The actual number of Americans experiencing working poverty is more than double the official estimates. Including family members, nearly thirty million people the equivalent of every man, woman, and child residing in the nation's twenty-five largest cities-live in this condition, and this figure describes the situation in America during favorable economic times. During recession, the tragedy worsens.
The many working Americans who are left in poverty, even in times of prosperity, dispel conventional wisdom in another way, too. They come from an extraordinarily wide variety of backgrounds. Individuals who have historically encountered discrimination in this country are among them, yet so are countless others coming from sectors of the society often thought to have advantages.
In the past, the nation's great political struggles often focused on extending the fruits of freedom and economic opportunity to every American. During the early years of our country, the American ethos was restricted to free white males. The Civil War brought black Americans out of slavery. The suffrage movement of the early decades of the twentieth century secured the vote for women. The civil rights movement of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s addressed the issue of equal opportunity for Americans regardless of race or gender. Over time, the American ethos and the philosophy of freedom and opportunity have gradually expanded to embrace ever more groups. Despite this, racial minorities and women still suffer disproportionately. Dramatic discrepancies exist between the rewards that they are supposed to obtain from employment and the harsh realities they encounter as they try to provide food, shelter, and clothing for their families.
However, this is only a small part of the problem. Families of all kinds are left clawing at the edges of the economy despite their painstaking efforts and the fact that they are employed in wide-ranging occupations across nearly all the industrial and business sectors. The failure of hard work in this country to result in a minimally decent return transcends the boundaries of race or gender, and even of workers' educational credentials. People who are male and white make up the largest group o employed heads of household who live in poverty. Rather than being school dropouts, the great majority of workers who remain poor have completed a high school education or gone to college. Many, indeed, rank in the upper half of the nation in academic skills.
During the past several years, newspapers and television newscasts have featured dozens of stories about a group called the new poor. The term "new poor" refers to middle-class citizens who lost their jobs-a large number of them during the recession of the early 1990s-and joined the ranks of the poor. Many of them remain without work. Once contributors to charity, the new poor find that they themselves may now in desperation have to turn to charity for food, clothing, and housing. Some stand in food lines. Their descent has been a brutal one.
The attention given to the new poor has awakened the public's consciousness to the fact that Americans who have followed all the rules may be unable to provide adequately for their families. This may appear to be new in America; however, it is not new at all. Millions of Americans, even though employed full-time, had insufficient incomes to afford food, clothing, and housing prior to the recession, during the prosperous years of the 1980s, and long before that too.1 These are the forgotten Americans. A crucial difference distinguishes the two groups. The new poor are hardworking people who became poor upon losing their jobs; the forgot ten Americans are hardworking people who remain poor despite holding jobs. It is to be hoped that most of the new poor will regain their former economic status with the economy's recovery. Yet it is likely that some of them will not and ultimately may become members of the working poor. Some already have joined the ranks of the forgotten Americans forced into jobs at low wages with few or no benefits.
The Forgotten Americans describes the lives of industrious people who receive so little in return for hard work that they are unable to escape poverty. Their bitter experience violates the most fundamental precepts of the nation, expressed in the American ethos. At the same time, it contravenes basic norms of equity, as the philosopher Adam Smith observed long ago. Simple equity, he held, dictates that it is wrong that workers who feed, clothe, and house the nation do not themselves enjoy a tolerable standard of living.2 The widespread presence of working poverty, in turn, undermines the ability of the nation to address a series of other issues of concern to Americans. Low pay devalues rather than rewards the work ethic. When many people find that a paycheck and poverty come in the same envelope, welfare dependency and other conditions related to poverty, such as crime and drug dealing, become aggravated and their alleviation far more difficult. Until working poverty is clearly understood and properly addressed, the current debate over welfare reform cannot be successfully resolved.
