Posts Tagged ‘99ers’

Is America in a Recession or a Depression?

March 26, 2011 3 comments

Signs are Everywhere

In the hostel in Madison late one night a few of us were talking about the affairs of the day. I brought my reason for travelling-that is, documenting the depression in America. I was then asked “why do you think this is a depression?” I realized somewhat sheepishly that I have never publicly defended this point of view. So I will now. The available literature is somewhat unclear on the definitions of either term. But all the literature seems to center on the health of the Gross Domestic Product (GNP). But, I would argue that in an economy that has seen tremendous gains in productivity without the need to hire more workers, and that is capable having a “jobless recovery” as we are now, has to come up with a better definition, one that more accurately reflects the human costs of an economic crisis such as this.

I would suggest that we look instead at the true unemployment rate, at the foreclosure rate, at the bankruptcy rate, and at the rate at which small businesses are being forced to close their doors, among other indicators. We could also look at increases in the use of the social safety net such as food stamps, and the increase in homelessness.

A February Gallup poll finds that the official unemployment rate is at 9.8%, which is already quite high, but as we know, the official rate consistently understates the problem. It does not count the 99ers who have exhausted their benefits without finding work, or other “discouraged workers” who have simply given up. It doesn’t count the under-employed worker who lost a job that paid a healthy living wage but now works part time for far less. And it does not count the small business person who has had to close up shop and can’t find any paid work. I don’t know what the exact figure would be if these people were included in the unemployment rate, but I think it would be fair to say it would triple, giving us a rate of 29.4%.

A recent Real Estate Investors Daily states that the foreclosure rates have actually climbed in 2011 from a already alarmingly high rates in the last several years, and warns that “while we are seeing some markets in the US showing signs of “hitting bottom” and some are evening saying some markets have begun a “recovery“, I think we should be very slow and cautious to say the worst is behind us. Perhaps for those markets that had extremely high concentrations of the foreclosure activity (Nevada, Arizona, California and Florida) most of the damage may be done, but for other markets foreclosures are going to continue to put downward pressure on home prices.”

As for personal bankruptcy rates, numerous sources state that they are at a five year high and expected to rise in the coming year. Multiple sources also state that the poverty rate has gone up substantially, and this is poverty defined by an antiquated metric that does not reflect the actual cost of living in the 21st century.

That is why I am calling the economic climate in March 2011 a depression, and not the “great recession” as it has been termed. I may not be an economist, but there are some that agree with me. Columnist Jeff Cox quotes economist David Rosenberg in a 2010 article “Positive gross domestic product readings and other mildly hopeful signs are masking an ugly truth: The US economy is in a 1930s-style Depression, Gluskin Sheff economist David Rosenberg said Tuesday.” And he is not the only one to say so. The fact that any economist is using the term depression, given the emotional charge of the word and the deeply conservative nature of that profession, should give credence to the feeling that is already shared by millions of Americans.


Sonoma County in the Twenty-first Century Depression

March 6, 2011 6 comments

A Sign in a Cafe Window in Santa Rosa, CA

This evening I’ll be on a bus from my home in Sonoma County to San Francisco and from there, the rest of California. But today I want to talk about my home county, which is Sonoma. This beautiful little gem sits between the ocean and a string of mountains. It has a varied landscape, including redwood forests, a fertile central plain and breathtaking coastline. The climate is Mediterranean, but around here we just call it great.

But, for all that, Sonoma County is in the world, and the world is in big trouble. As I began to talk about this project with my acquaintances and with passers-by, a different Sonoma began to emerge. First, in the beginning of the melt-down of 2008, there was the mortgage broker I knew from a business net-working group who was losing her own home. As I began to focus on this subject it became more and more visible to me. In a popular Thai spot I was unintentionally eavesdropping on a table full of high-tech employees from a “downsizing” company. The lucky ones who had kept their jobs “for now” were treating their former colleagues to lunch and commiseration.

Then, some of the bigger storefronts began to go dark. Mervyn’s closed but Macy’s remained. Tourism is down all over as people everywhere down-shift their spending habits. The only group that has not down-shifted is the uber-rich. Lucky for Sonoma County, there are features here that are attractive to that demographic. There is a slice of Sonoma County tourism that is doing very well.  As a playground for the wealthy, Sonoma County offers high end restaurants, always full, wineries, quaint little inns, and beautiful scenery. If you can figure out how to be of service to these people you will stay employed.

As I write the official unemployment rate for Sonoma County is 10.5%, which means that if we include 99ers and self-employed people that have closed their doors it is more like 22%. I went down to the food stamp office at the beginning of last year and saw that the line was peppered with the newly impoverished. You can tell the ex-middle class by their dress and demeanor. The demographic that day appeared to be older and female.

