily presage a

greener, more harmonious future with a flatter

distribution of wealth. There are no data yet on the

effects of the recession on measures of inequality, but

historically the effect of downturns is to increase,

not decrease, class polarization.


The recession of the '80s transformed the working class

into the working poor, as manufacturing jobs fled to

the third world, forcing American workers into the

low-paying service and retail sector. The current

recession is knocking the working poor down another

notch -- from low-wage employment and inadequate housing

toward erratic employment and no housing at all.

Comfortable people have long imagined that American

poverty is far more luxurious than the third world

variety, but the difference is rapidly narrowing.


Maybe "the economy," as depicted on CNBC, will revive

again, restoring the kinds of jobs that sustained the

working poor, however inadequately, before the

recession. Chances are, though, that they still won't

pay enough to live on, at least not at any level of

safety and dignity. In fact, hourly wage growth, which

had been running at about 4 percent a year, has

undergone what the Economic Policy Institute calls a

"dramatic collapse" in the last six months alone. In

good times and grim ones, the misery at the bottom just

keeps piling up, like a bad debt that will eventually come due.


Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of "This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided



Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company



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