The recession of the early 1990s and cutbacks in both employment and pay led many Americans to ask whether the grim fate of the working poor might not someday be their own. It was not solely the new poor but also middle class workers still holding decent jobs who began to wonder whether and when their time might come. The surprising breadth and extent of working poverty that exists in America, which this book discloses, permits a sure prediction. Unless corrective action is taken, poverty will pervade the lives of no fewer than tens of millions of American workers and their families indefinitely into the future. The new poor and others who enter the ranks of the working poor will simply add to these numbers. Corrective action can success fully attack the condition of working poverty, but only if it builds upon fresh thinking. Working poverty casts a very wide net. Because it is so deeply entrenched in America, even when the economy is strong, the remedy for resolving it and providing all Americans with greater security will require prescriptions reaching beyond the policy answers that currently hold sway in the nation and the theories of poverty that have been used to justify them.
In spite of the adversity that millions of workers have suffered for many years, the American ethos has nevertheless retained considerable force in the nation's consciousness. Since the country's inception, the ethos of individual advancement and success has been basic to the way Americans have thought about the nation and about themselves. It largely continues that way today, and for good reason. Unlike many peoples, Americans do not have a common blood, religion, race, or language. Absent the bonds that often link individuals in a nation, Americans have forged a national identity and sense of connection to one another out of other materials. They have done so, to a considerable extent, through a shared philosophy founded upon a belief in the promise, possibilities, and progress of the individual. It is captured in numerous commonplace sayings: "Hard work pays off"; "Keep at it and you'll succeed"; "You can't keep a good person down." The faith that responsible, hard working individuals will rise in America expresses the spirit of this country. This ethos is felt so viscerally, that the historian Louis Hartz called it America's nationalism.3
The ethos depicts a fundamental way in which all Americans share a birthright in this nation of otherwise kaleidoscopic differences. At its core, the ethos is a belief in inclusion. It is a belief that all can belong no matter what their back ground or station, that everyone can succeed. The ethos has never claimed that everyone who works hard will gain equal economic success. By virtue of exceptional ambition, special talent, or plain luck, some hardworking Americans will become fabulously wealthy, whereas others will not. The ethos assumes that economic differences among Americans will and, indeed, should occur. But it is expected that educational and occupational opportunities will be plentiful enough that all Americans, if they are diligent, can share at least a part of the good life. Everyone can find a respectable place. All who are conscientious can, at a minimum, make their way.
At the birth of the Republic, Benjamin Franklin described how it was supposed to work: "If they are poor [in America], they first begin as Servants or Journeymen; and if they are sober, industrious, and frugal, they soon become Masters, establish themselves in Business, marry, raise Families, and become respectable Citizens."4 Many of Franklin's con temporaries held a similar view.5 Two centuries later, the sociologist Robert Bellah, recounting the belief that Franklin and others had in the capacity of hardworking and responsible individuals to improve their lives in America, wrote that this potential is "what many felt in the eighteenth century—and many have felt ever since—to be the most important thing about America."6
The ethos came to full bloom during the latter half of the nineteenth century, celebrated through the stories of Horatio Alger. Alger, the son of a Unitarian minister, graduated from Harvard College and then became a minister himself; he left the ministry in I866, at the age of thirty-five, to preach the gospel of success. In I867, his first story for juveniles appeared in print. Titled Ragged Dick (probably a play on Franklin's "Poor Richard"),7 the book showed through its main character how, in America, people who are poor can rise to respectability through hard work, honesty, bravery, and ambition. This and dozens of other juvenile stories made Alger the nation's foremost popularizer of the American ideal of the self-made individual.