Of the people lucky enough to have a job, some really aren’t so lucky after all. I have several friends that lost a job in the last two years only to get another one many months later with longer hours, less pay, and worse working conditions. But, if you want to keep your house you just suck it up. I met a woman the other day who was working a counter at a downtown store. She pointed to her name –tag and said “my father told me, if your name is on a building you are rich. If your name is on a plaque on your desk you are middle class. And if your name is on your shirt—well, you are poor” It turned out that she and her husband had lost a business that had thrived for twenty years in the crash, and then they had lost their house when the bubble burst. She told me that their house had dropped from $900,000 to $500,000. They were willing and able to restructure the debt, but the bank refused. Later the bank sold the property for $250,000 which is half what they were willing to pay. Now a speculator will snap up the house, and she is working retail for $12 an hour. Her husband remains unemployed.


Unemployment is Not a Vacation

January 21, 2011 2 comments

There are those that believe that just because you aren’t going to work at a job every day, unemployment is like an unpaid vacation. This perception is very very wrong. First of all, when you are unemployed you are never really off work. You must be ever at the ready, in case something comes up. In addition, a formal job search can take up to forty hours a week. Then there are the networking events, those sponsored commercial get togethers, often disguised with a “party atmosphere” that are obligatory for the “serious” job hunter.

Juggling becomes a new way of life, as all the items in the expense column come up for review. This is the moment when serious mistakes can be made, if you use any remaining credit to cling to the old way of life. People you knew from work may fall away, as if unemployment were catching. Friendships shift.

Then there are the emotions: demoralization and self-doubt, fear, and boredom. Demoralization and self-doubt set in as the weeks, months, and sometime years go by without a bite. As the (situational) depression deepens it may be hard to get motivated for one more phone call, one more appointment. You have become the “discouraged worker” that we read about. The cold words on the page do no justice to the feelings behind them.

As the money left in the system from unemployment benefits and savings dries up, fear becomes a constant companion. Fear as the bills come in and it is necessary to decide what you are going to lose this month. First everything that makes life fun. Then the personal upkeep items such as haircuts and clothing. Finally, after cutting to the bone, there is nothing left to cut but shelter, food, and the phone, lifeline to potential work. There is the fear of the empty cupboard staring back at you, as you learn how to use food banks and food stamps, if you can get them. Pasta or potatoes become the main item in your diet.

Then there is the worst fear of all—fear of (god forbid) getting sick. Without insurance. Getting sick keeps you from looking for work, or actually working if an odd job should fall your way. And it costs money that you don’t have, or if you do you were going to use it to eat that month. You learn that small injuries and illnesses can be “worked through”. Even an infection can sometimes run its course if you wait it out. As your diet gets worse the possibility of sickness grows.

Finally there is intense boredom as it becomes apparent that everything there is to do except sit is too expensive. Driving, if you still have a car, becomes a forbidden pleasure. Gas must be rationed to get to interviews and networking events, if you still have the clothes needed to attend. Lack of money makes recreation an impossibility. As long as you have cable there is TV and then maybe Netflix. Of course television is very depressing because it represents a false reality where everyone has a wonderful interesting career and plenty of disposable income. The days seem unbearably long and begin to run together.

Finally, if you are lucky, coping skills take hold. Simple household chores take the place of other entertainment. Having become forcibly frugal, you realize that your own labor must take the place of money if anything is to get done. If you are lucky you have settled in a place where you can have a small life. A community has formed. You are very clear who your real friends are. They are the ones that are still talking to you. Family relationships may have shifted. You have found a way to put some of your unused skills to good use for barter or for a little cash, enough to make the much reduced ends meet.

One day you might look up and see the unbearable blueness of the sky, or notice the perfect way that the light from the setting sun is illuminating the mountains. Life will never go back to being what it was. But you are alive. And you are still a human being, now un-tethered to the machine. If you are not there yet it is my wish for you that you survive to see that day, and that the road treat you kindly. As Scarlett O’Hara said, tomorrow is another day. frugality blog a searchable list of food banks the stages of grief how to barter


Being Poor is Hard Work

January 5, 2011 8 comments

The Money Problem

Contrary to the popular opinion that “poor people are lazy”, the truth is that every aspect of life becomes much harder when you are poor. And the learning curve if you suddenly become poor is staggering. It is hard enough for those who understand the system. For the newly poor, life is fraught with peril. There are so many things where the solution was once money, and now it is waiting in line, or filling out forms,  or figuring out how to do it yourself. Sometimes the solution is to just do without. For the poor, a great deal of time is spent just fulfilling basic needs that could be obtained easily with money, or dealing with the effects of needs that can’t be met at all, such as, in many cases, medical care.

