So much for the Republican chant of “stimulus is bad” and “we need a balanced budget.”
Nobel Prize winning columnist Paul Krugman points out on his New York Times blog yesterday that the world economy right now is more or less at the point John Maynard Keynes described in his essay The Great Slump of 1930.
Krugman goes on to warn that the only thing standing between us and Great Depression II is Barack Obama and Paul Bernanke understanding of what made things so bad in the years between the 1929 market crash and 1933: No economic stimulus to boost demand.
Somehow, the Republican Party still doesn’t grasp this and keeps yammering about cutting government spending to balance the budget. It’s what the party-s no budget budget called for last week. Uhm, that’s what Herbert Hoover did. Not only did he create a global economic, social and political disaster but resulted in GOP House and Senate candidates being all but unelectable for 50 years.
Oh, and besides this, Hoover’s Republican-endorsed policies not only created the Depression but also led directly to the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Second World War. Let’s live that all over again. Somebody ought to remind John Boehner, Eric “Ralph Wiggum” Cantor, Mitch McConnell, and the so-called “ConservaDems” of this small yet seemingly meaningful historical fact.
Hey, Senator Bayh: Are you reading Dr. Krugman?
Tent cities called “Bushville’s” are already cropping up all over America, a 21st century version of the Depression’s Hoovervilles. The cry from Miseryville is “I need work, not tax cuts.
For 15 years, I’ve raised money and volunteered at a Toronto food bank. Over the past six months, I’ve watched the lines on handout morning grow from 15 or 20 families at a time to lines that sometimes stretch out the door. Yet, so far, the full fury of the recession’s hurricane hasn’t hit Canada and I wanted a sense of what it is like in the eye of the storm. So, recently, I scooted across the border with a friend to spend time helping at a food pantry in a hard hit, mid-size town in upstate New York.
Crossing into the United States for the first time since the Supreme Court stole the presidency for George W. Bush in 2001 seemed odd.
As a small, private protest, I vowed not to enter the US until after he left town and that damnable lizard-lipped lying bastard of a semi-literate, incoherent freak show passing himself off as a drug store cowboy hung around until last month. Now that he’s back in Texas, my protest is over but my fervent hope is that he fears every knock on his door, worrying whether if he opens it a pair of hulking men in dark suits from the International Criminal Court is about to haul him off in irons to The Hague.
I have no idea what to expect as we pull into the booth just across the bridge.
From what others who enter the US regularly tell me, I could expect to be greeted with the same cold, unblinking suspicion as someone named bin Laden. But being white still counts for something at a border crossing: We’re less threatening to the granite faced ICE stazi on duty than people whose skin is of a darker hue. After asking where we came from, we answer “Toronto” but pronounce it “Tah-rahn’-ta” – something a retired customs inspector once told me is a cue for spotting a genuine Canadian except everyone I know here says “Tor-ohn-toh” – we are waved through. If I’d been asked, I had decided to pass myself off as Canadian so I wouldn’t be asked a lot of stupid questions about why I stayed away for so many years.
Some 30 minutes later, we arrive at the pantry.
Food Bank Crowds
Going inside and finding a coordinator – I knew she was in charge of something because she carried a clip board – we are put to work behind the front counter where people line up for their allotment. As the recession's victims approach meekly, it is heartbreakingly easy to see the embarrassment and fear on the faces of people asking for help – most for the first time in their life.
The men, women, even the children they bring along, look dazed and frightened as if they have no idea what happened to what was their American dream life only a few months ago. Their hollow, blank expressions tell stories of hope squashed, plans demolished, futures fogged.
"I used to donate money and time to help this place," Jennie, a mid-30s single mother with two children in tow, tells me sorrowfully. Like other people I speak with, she asks that her last name not be used. "This is embarrassing enough. I never thought I'd end up this side of a bread line.
"Three months ago, I was earning $72,000 and was proud of what I'd achieved with my life," she goes on as other volunteers fill her order. But she lost her job as a senior financial analyst at a bank 25 miles away in one of its many cutbacks. "Now, well, I don't know what to think any more. I don’t know what to do."
Her voice trails off sadly as she takes her three large bags of groceries and turns away.
GOP: Spend A Day Here
As I was helping another person who reaches the counter after a 90 minute wait in line, he grumbles, "I wish the Republicans who voted against the stimulus had to spend a day here watching this."
Ben is 46, married with three children and whose elderly mother lives with his family. His wife was laid off in July, 2008, and he was fired outright when his employer filed for bankruptcy and shut down just before Christmas when the company’s bank pulled a line of credit from the business.
“So much for the bailout,” Ben said dejectedly.
As he waits for his food, I ask about his former employer. It was family-owned and provided jobs for 43 people. It had made parts for small engines since World War II. He assumes it was profitable – “We got a nice Christmas bonus every year and they never missed paying into our 401(k) plan” – and was at a loss to understand why a bank would put it out of business overnight.