Each of the main characters in Alger's dozens of stories achieves success. In Ragged Dick, the wealthy benefactor, Mr. Whitney, nicely capsulizes the American ethos when he tells the bootblack, Dick, "I hope, my lad, you will prosper and rise in the world. You know in this free country poverty in early life is no bar to a man's advancement.... Remember that your future position depends mainly on yourself and that it will be as high or low as you choose to make it."8
Alger grounded his beliefs about the progress of free individuals on the Calvinistic tenet that God rewarded the virtuous, the same idea that had originally drawn him to the ministry. His depictions of the ascent of poverty-stricken individuals found a receptive audience among nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Americans who fully embraced the philosophy of self-help and rugged individualism. So, too, did the ideas of Adam Smith, whose economic theory from a century earlier expressed a similar optimism about the ultimate success that would come to the hardworking person, thanks to the operation of the free market.9 At the time Alger wrote his rags-to-riches stories and Adam Smith's philosophy took root, manuals advising readers about how to achieve success could be found everywhere in America with titles that would look familiar on today's bookshelves The Art of Money Making (I877), The Secret of Success in Life (1881), How to Succeed (I882), The Keys to Success (I898), and The Attainment of Success (I907).l0
If we accept the American ethos as an expression of reality, a crucial implication is that the existence of poverty must result largely from the personal inadequacies of the poor, a view that has been popular in America since the beginning. During the early years of the Republic, the Philadelphian Matthew Carey observed, "Many citizens entertain an idea . . . that if not the whole, at least the chief part of the distresses of the poor, arises from idleness, dissipation, and worthlessness.''11 Later, during the era of Alger, the essayist William Graham Sumner described the poor in America as the shiftless, the imprudent, the negligent, the impractical, and the inefficient."12 Americans have indeed been inclined to regard able-bodied men and women of working age who end up in poverty and dependent upon public assistance as something like second-class citizens, unworthy of the full respect of the community.13
Only in the early 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, did this view dramatically change, a shift that was to last for nearly forty years. With no end of the depression in sight, the federal government embraced the idea that responsible hardworking people are sometimes unable to make their way. In a sudden burst of energy, it enacted sweeping programs that created jobs, established a mini mum wage, and provided relief to those without jobs.
This New Deal outlook guided policy through much of the I960S, providing the undergirding for the War on Poverty. Stumping for his program to eliminate poverty from America, President Lyndon Johnson said, "Do something we can be proud of. Help the [poor] and lift them up and help them train and give them an education where they can make their own way.... We have a right to expect a job to provide food for our family, a roof over [our] head, clothes for [our] body, and with your help and with God's help we will have it in America." The War on Poverty sought to provide opportunities that would enable poor Americans, who faced circumstances beyond their control, to become self-sufficient.14 "A hand up, not a handout" was the idea.
Public favor faded, however, when increased spending on programs for the poor after 1965 resulted in only a brief spurt of success in reducing the rate of poverty. Those years created many millions of new jobs-twenty-eight million in all from I965 to I980. Yet, despite the Great Society pro grams and the stunning growth in jobs, the percentage of people who were officially poor did not change substantially during the decade of the 1970S, and the number of people unemployed and on the welfare rolls actually rose.15 Whether or not its conclusions were fair,16 the public began to believe that assistance programs themselves contributed to the rising unemployment and dependency by reducing the incentives to work. Nearly two-thirds of all Americans held this opinion.17 "Our current welfare program," Ronald Reagan said in I988, "originally designed to raise people out of poverty, has become a crippling poverty trap, destroying families and condemning generations to dependency."18 The political scientist Lawrence Mead summarized the issue the way many Americans understood it when he wrote that, in today's economy, few adults who work steadily full-time will remain poor.19 It was believed that opportunity was available for nearly all and that anyone could make it who stayed on the job rather than abstaining from work and falling prey to the temptations of welfare.20
In this manner, the public had come full circle, once again seeing poverty not as a problem that afflicted hardworking and diligent people but as one that befell the idle and the irresolute. In I980, for example, unemployment stood at a recessionary 7.5 percent, with more than eight million Americans out of jobs. Surveys during that year nevertheless indicated that about 70 percent of the public thought that the economic opportunities available to the poor were either "very good" or ''good.''21 Two-thirds believed that opportunities for the poor were the same as or better than those for the average American.22 Why, then, did some Americans remain poor? In the public's mind, the foremost causes of poverty were that the poor weren't thrifty, that they did not put in the needed effort, and that they lacked ability or talent.23 Popular majorities did not consider any other factor to be a very important cause of poverty-not low wages, or a scarcity of jobs, or discrimination, or even sickness. Opinion did not change much as the 1980S advanced, either. In surveys taken in I984 and in I989, the Gallup organization found that 64 percent and 55 percent of the public, respectively, believed that lack of effort by the poor was the principal reason for poverty, or a reason at least equal to any that was beyond a person's control.24
This climate of opinion, in turn, led political leaders at all levels, and in both political parties, to call for reform in the nation's social policy, and particularly its welfare system.25 The main problem, as they saw it, was how to get nonworking people to seek and take jobs in order to become self sufficient rather than to continue to languish on welfare. The Reagan administration's repeated attempts to persuade Congress to reduce welfare spending and to restrict eligibility for welfare programs rested on the reasoning that these programs caused dependency. Welfare stifled people's motivation to work and thereby to become self-supporting, Reagan claimed. Republican leaders proposed reforms that would require recipients to work or at least to train for work.26 Democrats joined Republicans to endorse the idea that individuals could rise out of poverty, and become self-supporting, through employment.27 Democrats differed only in their contention that reaching this goal would require employment incentives. These would take the form, for example, of day-care allowances, health insurance, and the enforcement of child assistance payments from absent parents. Since the jobs for which many welfare recipients would be initially eligible often provided no health care or child care benefits, Democrats argued incentives were needed; other wise many of the recipients would become worse off financially if they accepted the jobs than if they stayed on welfare.