For the moneyed, getting food is as easy as deciding what to get and getting it. Cooking is an option, and ingredients are no problem. The very people who have the greatest access to medicine also have the pick of healthy food choices. For the poor, at a certain point, getting food requires standing in long lines for assistance, which is often inadequate. With or without food stamps there may be few healthy food choices in the neighborhood. To get healthy food if you are not lucky enough to have a garden plot or live near a community garden, it may be necessary to go a long distance, possibly without a vehicle, and then get the provisions home. This takes a lot of effort, and that is before the stove gets fired up.

Then there is the question of transportation. Car ownership, even an old beater, is expensive and wrought with peril. If you are not a mechanic and have no mechanics in your immediate circle, there is always a chance that things can go wrong. Buying car insurance can cut into money for food or heating, and fuel prices are spiraling upwards. It may be impossible to get the car registered in a timely fashion, which drives up the cost in the end. In that case it is necessary to take evasive action every time you spot a cop on the road. And when you finally get caught the fees can exceed the value of the vehicle, or make it so you can eat nothing but peanut butter for awhile.

Without a car, in many areas, getting anywhere takes a lot of time, and some money unless you walk. This can be mitigated by living in a place with good public transportation, especially if there is a program for a low-cost monthly pass.

Money management presents a problem. At a certain point, having any kind of bank account becomes a liability. The few bills that must be paid by mail not involve a trip to the store for a money order, one of the most insecure and difficult ways of paying. God help you if it gets lost in the mail…

If you get sick or injured enough to absolutely require medical attention there is always the emergency room. You will be hounded for an outrageous amount of money for years afterwards, and may get substandard treatment, but will likely survive. For lesser ills, you can try to get an over the counter remedy or just tough it out. And if is a dental problem, just forget it. Teeth are not considered part of a poor person’s body.

These are just a few examples of situations where poverty creates the need for massive amounts of work just to survive. It is not laziness that keeps the poor impoverished, but rather a system that is completely stacked in favor of maintaining the status quo. There is the ever present chance of stepping on some rich person’s “property rights” and there by incurring some mountainous expense at law. For instance, if you park on private property and get towed, the initial fee may be hundreds of dollars and increase by fifty or more dollars (a week’s groceries) each day. The towing yards are full of cars that could not be retrieved by their owners. These vehicles may have been keeping their former owners employed. And the private towing company gets to KEEP this unconscionable profit.

There are whole industries that prey on the poor, raising the prices that they are likely to pay for everything from milk to tires. The worst are the predatory lenders offering quick cash at fees that are beyond usury.

And, if there are any infractions of government codes, such as rolling a stop sign, a choice must be made whether to lose the vehicle, risk jail, or just stop eating for a month. A moneyed person would just pay the bill and drive on.

In many places there are laws about sitting or standing on the street without obviously being in the process of buying something. Even going to the bathroom when not at home costs money, to become a “customer” and therefore eligible to use the facilities. The list just goes on and on. It is safer, when poor, to never leave your house. But then you will just get evicted and join the ranks of the homeless.

Yes, being poor is very hard work and it will likely get much harder as the ranks of the former middle class start to press in on available services while the government struggles to keep up. At the same time the tax revenues that used to be paid into the system by the former middle class are drying up as millions of people either remain unemployed or replace (at long last) high paying jobs with minimum wage jobs. The mean streets are about to get a lot meaner.


Revised Itinerary

January 2, 2011 2 comments

Planning the Journey

I have rethought my itinerary a bit. There are six major east-west routes across the country starting with the I-10 at the farthest south, and ending with the I-94 running along the Canadian border. At first I was concerned about going to close to Juarez, but I will not even be getting off the bus. So I think it will be O.K.

I plan on making three passes, going out on one interstate and back on another. I can take north south routes to explore an area or follow a lead. Hopefully I can get down some smaller highways as well.


San Francisco January 9th, 10th

Santa Cruz January 11th

Los Angeles January 12th, 13th, 14th

Phoenix January 15th, 16th

Tucson January 17th, 18th

Austin January 19th, 20th, 21st

New Orleans January 23st, 24th, 25th

Mobile January 23rd, 24th, 25th

Panama City January 26th, 27th, 28th

Miami January 29th, 30th, 31st

Jacksonville February 1st, 2nd

Savannah February 1st, 2nd, 3rd

Fayetteville February 5th, 6th

Raleigh February 7th, 8th

Atlanta February 9th, 10th

Shreveport February 11th, 12th

Dallas February 13th, 14th, 15th

Amarillo February 16th, 17th

Albuquerque February 18th, 19th, 20th

Flagstaff February 21st, 22nd, 23rd

Las Vegas February 24th, 25th

San Francisco February 26th


Project Overview-In Search of the “New Poor”

December 30, 2010 5 comments

Welcome to Annabel’s Odyssey, the story of my trip across America in search of the “new poor”, formerly the great American Middle Class. The purpose of this trip is to create a book/documentary of the current depression. I know that the media has, for the most part, been calling the economic events since the financial melt-down of 2008 the “Great Recession”, and that they are claiming that the recovery began in June of 2009. Apparently no one notified Main Street USA of this recovery.

