Posts Tagged ‘unemployment’

Tea Party on a Train

October 10, 2011 4 comments

North Dakota Flooding

I was on a westbound train out of Minneapolis, heading for for Portland, when I had one of the more remarkable experiences this journey has provided. It was mid-June and the Empire Builder route had been out of service for a week due to heavy rains. The night I left Minneapolis was the first run west this train had made since the immediate flooding had gone down enough to allow safe passage. But by morning the train was already behind schedule.

In the early morning I went and found myself a seat in the observation car. A pleasant looking man in his forties asked if he could have the next seat. He hailed from Louisville Kentucky where he owned a successful company. His two tween aged kids were with him and there were frequent calls and texts back to Mom, who was enjoying some “me” time. He and the kids were going to explore the Glacier Park in Montana. As the train moved slowly from Minnesota into North Dakota we chatted with the train’s barman, stationed right next to us. When politics entered the conversation I soon realized that my companion was a very suave well educated member of the tea party. I said nothing about my own political affiliations and just listened.

While the rest of the country labors under this, the fourth year of the 21st century depression, North Dakota is in the middle of an oil and gas boom. Wizened farmers are taking their newly gained wealth and leaving for Hawaii. Any able bodied man tough enough to be a rigger can get a job that pays enough to support a family. Women are welcome to apply to sling hash.

In the spring of 2011 record breaking snowfall became record breaking flooding. In Minot ND, a rigger heading home to Montana boarded and joined our small party in the observation deck. Minot is the same town that suffered a devastating flood just days after I passed through.

Our new traveling companion was as rough and hardened as the first man was smooth. But they shared a political ideology, and the talk soon turned to the news of the day. Mr. Louisville’s children, especially the boy, were very expressive in their hatred of Mr. Obama, to a point which would have raised eyebrows if they had been adults.  Mr. Montana’s loudest derision was saved for “Obama’s global warming”. After all, the northwest had been laid waste by snow, not heat. And god dang it, Montana has an un-employment rate of 50% or so, and that was the government’s fault. Obama’s fault he had to ride twelve hours to get to work, and missed being with his wife and kids…

The train had slowed to a crawl, with frequent complete stops as conditions changed on the tracks. We were supposed to reach the Glacier Park at sunset, but now the estimated time of arrival there was just before dawn. Food was running out on the train as well. We were promised that they would take on a delivery of fried chicken somewhere down the line.

At some little whistle stop the border patrol boarded the train for a citizenship check. Each passenger was asked their citizenship. Most were not asked to prove it. There was a contingent of German’s on board, all with proper passports. When they reached our group, Mr. Montana told them they should ask Obama the same thing.

Then something odd happened. I had been mostly silent the whole way. Mr. Louisville was a good conversationalist except for the political thing, and the evening had passed quickly enough. But I was getting hungry. And I was arguing with myself about whether to spend some of my last precious dollars on food. Just as the fried chicken was delivered the Kentucky group said good night and departed for their sleeping car. I would be sleeping in my seat on the observation deck.

That is when the man from Montana offered to buy me a chicken dinner. I accepted. We munched on our chicken and talked in the fading light. He talked about his family and life in the big sky country before things got so hard. He also asked me about myself, whether I was married, had kids etc. When I said no, and told him I was widowed he offered sincere condolences. We spoke of how hard it was to raise kids now, to know they were safe.  In short he became human to me.

I began to realize that this person and his fellows were not my enemy. I may find him ignorant. His birther comments may offend me. His anger may scare me. But he is one of the people being most affected by the wickedness of the free market and the excesses of Wall Street. It is the job of the progressive left to show people such as this who the real criminals are. If we are not making our case with the words we are using now, we need to find new words. It is very important to know who the real enemy is, and not allow the angry words of a poor family man distract me from the real villain in this story—the elite rulers who crashed our economy for profit’s sake.