Party leaders eventually compromised in I988 and enacted major welfare reform legislation, whose implementation was a to begin by the end of I990 and to become fully operational by I994. The reform established the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training Program (JOBS), often known as workfare. Workfare provided that able-bodied recipients of welfare, except those with small children, would eventually remain eligible for assistance only if they met certain work requirements. Recipients would have to participate in training programs or other activities designed to prepare them for employment, or gain actual work experience through community programs. Once they had gotten jobs, public assistance would continue to give child care and health insurance benefits for a year to those whose jobs did not provide such benefits. Proponents of reform believed that by requiring nonworking people to act responsibly, and by increasing the economic incentives for them to do so, work fare would move welfare recipients into employment enabling them to become sufficiently self-supporting so as eventually to be weaned off welfare.
In truth, workfare reformers asked no more, or less, from social policy than did the earlier architects of the Great Society and the New Deal. In America, social policy has always had the objective of lifting the poor to independence. Policymakers have always thought that public assistance should aid the able-bodied of working age only temporarily, until employment becomes available and enables them to care for themselves.28 Unlike America, most other Western nations presume that adult citizens will remain recipients of public aid throughout much of their lives, whether they are employed or unemployed. Among the multiplicity of provisions avail able to all families in those countries, regardless of employment status, is access to medical care from a national health system as well as payments to assist every family with children in the form of regular (usually monthly) stipends. With the exception of assistance to the elderly, American social programs tend to be more limited in scope and to leave people at lower income levels more on their own than is the case in other democracies (see table I).
Americans, apt to believe that with enough freedom and opportunity hardworking individuals can provide for them selves, see little reason to call for sweeping governmental intervention to aid the poor. The problem is that this belief does not reflect reality. The lives of workers from nearly every kind of background across America belie the ethos. Whether the economy is experiencing substantial growth or not, millions of fully employed Americans cannot meet their families' basic needs, and millions more work hard, sometimes in more than one job, because they are unable to find year-round full-time employment. In fact, about 40 percent of all year-round full-time workers in this nation cannot-have the kind of family sometimes described as the American ideal-two parents and two children with one parent gain fully employed and the other at home and simultaneously escape povery. The American production worker earns wages so low that the average hourly pay lifts a family of four barely to the margins of poverty even if the worker is employed full-time the whole year. The nation's guiding beliefs and public policies are based on false assumptions about the relationship between poverty and work.
|THE RELATIVE SIZE AND IMPACT OF SOCIAL PROGRAMS IN SEVEN WESTERN NATIONS|
Benefits Lift to
Half the Median
to Half the
Benefits Lift to
Half the Median
In the past, whenever reality contradicted the American ethos, people could say that the country was young and expanding its frontiers, that the nation had only begun to tap its vast natural resources,29 and that the future held the potential of nearly unlimited progress. Now that no new frontiers are left to be explored and settled, however, unquestioning faith in a future of boundless opportunity and adequate provision for all those who work hard seems less tenable. To leave large numbers of hardworking and responsible people in or near poverty, without the promise of a decent and secure living standard in the future, threatens to create a deeply fractured society based on profound class divisions. The pages to come are about Americans who occupy the frontlines of the economic struggle today and about the implications of their plight for the nation's present policies and for the theories of economic hardship from which the policies derive. The book concludes by offering solutions necessary to improve the lives of these Americans and assure that millions of others will never share their fate.