There are some well known economists that are calling this a depression, or at least hinting at it. Paul Krugman of the New York Times, on July 27th 2010 stated “We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression.” He goes on “… unemployment — especially long-term unemployment — remains at levels that would have been considered catastrophic not long ago, and shows no sign of coming down rapidly.” People around the country are still looking for work for years sometimes, only to find a “job” that pays one tenth of what the lost job paid, not even a living wage. People that bought houses, all full of hope and belief in the American dream are being foreclosed upon, sometimes completely illegally. And the statistics that are used to calculate unemployment don’t even include self-employed people that are down by 60% or lose their businesses completely. Bankruptcies are on the rise across the country.

Now the report is that the state and local governments are being forced to dismantle the social safety net and cut services to the poor, because they too are going broke. This, just as the former middle class are turning to the system for basic needs, such as food.

I will be setting out in early January, the heart of winter, in search of the failed American Dream. I fear I will not have to look hard to find it.

I will be criss-crossing the country by bus and rideshare, couch surfing and researching the book. I will seek out and interview people that were doing fine just a few years ago, were comfortably middle class, and are now struggling to make ends meet. They may have lost a job or a house or both. Many are just a paycheck away from being homeless. The savings that were meant for retirement have been used for survival, and are almost exhausted.

Where there are strong-holds of the uber-rich along my way I will check those places out as well. The income disparity between the richest and poorest in this country has not been this great since the Gilded Age. For the uber-rich, there is no depression. In fact they are profiting from the pain of the middle class in unimaginable ways. No, this story cannot be told without including the super-rich.

If this project resonates with you, check back as I post my stories and pictures along the way. If you know someone, including yourself, with a story to tell, let me know. And if you would like to help, check out the donate button. Even five dollars will help. I sold the only asset I had left, my car, to make this happen. I hope to see you here as I check-in along the road. The first stops will be Santa Cruz and Los Angeles, then on to Phoenix and the Gulf States. Eventually I will visit every state. I hope to see you on my journey.

So, Why is This Story Important Anyhow?

December 29, 2010 5 comments

Two questions. Why should this book be written and this story be told? And why should I be the one to write it?

First, the book should be written because it is a story with many facets and huge implications. In the last depression it was not clear to some that there was a deep intractable problem until it was well under way. It is the same in this depression. We are losing a whole class of citizens, the middle class, the one that provides the backbone of the nation. We are on the cusp of a new gilded age which is causing untold misery for millions of Americans. This is a big story, one that will be told many times and in many ways.

Second,the fact that from the point of view of the new poor it is an untold story provides the moral imperative to tell it. These people need a voice, and this book will provide it. There is a great pent up need to talk about this. The millions of people who have gone from comfortably middle class to poor have each been through a real trauma, but no one is treating it this way. This project will begin to fill this gap in the public discourse.

But, why should I write it? Because I am able to synthesize the data and run it through my mind and pour out words that are easy to read yet convey the complexity. But there is more.

I am one of the “new poor” In 2006 I had been married to a contractor in the wine country of northern California for nine years, and I was in law school getting good grades. I wanted to be an environmental lawyer. The illness and death of my husband intersected with the financial melt-down and crash. There was no money to finish law school. I sold what little was left of my former life. I started a small business to support myself, but it was like trying to dig through rock. The business was professional organizing, and I joined every networking group I could, went to meetings, perfected my pitch, and got a few clients, all of whom were pleased with my work.

A very few clients. The problem was that my potential clients were losing their corporate jobs and not only didn’t need me, they couldn’t afford me anymore. Worse yet, a not insignificant number were becoming competitors. Where organizers had been getting about $70 an hour in my area, suddenly we were lucky to get half that. I started cleaning houses, just long enough to pull out of the hole. In the end I cut all my expenses to the bone, got rid of all services except the phone, stopped going anywhere or doing anything, and started to write. It turns out I am good at this, but freelancing in tough times is even harder than it usually is. I am now looking for completely new solutions to the economic problem that work around the corporate world and mainstream markets entirely.

But, the main reason I am the right author for this book is that I am willing to write it. Which in this case means being willing to undergo a certain amount of discomfort. I am an extremely frugal traveler because I have to be. This will be a rough and tumble journey. As exciting as a road trip can be this is going to be work. But, there is that moral imperative again. There is a great and terrible thing happening to my country. If that is not enough to get me out of my comfortable chair perhaps I don’t deserve to call myself a journalist at all.