Wednesday, November 9, 2011

New skill sets for the disappearing middle class

Last night some ex-urban, middle class kids got a lesson in how to dodge the repo man.

A daddy left a mama because he had to move to another state for a job because he couldn't find a job here. Things happen. Daddy's gone. Mama's stuck with the house and the bills. Mama and the kid are moving out in a few weeks, giving the house back to the bank because she's out of options. She's hanging on desperately to her car because she needs it to get to her job.

This is a middle/working class subdivision just like thousands of others. There's a carved wood sign trumpeting the name at the entrance. In better times, there were probably flowers planted by the sign. Now there are a few leggy shrubs. Reminders of the glory of the 1990s.

If the people who populate these homes were reaching too far, it's hard to see. I suppose they should have remained satisfied with their trailers, tiny tract houses and rentals while their wages were being suppressed and they were encouraged to vote against their own economic interests. Their mistake was believing the hype that this was the ownership society and they would be fools for not buying these houses. That was going to be their best investment. The American Dream was theirs if they just signed on the dotted line. That mortgage broker skulking out the door with his sly grin? Pay no attention. Just don't try to call him when your ARM loan balloons and you need a new loan in a crashing economy. He made his money up front. He's done with you.

I don't believe our neighbors were craven social climbers. They just wanted something a little nice. It's not the really nice subdivision with the clubhouses, pools and tennis courts and the huge houses with the wrap around porches or the numbered phases that perfectly illustrate how houses evolved between the mid-nineties and the housing bust.

The kids who live in our subdivision love to be invited to their friends' houses over there in the nicer subdivision. It's good for them to see what they can aspire to if they escape the winding deadends and occasionally shabby split-levels of this modest neighborhood. Funny - when I was growing up in a brick ranch, I would have thought these split-levels were the height of sophistication. The house I grew up didn't have a Master Suite. I didn't know a soul with a garden tub.

But standards have changed. The definition of necessity has shifted. Our kids know this. Most of these kids have never known anything else. And those who have to settle for the second and third rate stuff are keenly aware of what they're missing. They can't escape that knowledge. They see it every day held in the hands of their friends, emblazoned across logo bearing chests, screaming at them from the television, billboards and just about anywhere else you look.

And even so, they are hardly deprived. There is, sadly, some gut-wrenching poverty in this county, but the kids in this subdivision don't see it. Not much anyway.

So these kids who have spent most of their lives as part of the donor class - they proudly carried their unwrapped gifts to drop into the Toys for Tots barrels - now they're becoming part of the recipient class and their parents are trying to figure out how to tell them without having to tell them. We want them to figure it out and just deal with it. Their parents aren't high flyers, haven't made the smart career choices with the fat paychecks, have been less than careful with every penny maybe, haven't been given a leg up through family connections. They should feel lucky for what they do have, damn it.

When you go from being able to give to maybe having to receive, there's an acceptance gap. It takes you awhile to accept the fact that you're going to have to take some charity. Even  as you become painfully aware that this isn't a financial blip, but a real trend, you can't see yourself going to the food pantry. You go to the grocery store. You use coupons and buy less meat. You don't buy as much produce and fresh foods and you look for long expiration dates. At the check out, you contribute the extra dollar for some charity because you've always done so before. It's a reflex. Later, you look at your bank statement and wonder how you're going to make your car payment next month while keeping the utilities paid up and the house payment current.

You beat yourself up because what constitutes a necessary utility has changed and you want to do everything to help your kids keep up - schools expect them to have computers and cellphones and to use technology to stay on top of the ever-growing expectations for learning when they're not in the classroom. Pay the phone and wireless bill? What can you defer until next month? You can't do without water, gas, electric. You can do without cable, but that means you do without any TV because the idea of free TV is basically a thing of the past out here in the sticks. No one has an antenna anymore. No TV? Fine. If you can keep the internet service, who needs it anyway?

Preemptively, you tell the kids you may have to use the computers at the library if you can't pay the internet bill and they understand. Some of their friends have learned to sign up for the computer - you get one hour - and while they wait their turn, hang out in front of the general store next door. But you have to watch for changing library hours. Noted.

And then one night, the neighborhood kids, form an information chain, a modern day game of telephone. Mama's car is hidden as best as possible. The lights are off in the house. The porch light is dark. One kid at the front end of the subdivision lets the others know when the tow truck appears. It chugs around the bend and goes to the end of the street and turns around in the cul-de-sac. Text messages track their movements. The tow truck idles outside the wrong house. Everyone waits.