“I didn’t like the idea of helping banks to begin with but Bush and the bankers said it would open up credit. Bullshit,” he exclaimed.
"So then Obama takes office and the GOP starts screaming for tax cuts. How the fuck will a tax cut feed my family? I need work, man, not tax cuts. I don't have any income to tax," Ben says, his voice rising in anger.
"What fucking idiots!" Ben exclaims. He ruefully shakes his head as he shakes my hand while thanking me for helping him. I feel I should thank him for letting me witness the human results of the inhumanity of Congressional Republicans.
One after another the hapless hungry shuffle to the counter, figures frozen in what should be another time in another nation. How can the United States of America have so many people who need food handouts? When the stock room runs out of peanut butter, it also runs out of its major source of protein for the pantry’s clients. “We won’t get any more now until next week,” another volunteer tells me quietly. “Some folks are gonna go hungry.”
It becomes so overwhelming I take a break and my friend Judy drives me around the once-prosperous industrial town. Half the store fronts along the main drag are dark and ubiquitous “for rent” signs tell a sorry tale of poverty. Last year at this time, there were three factories providing jobs, benefits and the promise of a future to thousands. Now, one plant has shuttered entirely, one cut back to a single shift and the third hopes workers will reduce their hours voluntarily so the company won’t have to lay people off.
We drive on.
On a residential street with 11 homes, three are for sale; four more have foreclosure signs in front and two look as if they was abandoned ages ago. Unshovelled snow and trash fill the adjoining front yards, and the first floor windows at both homes are boarded up. An old car sits in a driveway, stripped of everything but its frame and body. Even though the sun is shining, the street has a black-and-white feel to it and the scene reminds me of a Dorthea Lange WPA photograph from the 1930s.
“People lived there,” I remark as we drive slowly past the empty pair of houses. “People with kids who played in the yard, couples who fought and shared morning coffee and went bowling with friends and had sex. Wonder where they ended up?”
Judy shrugs and swings her eight year old Mazda around a corner, heading back to the pantry.
“Some moved in with relatives,” she says finally, lighting a cigarette while grinding through the gears. I try not to notice that she’s steering with her knees as we hit 35 miles an hour. “Some moved away. Some are in shelters and a lot of them are living over there.”
She points to a parking lot in front of an abandoned warehouse or factory. A decrepit array of pick-ups, sedans, a two door “sport coupe,” one mini-van, one tricked out SUV and even an ancient AirStream trailer are parked, none close to the others for some reason; it’s as if the people can’t stand sharing their shame of living this way. It’s a neighborhood of throwaway people living on blacktop plots with rubber wheels creating makeshift foundations for rollaway homes.
“Why here?” I wonder aloud as our car slows to a crawl and then stops.
“No place else to go and no money for gas to get there,” comes Judy’s heart-rending reply. “When you’re living in a car in a parking lot, you’ve pretty much run out of options.”
It strikes me that as Obama goes around the country promoting the stimulus package, besides showing up at auditoriums with perfect sound systems, he should stop his motorcade unannounced at a place like this to talk directly with people most hurt by George Bush and the Republican Party. They’re easy enough to find; damn near every city in America has at least one or two. Back in 1967 or 1968, Bobby Kennedy made a spontaneous tour of tarpaper shacks in Appalachia and his mere presence not only spotlighted the shocking and largely hidden problem of poverty in America, but gave hope to tens of thousands of people. Obama could do the same thing because none of these people are likely to have little, if any, idea of what he’s trying to do to help.
Or how Congressional Republicans keep trying to bushwhack him – an intended play on words – with failed ideas, faulty economics, fried history and foolishly pompous prancing.
Sleeping In Cars
I think about walking over to talk to the people squatting in the lot. I want to know their stories but I don’t want to intrude, to be seen as a traveller from another planet staring down on their life in Miseryville USA. Yet our car is parked across the street and is noticed: We’re now getting suspicious looks from a few residents of Blacktop Flats. Two men start walking towards us and I get out of the car, telling Judy to stay where she is.
As we approach each other, I see that they both look like what Frank Rich described as “beefy, beer-drinking, deer-hunting white guys incessantly interviewed in bars and diners” during the campaign who pundits kept insisting would never vote for a skinny black man. I wave and stick a smile on my face as I shout “Hi!” across the lot.
“Hey” one calls back and returns my wave. “You a cop?”
“No, a writer,” I say.
Both stop and eye me with a mixture of disbelief and mistrust. “A writer?” the other one calls out. “What the hell are you doing here? Nothing to write about.”
I keep approaching the pair, slowly with what I hope is a nonchalant and non-threatening slouch, the smile still on my face. I stick out a hand to greet them. “I’m Charley James.”
“Dwayne,” the one on the right says, shaking my hand. “But they call me ‘Race.’”
