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.
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 official poverty rate nationwide has risen to 15.1%, a rate high enough to generate some mainstream ink. According to various news agencies, this is the highest rate since 1983. But, if the poverty rate were known, it would be closer to one in three than one in six, and be the highest since the last depression ended with the entry of the United States into the Second World War.
The poverty rate is set as a multiplier of a “thrifty food basket”, a method implemented in 1962. The method has not changed since then, but everything else has. The poverty line for a family of four is $22,314. For a single person it is $10,830. It is on this basis that I make my claim that the poverty line is set too low, and that the poverty rate is grossly understated.
Let’s look more closely at these figures. For a single person, the official figure breaks down to $902.50 per month. A room in a house is at least $350 in most areas, and closer to $550 in larger urban areas that may have more income opportunities. So let’s say $450. Food costs to meet the most basic need for sustenance is about $200. That leaves $350 to cover transportation, phone, medical expenses, utilities, clothing, laundry, and sundries. It is clear that meeting even these basic needs cannot be done on this budget. The situation is equally dire for a family of four, whose poverty level income amounts to $1859.50 a month. A family of four must rent a house for about $1000 a month. It will take about $400 to feed the family at a basic level of nutrition. This leaves about $400 dollars for all other expenses. Again, it can’t be done. The food cost may be mitigated by food stamps, but the calculation for the amount is deeply skewed. If an applicant has any income at all the amount of assistance goes down precipitously. Some states also have low income medical care available but these programs are getting squeezed as tax revenues drop. And, they too only provide the bare bones in care. Many have died for lack of decent medical care.
So, how much does it take to live a basic life in America, and where should the poverty line be set to reflect reality? For one person, it should be at about $1800 a month, or $21600. About what it is four a family of four today. And for the family, it should be in the neighborhood of $70,000 a year just to make ends meet, and to provide the children in the family with a basic foundation of good health.
So, what is the true poverty rate? The median income for a family of four was $67,000, which means that half of all families fell below that level. Using that figure alone, my estimate of one in three is reasonable. This is the story that should be shouted from the rooftops throughout the land. The reason why it is not is grossly political and is tied to the powerful elite class that dominates the public discourse. That is the subject for a later post.These are the numbers. The actual human misery concealed in the numbers is immeasurable.
While I was in Detroit earlier this summer I had a conversation with a wonderful old woman who had been just at the bottom of the middle class all her life. She had gotten by working two, sometimes three hard and under-appreciated food service jobs, making just enough to get by. Now 62 and suffering from several ailments, including diabetes, she was waiting patiently for her unemployment to kick in, so she could stop standing on her feet sixteen hours a day. She had acquired a tiny bit of debt along the way, not enough to amount to lunch money for a rich person, but for her it was like an insurmountable mountain.
As the story goes, she had been almost starving in order to pay those bills, until a good friend convinced her to buy food first, and tell the companies that she was indebted to that they would just have to wait. Like many of the poor and almost poor, she was conscientious to a fault, and had to be convinced to take care of her own basic needs. Never mind that the interest rates she was paying were usurious. Never mind that there are whole industries in the business of exploiting people like her. It had never even occurred to her to miss a payment or negotiate a better deal.
This is just one of the ways that the poor are kept stuck. I have been traveling the country writing about the economic collapse of 2008 and the depression that has followed. It is amazing to me the number of people who have been harmed by these events, or even had their lives destroyed that will not speak out about it. The overwhelming emotion is shame. Shame in the face of a groaning table full of riches meant for others that they will never partake in.
And why are they ashamed, when the abominable condition they find themselves in in clearly not their fault? I believe it comes from an ugly strain of neo-Calvinism that the rich use to justify behavior that no true Christian would tolerate in themselves, and which the poor internalize. The result is massive shame instead of the appropriate emotion-galvanizing rage!
It’s been awhile since I posted, and here is why: The first stop on my latest journey was New York City’s Upper East Side, where I visited certain people who are close to me and whom I will not mention by name. It was a difficult trip, but an enlightening one. The Upper East Side is like a little village where nothing much ever happens, the atmosphere is sterile, and most of the human interaction is between the very rich and their servants.
My hosts live on the thirty forth floor of a building that overlooks the east river. Because many diplomats live in the building all residents must be vetted before they move in. Dry-cleaning is picked up and delivered. The building has it’s own water system and security force. In case of “civil unrest” it will become a fortress.