* The interviews of families here and elsewhere in the book were conducted and tape-recorded by John E. Schwarz. The names of persons and places of residence and employment have been changed.
PAUL AND JANE LAMBERT
Paul Lambert and his family's problems did not start the day he lost his job at Andrews' Electronics. At the time I interviewed Paul and his wife, Jane, in the summer of 1990, he was working forty-five hours a week at two part-time jobs, one taking phone orders at Sears and the other as a sales clerk at a local department store. He had been laid off from Andrews' Electronics five months earlier, at the age of thirty-nine. The two part-time jobs were the best he could find, he said. We were in their mobile home set amid two dozen others in a rural section on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. Before the layoff, Paul had been the supervisor of the shipping and receiving department at Andrews', where he had worked for a year. He told me that he'd been let go when the parent company of the firm went into bankruptcy. As he spoke, he suddenly seemed ill at ease, almost as if he thought that I might not believe him. Jane, thirty-seven, worked full-time in a salaried position. She was the office manager of a warehouse, where she was responsible for answering the phones, typing, filing, and reception.
The three of us sat at a Formica table in the Lamberts' kitchen. It looked out into a spacious, though sparsely furnished, living room. A large, overstuffed armchair with a guitar resting beside it stood at the far end of the room. One of the Lamberts' three children, Ann, ten, lay comfortably on the chair with her legs dangling over the side, reading a book. The Lamberts' other two children-Ken, sixteen, and Marcy, six-were chattering playfully in another corner of the room.
The experience of being laid off and unable to find another full-time job had not taken the luster out of Paul's brown eyes. He had a gently rounded face and a kind smile, its warmth marred slightly by a badly capped tooth set against another that had broken in half. He looked directly at me as we talked, save only for brief moments when his eyes drifted away, giving him pause to gather his thoughts.
Paul had gotten one part-time job within two weeks of his layoff and the other several weeks later. He had not taken unemployment while he looked for a permanent job, and I wondered why. Paul's answers were usually to the point, and it was obvious that he had given much consideration to this one. "I could be getting $123 a week on unemployment right now," he said. He wasn't clearing a lot more than that a week ($155, at about $4.25 an hour) from the forty-five hours he worked on his two part-time jobs. "But I want to work, and unemployment is degrading," he continued. A good musician, Paul also earned a little money playing guitar at a nearby restaurant several evenings a month.
He had been searching now for five months for a permanent full-time job through the state job-placement service, two private employment agencies, and ads in the local news paper. "I've sent more than one hundred letters out and got ten only two responses," he said. "The agencies have done nothing. It's frustrating."
Apart from his layoff from Andrews' Electronics, Paul had always had a regular full-time job. So had Jane since 1984, when she became employed as a warehouse office manager. Although both of them held full-time jobs, things had never been easy-in fact, not really much easier than when I spoke with them. From 1982 until he took the job at Andrews' Electronics, Paul was employed at Doby's, a chain drugstore with a large liquor department. He started there as assistant manager of the liquor department. Three years later, in 1985, he became manager of the department. Four of the store's employees worked under him. In 1988, his last full year at Doby's, Paul made $5.50 an hour as the liquor department manager and was on the job about forty four hours a week. Jane, who was on salary, made $10,000 for the year, about $5 an hour. Their combined income was $22,300 that year.