“Tony,” the other man chimes in, also shaking my hand and adding with a smile, “They call me Tony.”
“So, like, what the fuck is there to write about here?” Race asks. “I mean, like this is no place.”
“That’s not true. This place is America,” I reply, hoping I don’t sound idiotic or worse. “I’m writing about how people are dealing with the recession.”
“Shit,” Tony snorts. “’Dealing with the recession?’ Me and my girlfriend are sleeping in a banged-up truck with no heat, it is winter and cold and you wanna know how we’re ‘dealing with the recession.’ How the fuck do you think we’re dealing with it?”
“That’s what I want to find out.” The sentence just sort of hangs in the air. After a long moment, I look around the lot and ask, “How many people live here?”
Race and Tony glance at each other. Tony sort of shrugs and tells me there are about 15, give or take. Race nods in agreement, chiming in with, “They come and go. Here for a few days then no one sees them again.”
Tony and his girlfriend has been here the longest: Nearly three months, since before Christmas. Citibank repossessed his house in early December. He crashed with friends for a few weeks but then they lost their place, too, so he tossed his clothes in the trunk and moved into his car.
Tony is stocky but solid-looking. I guess he’s somewhere around 40 but it’s hard to tell. His face and hands are caked with grime, a by-product of living rough and having limited access to basics such as showers. But his eyes are intense, a deep blue and they keep sweeping our surroundings as he speaks. Tony informs me that his girlfriend Sandy joined him right after New Years, two months after losing her job and right after being evicted from her apartment.
“When you work shift you don’t get much chance to save money,” he says, over-stating the obvious. “But we was getting by alright.”
“I used to see ads about building a nest, a cushion,” the quieter Race interjects. “Shit, even when I was working full-time the only cushion I had was on my sofa.”
Goodbye Blue Collars
Race says he’s 51 and is trained to work a lathe and a machine press. “The lathe job I had for six years got outsourced to some fucking place like Vietnam two years ago. I fought in goddamned ‘Nam and now someone I was shooting at has my job. Then the factory where I ran machine press laid me off. Some fucking life, huh?”
He has the hollow expression of a man whose adulthood is measured in terms of lay-offs and job hunts. Race says he thinks of himself as a skilled worker who keeps trying to improve his skills “and then I wake up one day sleeping in my car.”
Race is divorced and has two kids: A boy 14 and a girl 10 who live with their mother and her second husband near Baltimore. He hasn’t sent child support in several months and can’t afford to phone the children. “I can imagine what my ex is telling them about me,” he says. “A 10 year old girl can’t never figure out why dad doesn’t call anymore and a 14 year old boy needs his father.”
He turns away from Tony and me. I wonder if he’s fighting back tears or just remembering a very different place, a better time, long ago. Tony shoots me a “that’s how it goes” look and gives Race an affection punch on the arm.
I ask how everybody living here survives with no job, no home and no money.
“Sandy works 15 hours a week as a cashier at Wal-Mart,” Tony explains, “so we get a little money from that. Once in a while, a buddy at a Chevron station gives me a few hours stocking shelves in the convenience mart.”
Race collects himself enough to turn around to tell me he’d be dead if it weren’t for the night manager at a nearby fast food joint. He lets Race clean the toilets and floors for a few bucks and also feeds him, even on nights when he doesn’t work. “But don’t say which place,” Race begs me. “I don’t want the guy to get in trouble and I don’t want everybody showing up for a free dinner.”
“Is that how most people here eat?” I ask.
“Yeah, sort of,” Tony says. “Dumpster diving behind restaurants for food they tossed out, the food bank sometimes, sometimes a church comes round and brings us stuff to eat. When we’ve got some cash, we go to Wal-Mart and buy food that don’t need cooking. It’s cheap and Sandy has her employee discount. We get by.”
As we talk, we’re joined by a third person, a rail-thin woman who might be in her early 30s. She’s wearing jeans, running shoes and, as far as I can tell, three sweaters against the cold but no jacket or coat. Race and Tony nod a greeting and I introduce myself. The woman tells me her name is Sharon and she lives in the battered AirStream.
Jokingly, Race says Sharon is the “social service worker” in their temporary community. “She has heat so on really cold nights she invites us in to sleep on her floor.”
Sharon mugs, replying, “Yeah, I’m rich, sweetie. Got a Sterno heater! A radio, too.”
As I've been writing this piece, I keep thinking of an episode of CBS Reports from back in the 50s.
As a kid, it shocked me – or at least as much as a nine year old can be shocked by a documentary – because it showed large numbers of poor Americans who lived in shanty towns and went to schools with holes in the roof which meant kids had to move their chairs when it rained. I had no idea that everyone wasn't living the same kind of idyllic life that my family had in our GI-bill financed, two-story home on Raymir Place in a Milwaukee suburb.
It is still the case. Welcome to the Republican Party’s gift to America.