Another mother sits inside her own split-level in the same subdivision, chews the inside of her cheek and remembers what it was like to hand the keys over to the repo man. She was prepared. She needed the relief of not paying that car payment, but it wasn't her only means of transportation. She and her husband could commute together, albeit inconveniently, until her job disappeared.

Never in her life did she think she'd be dealing with things like repossession and foreclosure, but there they are on her list of experiences. Life is full of surprises.

She aches for this other mother who is doing everything she can to hang on, to do what she can to make things work. Who wants to pay her bills, but simply can't. How can anyone think that people are enjoying this in any way? That people who always paid their bills before have somehow decided that living with the stress of collectors' phone calls and the constant threat that something is going to be shut off or taken away is so much better than just getting a job and going to work everyday.

Just get a job! She wishes.

She tells her husband about how she spent an hour online that day completing a job application for one job. She had to fill out the full application and answer an additional forty-five questions for a long shot job in Atlanta that pays barely over minimum wage. He looks up from his computer where he's doing lesson plans for the next day. He worked all day, but he'll put in another four hours before going to sleep. His unpaid student loan statement sits next to him on the nightstand. A reminder that he's not making enough to cover the nut no matter how many hours he puts in.

Meanwhile a low rumble comes from outside. The neighborhood watches as the tow truck driver makes a call on his cellphone......


  1. It is so heart breaking what our lives have become and our childern must also take part in to keep the WOLF at bay..........

  2. This is so beautifully written that the temptation is to proclaim you the next prose Woody Guthrie. But it's not fiction. It's documentary.

    What we have become (if anyone predicted this sort of thing thirty years ago, the scoffing would have floated a battleship at least).

    Stay healthy and keep writing!

  3. Just a stretch here but don't people KNOW to get a FIXED rate mortgage?????? That just because you can afford the low payments at the moment that eventually you WILL NOT? That's like blaming the whiskey bottle for getting you drunk.

  4. Nix - If that's all you got out of this post, then there's nothing I can tell you. I'll just let your ignorance speak for itself.

  5. And more than 800,000 foreclosures predicted for next year.

  6. The comments to the link are astounding.

    People never cease to amaze me with their sanctimonious crap. What happened to empathy and caring for another human-being?

    It's always someone who has never had to struggle to put food on the table or fret about the money for a tank of gas that spouts that venom.

    Sad thing is they are next and they don't yet know it. We're all in that line, some just got to the front a little sooner than others.

  7. The American Dream ... aka The America Nightmare.

  8. The truly sad part of all this is that the American people have it in their power to reform their government and make it work for the 99% rather than the 1%. They have been told for so long by so many paid talking heads that they cannot see anything but republican or democrat. They have seen over and over that both of those parties are owned by the corporations yet they still do nothing about it. The American dream has been sold to foreign investors and the men who should be leading the society care about nothing except their own wealth. If a corporation is not producing wealth for the nation it should be forced out of business but that is considered treason in America. Good luck on finding the answer.

  9. I was so proud. Despite Keith not paying his child support for 2 months, I was able to pay the bills without asking Dave for help. I logged on to the electric company's website and it said I owed $231.12. So I paid $231.12.
    I came home from work yesterday and my electric was cut off. I called the company, while looking at the website that still said I owed $213.12. They said I really owed more than that--$64 more dollars. I don't have it. They know I don't have it because it's been in the notes for years that I only get paid once a month. It's in the notes because I'm always a few days late on the bill. Instead of saying, "Oh, we'll move your due date", telling them the situation only meant that they preemptively send me a cut-off notice so that I'm pending disconnect as of the due date every month.
    I'll see if I can get it paid today. How much you want to bet that when I do, they'll want the $167 that is due on the 21st of this month and then, when I pay that, they'll dump me as a customer and force me into the pre-paid electric route?
    And how the hell does that work anyway?
    All that to say, yeah, I hope she somehow manages to keep her car or find other wheels before they find the car. I know her for she is me. #occupyyourvehicle #occupyyourelectricmeter

  10. Very affecting story. Still, I really like that the neighborhood kids are pulling together in the face of adversity. Sort of dissipates the pathos a bit, but I like to see kids face problems by forming community. If only grown ups would do so more.

  11. I see because I have a different view or opinion than you do then that makes me ignorant. Classy. Shant be back.

  12. Just read the other comments. Nixabn, way to be an asshole. Do you know who gets fixed rate mortgages? People making six figures with savings and stock and so on. Even though interest rates are super low today, that does not mean everyone bought in today's market. And if they are not making a great deal of income, they cannot refinance, because current credit checks will leave them unapproved, plus out the fees for initiating the process as well.