Paul's face tensed as he talked about his seven years at Doby's. During all that time, he and Jane never had enough money to catch up with their bills, he said. Their three-bed room mobile home, simple but spacious enough for a family of five, cost $470 a month in addition to $150 for utilities and phone. Their food bill was between $90 and $100 a week; they kept it to that level by clipping coupons and looking for bargains and specials. "Someday, I wish I could go to the grocery store without coupons," Jane said. They had two ancient cars, a 1974 Oldsmobile and a 1965 Ford with a sign reading "Dad's Limo" in the rear window. Each car had gone more than 300,000 miles. Since the closest public transportation was more than a mile away and unreliable, both Paul and Jane drove to work. Car insurance, gas, repairs, and license fees had cost them nearly $3,000 in 1988. Doby's provided medical insurance for the family, but the employee premiums were $800 a year, and doctors' bills and prescriptions that were not covered came to another $600. They had no dental insurance. They spent only $400 on clothes in 1988, and almost all of that went for children's clothing purchased in resale stores. Except for underwear and socks, Paul and Jane have bought no clothes for them selves, new or used, for a number of years. "I take care of my shoes so well that they come back into style," Paul joked. The last shoes he could remember buying were a pair of sneakers that cost $8.99. He couldn't remember when he had bought them. Taxes were another major expense. Federal income, Social Security, and state income taxes came to about $2,800 in 1988. These expenses totaled nearly $20,000. This left about $2,000 to cover everything else, including the purchase of school supplies for the children, replacing an old mattress, fixing a broken washing machine, repairing a vacuum cleaner, getting a daily newspaper, buying post age to pay the bills, and purchasing nonfood items like sheets and towels, paper products, cleaning supplies, shaving cream, shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and light bulbs. "We were always struggling, always behind when I was at Doby's. We never were able to make it," Paul said. "I was managing a department and getting nowhere."
They went without many things. They hadn't gone out to eat "within living memory, not to a McDonald's or any where else," Paul said when talking about his and his family's situation not just since his layoff but over the preceding decade. They hadn't gone to any movies, either. Nor had they taken their children out on day trips during weekends, although they had wanted to, because they felt they couldn't afford the gas. Since they had no dental insurance, Paul and Jane hadn't seen a dentist in years. Their two daughters had never been to a dentist, and their son had gone only because his grandma paid, Jane said. I asked Jane when she had last bought a nice dress. "When I got married," she answered. "Do you ever run out of money for food?" I inquired. "Not really, because I've always had my parents," Jane said. "If I run a bit desperate, they lend me money."
To keep going, Jane and Paul have frequently had to rely on help from others. Their landlord has fixed their cars at cost and often has lent them some of the money for parts. Paul said, " 'Whenever you can come up with any money, whenever you have a little extra,' my landlord says, 'you can pay me back.' " The last time his landlord fixed the Oldsmobile, it cost more than $400, but Paul could pay only $250 so, some of which he had gotten from Jane's parents. He has not yet been able to pay the rest of the bill. Relatives have also paid for the Lamberts' only vacations. Paul's brother gave him the money to go to Minnesota for a few days in 1987 to visit his aged father, who lives in a rest home there. He paid for Paul and Jane to take a similar trip in 1989. Jane's grandmother paid for Ken, the Lamberts' son, to visit her in Atlanta. Jane's parents, who run a bakery shop, sometimes have helped pay the rent. They also have bought new school clothes for the girls and helped with the car repairs. A year ago, Ken wanted a pair of Air Jordan athletic shoes, which were the rage at the time. They cost $100 a price the Lamberts couldn't begin to afford. "When Ken went to Atlanta, his grandmother bought them," Paul said with anguish, still upset about the episode.
Accepting help from others was not easy for Paul. He was appreciative- Yet he felt that he appeared deficient in the eves of the people whose help he received, people with whom he associated every day. Moreover, he never knew whether he would get help or for what. It was unpredictable. And, even with the help, Jane and he remained unable to do many seemingly basic things in life, such as to take their family on an outing or to go to a movie, to get clothes for themselves, or to go to the dentist.
The daily battle to pay for essentials and provide for the family was not the only problem with his managerial job at Doby's. "The job was full of stress," Paul said. By his final year there, several of the workers in the main part of the store had quit. He mentioned that things weren't much better in the liquor department. "The district management was in constant flux. For example, they didn't fill my stock orders properly, which angered my customers when they couldn't find what they wanted. Sometimes customers would get physical. Some of them might have already had a drink or two, or might have been on drugs. One time a customer, angry that his favorite wasn't there, came up to me, pushed his body right up to mine, and pointed his finger right into my face. Between that kind of thing and the tension with the management, it was an everyday squeeze. One day, one of the workers in the general retail section collapsed and just dropped dead, right there, right there at the store. Died of a heart attack."