We sat at one of the many small, luxuries, and entirely predictable little bistros that dot the neighborhood. Over a lovely salmon and a glass of Pinot my hosts confessed their dismay at the thought that I advocate wealth and income redistribution, an economic policy usually associated with the communist revolution. What I wanted to say, but didn’t, is that I too am against the redistribution of wealth as it has actually occurred. Since the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s the redistribution of wealth UPWARDS has been extreme and unrelenting, and we (the middle class) would like our money back.
The conversation turned to taxes, particularly the theory behind taxing or failing to tax the uber-rich at an appropriate rate. My host asked me what income level I thought of as being “rich”. As in, rich enough to pay more. I replied that most people in this country, all of the millions that make around twenty thousand a year, if they are “lucky” enough to still be working, would like say that $250,000 a year is the cut. But, I said, I understand that a person of this income feels themselves to be only comfortably middle class. I understand that people in this demographic have big expenses, that they feel inferior to the “truly rich” whose shadow they live under. So, could we agree that a person making ONE MILLION a year was rich enough to pay a larger share in a system of progressive taxation? I got no real answer as the conversation trailed off in the stifling summer air.
I then tackled share holder primacy and the fact that Wall Street doesn’t actually produce any wealth after the first offering of stock, but is rather a large liquid pool of wealth that allows the “owners” to skim the cream from the top in the form of profits, profits gained by stepping on the backs of all other people, other species, and the health of the earth itself. That dog didn’t hunt either, not in that company.
I put off writing about this for months. Publishing it will not increase my popularity in my family. Finally I decided that if I am going to go forth with this project, which I believe in more ever day as I watch the depression deepen around me, I just have to stand in my truth. I didn’t make this world, I just write about it with as much clarity as I can find. So, dear reader, expect the rest of the story soon, now that the log jam in my mind has been broken.
I decided to take the train for this phase of the trip, and was able to get a rail pass good for one month. And so I hopped the Zephyr one morning in May, bound for New York City by way of Chicago. The train is a lot softer than the bus in terms of the travel experience, though the problem of sleep still looms. At least they give us little pillows, and there is plenty of leg room. It is also possible to walk around, to eat in the dining car if you have the inclination and the money, to drink a civilized glass of wine with dinner, and to get water when you get dehydrated.
There are other advantages as well. The people are not only less likely to be crazy than they are on the Greyhound, they are often wonderfully interesting. I decided to try the dining car just to see what it was like, for the evening meal. They sat me with an older black couple, both retired from working in the medical field in Washington DC. I told them the purpose of my travels, which got us on the subject of the new American depression. They did not disagree with my contention that this is a depression, that it began around 2007, and that it will take a long time to get out.
Emboldened, I went on to discuss this with many other of my fellow passengers. None disagreed. In fact, I began to listen to the conversations around me and many other people were discussing t along the same lines, with no prompting from me. I do believe we have reached the tipping point, and that the public will soon demand official acknowledgement of this depression. All I can say is it is about time.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
One thing that keeps coming up over and over again as I travel the country and as I hang out in my Sonoma County home is the lack of food security for those living in poverty in the United States. Food security is an issue everywhere as large corporations have colonized both our supply and our production capacity. But, as prices skyrocket, the system now in place hurts poor people first, and hurts them worst. There are many right now that must choose between food and electricity.
What can be done? The first line of defense is to grow a garden, whether it is on land you control, or in little containers. Whether you do it alone, or with friends and neighbors. Just get out there and grow some food. This is the weekend for the 350 Garden challenge. All over the country people are starting first-time gardens and taking control of their own supply of fresh produce. For more information on this movement, here is a link: http://www.350.org/en/about/blogs/growing-bigger-350-home-garden-challenge
If you don’t know how to grow your own food now is a good time to start learning. There are master gardener groups in many areas that can help answer questions. The people at your local seed supply will be able to suggest good plants for your eco-system. There may be a free or very cheap class at your local junior college. Or, you could just ask around till you find someone in your world that is a class A gardener. Gardeners love to talk about what they do. Just ask.
Once you get the garden in, there are a few other things you can do. Join or start a locally sourced meat-buying collective. Shop at local grocers and at farmer’s markets. Get to know the people that feed you. Even if you live in the city you can ask questions about where your food comes from, and make wise decisions accordingly.
It is also necessary to get involved politically. The corporations in the factory farming business and in the convenience food business have a vested interest in controlling what you eat. They make periodic attempts at making self-help around food illegal, usually using safety as an excuse. As if human beings haven’t been feeding themselves from this good earth for untold millennia. It is our job as citizens of these United States and this planet to resist these food-control laws. And if they do manage to pass such a law, to use civil disobedience by continuing to produce and share our own food.