    But perhaps you merely wanted to gloat and feel self-righteous so as to convince yourself that bad things could not happen to you so long as you are a hard worker and financially responsible. You want us to be impressed at your smug good fortune. Well, aren't you so special. Wow. I'm just in awe of an anonymous internet commenter's puffed up panacea. If only we listened to your wisdom, we could solve all the problems of these people right now. The daddy would return to his family, flush with cash and a new minivan, all paid up. The children would have unlimited food, school supplies, clothing, and healthy recreational activities. No one would need braces, and we would all have mastered our instruments to the point that we no longer required expensive lessons. All unemployed people would have good jobs, health care, and competent child care. Wow. All because you came up with the winning solution of people going back in time, getting wealthy, and attaining fixed rate mortgages. What a genius.

  13. You have such amazing skill for making us all REALLY FEEL this. I mean I'm feeling my fair share anyway, but this is so tangible.

  14. Nix - It's not the fact that you had a difference of opinion. It was the substance of the opinion (or lack thereof) that makes you ignorant.

  15. the tow truck driver is just doing his job

  16. Ohhhhh, heart breaks. love you!

  17. I'm with Summer. The image of kids banding together is a beautiful one. Heartbreaking but beautiful.

  18. Relax, everyone, shit'll get fixed by the next pretzeldent & congress that certainly aren't dangling from the strings of the haves.

  19. this broke my heart. broke. my. heart.

  20. Agh. But the spot of light for me was the image of the kids waiting for their library time. Taking it in stride, being patient.

    I am astounded by the number of bright, experienced people I know who cannot find a job. Any job. One friend applied for a position she was 100% qualified for. In response, she received an email thanking her for her time, but 425 people applied and she would not be getting an interview. What do you do with that information?

  21. I've seen some editorials & shouts @ the occupy people yelling *get a job*.
    How much more could they possiby have their heads up their collecive asses?

    I mean seriously- even politicians tried to pitch a *jobless recovery*.

    Not gonna happen.

    For years now, they have been saying going to college is not necessarily going to yield a job either. But for sure a hefty debt.

    A dear friend has an adult child w severe mental disabilities. The system is perfectly happy to let him live "independently" - which literally means his parents, pushing 60, must do everything-
    manage daily meds, food shopping & prep, laundry, cleaning-- what his $ does not cover they cover, which brought them to bankruptcy.
    The system provides no help at all.
    Oh they said *maybe* they could get him in a group home, just give up his health insurance &
    they might be able place him. (Who would pay for the $1000's in monthly medical expenses???
    They should be sued for gross neglect.
    They are on the edge of total nervous breakdown.

    I know hearing that things could be worse is not helping-- I'm encouraging her to go pubic.
    Use the media to tell her story- even if they change the names to shed some light on this
    epic injustice-- oh yes, they play the underfunded card too- it is an easy cut to make because families immersed in it have no time or resources to lobby & fight. Effing St. Ronnie started the dumping of mentally ill onto the streets program.

    In other news, we have walked the unemployment walk & are about to walk it again when the husbands job - workers have been told the 60 day notice of closure is pending.

    My philosophy was & is #1 keep the roof over your heads. So I am totally OK w seeking utility assistance, food bank, and any other charity or program that allows us to live in a house & pay utilities,
    I know it's hard when you are used to being the giver-- but these programs are there for these times. You know you have given your best effort to find work & it's not your fault.
    All these programs are there for your bottom line- survival. Shake off the discomfort & stand tall. This happens to be your time of need--
    and that line is getting longer.
    Hopefully, in better times you can shift to being the giver again.

    Take the help & avoid being homeless.

    Gawd that sounds so stark- but it's my biggest fear in hard times.

  22. Damn, damn, damn. You know people didn't used to feel anger at rich people when they provided jobs but rich people who do nothing but make end runs for some poor person's last dime.. How can we not hate rentiers?

    Nicely written, my friend. I wish you were read nation-wide.

  23. Saddest thing I've read on the topic.
    Eloquent, and a lot more penetrating than anything on the news.

  24. This is perfect. I wish it could and would be read by some of the political whores who go along thinking things will right themselves or the proles will get used to being sheep. They forget that the proles are fairly well educated, see what's happening, and still have the means to share information. One way or the other, we will get justice. The self-appointed elites had better think long and hard about that.