The Depression is Lumpy

May 16, 2011 4 comments

Depression? It Depends on Where you Live

Most of the time, when we speak of the economy, our language seems to represent it as a sort of national monolith. As if we all experienced the current situation the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact there are several economies in America, and which one you are a member of will determine whether you are living through a depression, a recovery, or the one of the biggest booms of all time.

The Recovery

For a certain group of people in the upper middle and upper class, there was a fairly steep recession, a terrible scare in the market, and then, for the last couple of years, a slow but steady recovery as stock market prices climbed back to their pre-crash condition. Though this group still suffers from the general malaise of the real estate market, in general they are out there buying things again.

Let the Good Times Roll

Another very small group of 1%ers made obscene profits from the housing and market crashes. These self-styled “masters of the universe” have grown fat on fraud and the misery of others, and have no intention of stopping now. Paying no taxes and avoiding the prison sentences they justly deserve, they are, at this very moment, engaging in further speculation of the type that fuels inflation that none of the rest of us can afford, and causes grave harm to society.

Main Street

For the rest of us, it depends on where you live. When we see articles in print and online touting the “recovery” it is this fact that they rely on. Statistics are easy enough to skew. What we focus on determines what we see. That is why the employment numbers posted by the government are so confusing and at times misleading. It is common knowledge that the official definition of the word “unemployed” serves to skew the figures right from the start. Add to that the excitement whipped up over the job creation figures when many of these new jobs are not at all comparable to the old (lost) jobs, and we have a very murky picture.  It is true that if you happen to live in a state with comparatively low unemployment you probably aren’t catching the worst of the depression. But what would happen if we all moved to these few states?

The Rest of Us

For all of us regular citizens that have the bad luck to be denizens of the more unlucky regions of the country, such as the south, the rust belt, or the whole state of California, the depression is an obvious daily fact of life. In fact, sinse I began using the term “depression” about three years ago, not one person from any of these places has challenged me. I think of this every time I see a headline once again proclaiming that we are in “recovery” from the “great recession”.

The Poor

This final group has been living in depressed conditions forever. The reasons that a certain number of Americans have always lived in poverty are complex, but with enough will on our part it would be possible to reduce these numbers to near zero. Instead, under the flawed logic of supply side economics, that great and cruel experiment in social engineering brought to you by Ronald Reagan and the billionaires club, the number living in misery is actually growing. Soon it won’t matter what state you live in.

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.


San Francisco-Days One and Two

The Journey Begins

The trip began in a light rain, which seems appropriate. My first stop is San Francisco. I have been doing a lot of walking, getting the lay of the land. It is an interesting phenomenon. I know this city, have lived in it years ago and around it for what seems like forever. But now I am observing closely, looking with new eyes. I am staying with friends, and the time I spend at the home base is companionable as we share a meal or a bottle of Zinfandel. But I can see that this will be a lonely venture.

On the Road

I spent the day in the Union Square area yesterday, checking in at the dying Borders Books where they are having a closing sale—“Everything Must Go!” Including the employees, who will soon be battling astounding odds as they try to find new jobs.

In the evening I went to a event at a local watering hole, the Café Royale.The way couch surfing works I have a better chance of finding places to stay along the way if I have people to vouch for me, and a few couch surfing “friends” on the website. The people were really great. There were a lot more men than women at first, but by 9:30 PM it had evened out a bit. They came from all over the world. It is a truly international crowd. I may have been the oldest person there but it was not an issue. And I have my first Couch Surfing friend, a young

Everything Must Go!

man from Santa Cruz who is in the process of moving to San Francisco. This may actually work.

Meanwhile, in other news, Governor Walker of Wisconsin by passed the need for a quorum which he couldn’t achieve without the fourteen Democrats who left the state three weeks ago, and used some procedural skullduggery to push the union-busting bill through. That leaves me with a little logistics problem. I want to go to Madison first thing, but my plan was to go south and cover California first. It takes a little over two days to get to Madison WI from san Francisco by bus. I am torn…

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.