  25. well written, and what's REALLY going on. the poetry of despair. i just gotta say that i went to this moron nixabn's site to check out his special brand of stupidity...and under "favorite books" he lists "None". a proud ignoramus. an important post. lisa h. continue...

  26. Lisa - you need a bigger platform - you need a column. I have no idea how one gets a column, but you need one.

  27. Beautifully written, quiet. I wish things weren't like this but my fear is it will all worsen. The lack of empathy that came up being just a symptom of the cruelty of some people. Heartless.

  28. your knack for painting these pictures is simultaneously skillful and heart wrenching.

    thank you for making us think and have a deeper understanding of the core issues surround our current sociopolitical and economic client.

    (how many of these are you submitting to op-ed pages? i hope all of them.)

  29. Please submit this somewhere/everywhere. This voice of despair reaches out and grabs me by the throat saying, "Look. Do you see us now?" and that's what is missing in the nonsense on the news. I can't comprehend that people still don't see what's happening. Choosing an ARM when refinancing hasn't done this, but it is the same swindlers who are running the show. Get a job, my ass. 500 people competing for a minimum wage job...
    My heart aches for you and everyone like you. The upside of this beautiful writing is it is a call to arms for those of us who haven't lost there jobs...yet. I only wish I knew what to do, practically, tangibly, to make it easier, make it better...
    Thank you for putting it out there. I imagine it was one of the hardest things you've ever written.

  30. nixabn - I don't know if you're going to actually come back out here and face conflict but here's another thought. I am technically or was at least technically at the very edge of the 1% not too long ago depending on how you measure it. I certainly live with the 1%. They're everywhere given where I live and THEY certainly thought about those fixed and balloon rates and the fact that these things make financial sense in terms of long term planning. Fixed rates do not, at least in the old paradigm. Not risky enough, not enough ROI, and I am speaking as though I make or could make or did make any sort of money. To accept a fixed rate mortgage in the 90s or even early to mid 00s would have been 'asinine'. My point being there were plenty of reasons presented to NOT have a fixed rate mortgage and plenty of people paid the price and are paying today. Much of the former 1% is now in the 99% due to lost jobs they'll most likely never have again, broken marriages for the usual 'can't or won't stick it out' reasons (now there's some long term planning for you) or some seriously BAD investments where literally millions of dollars have been lost.

    Nixabn. EVERYBODY FUCKED UP. And you know what? Maybe you did everything right, OK? And yet, the fact that everybody fucked up could very likely take you out too. I hope like hell somebody gives a shit if that happens.

    Oh hell, I'll give a shit. And I mean that.

  31. Lisa - that was really, truly wonderful.

  32. Yesterday in here in UK I read the dreadful report of a couple who committed suicide because they could not face another winter with out the money to survive. The most poignant part was the video made by a foodbank charity that interviewed them a while ago and how grateful they were for the weekly bag of veggies they walked around trip of 10 miles or so to collect. It's something that will be with me for a very long time

  33. This is heartbreaking. Won't some newspaper publish it on the op-ed page? Please send it in.

    The other day a man asked me if Americans are worried about the potential meltdown of the euro. I told him that I honestly didn't know. I'm sure the financial people are worried, because all of the traded money is so globally intertwined, but my hunch is that most Americans are just worrying about the economy that they see everyday: maybe just their own subdivision. I do wonder how much the "definition of necessity" is going to shift before this relentless slide ends.

  34. I read this yesterday, on my phone, during my lunch break. I wanted to comment then, but realized that I'd only be echoing what everyone else had said.

    This is tragic, but beautiful. I ache for the neighbor and really wish that I could HELP her.

    I try not to 'condone' breaking the law, but still. The kids in this story are my heroes. It's a move of creativity amid desperation, and I applaud that.

    Please consider submitting this to "The New Yorker". I think it would be a perfect fit.

  35. I am late to this post but what I just don't get - and I know I am economically naive - is why the banks aren't better off working with people to make their home and car payments affordable. Why is it better for them to take all the houses and cars and stuff back? No one has the money to buy all those properties, it reduces the value of the neighborhood.

    I guess this is another area where the tax code favors businesses and rewards them for their "losses" but penalizes struggling individuals for theirs.

    As usual Lisa, a heartfelt post.

  36. Haven't been around in a while....but I sat here for an hour reading while trying to get Max to eat his dinner. Wow....just wow....move a little further north, Chattanooga is doing better if you don't look at the murder rate.....and hell.....I'd love to spend time with you....jennifer


And then you say....

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