"When Jim died," Paul continued, "I knew it had to be done. I knew I had to find something else. A doctor had been telling me to quit for some time, saying I was going to have a heart attack if I didn't. He said, 'Either get out or die.' My blood pressure was sky-high. And I wasn't making enough money. At home, I was no fun to be with. I wouldn't talk for days when I got home. I didn't want to be bothered by anybody. Basically, I was just a paycheck, and the pay check wasn't much. Jane had to raise the family by herself, no different than a single parent." After Jim died, Paul began looking for another job. When he found one at Andrews Electronics, he left Doby's.
As Jane recalled those years, her eyes filled with tears. "I didn't know what was happening, because Paul wouldn't talk. He sat in a corner by himself." She paused, her whole face tight. She took a deep breath but was unable to continue.
Paul started at Andrews' Electronics as an assembler at $4.50 an hour. Within half a year, he had become the super visor of the shipping and receiving department at double his original wage. They had begun to catch up with their rent, had completely paid off a doctor's bill from an illness of one of the children, and were thinking about the possibility of a family vacation. A mere half year later, he was laid off. Paul showed me a letter written by the general manager of Andrews' Electronics requesting a midyear wage raise for him. It was written about three months before the parent company went into bankruptcy:
Paul was able to climb the ladder of command in a very short
period of time to take full responsibility of purchasing,
material control, and shipping and receiving. He has been a most
conscientious employee and has made my responsibility much easier
with his "can do" attitude. I believe Paul should be given
appropriate consideration for his abilities and effort.
I wondered whether Paul and Jane had considered getting additional education. Both had completed high school, but neither of them had attended college. "I want my kids to go to college," Paul answered. "That's the only way for them to make it these days. But when I was a kid in school, we were taught that a high school diploma is good enough. So I went into the Army, soon as I finished school. Now I've got a lot of experience. I've got ten years in management positions. That's as good as college. All the jobs say, 'Either college or experience.' The only jobs that've answered my applications have said, 'You've got too much management experience. You're overqualified.' " Paul's father, who owned a small restaurant in Minneapolis, had also finished his high school education and decided not to attend college. So had his two brothers. His mother, who was a certified public accountant, had received a college degree.
Paul looked straight at me: "You know," he said, "I was talking to a friend of mine the other day. We want to make a decent living. We've been eating it. For a long time-for many years-we've been on the other end of the stick. We've been beat into a corner. How do you get to where we can do what we need to do to survive? I've got other friends like this. They're crazed because they can't make it. I don't care if I leave." Stunned at the sudden turn of the conversation, I said, "You mean 'die'?" He reflected a moment, his eyes looking toward the floor. "Yes," he said.
ERNST AND ANNA BARTELLE
Ernst Bartelle stood with a slight stoop on the ball field, surrounded by several teenage boys. He squinted in the sun that glanced off his tanned face. He was short, no more than five foot six, and the boys towered over him. He looked to be in his fifties, with a slight paunch, wispy gray hair, and a small bald spot at the crown of his head. His skin had begun to sag under the chin. His face was angular, with high cheekbones and a broad, almost bulbous nose. The boys were laughing, and his own thin lips held a half smile. When he saw me on the sideline, he said a few more words to them and then walked toward me.
It was about four o'clock on a splendid Saturday after noon in Denver. The two of us walked to his home. His nearby subdivision was lined with one-story brick houses, rather similar to one another, all with small front yards in various states of repair. A duster of deep red geraniums gave color to one side of his neatly kept yard. At the other side, a short concrete driveway, no more than twenty feet long, led up to a garage attached to the house. Giant pylons carrying electrical wires stood behind the house, dwarfing us.
Ernst's wife, Anna, who was fifty and about Ernst's height, greeted us and led us inside to a tiny kitchen. Their refrigerator, which stood against the half wall separating the kitchen from the living room, featured a poster announcing a "Walk Against Hunger," with a black-and-white drawing of Jesus Christ alongside it. In the small living room, two old couches lined two of the walls. A television set and a bookcase crowded the other wall. The bookcase contained a three-volume collection of the classics and a book about the Bermuda triangle, among other works. No ornaments adorned the room.
Ernst, fifty-seven years old and a high school graduate, is a maintenance worker at the local high school. He first took the job in 1984- "It's mostly custodial work, and we also do setups for all the sports activities," he said in his rather high pitched, raspy voice. "I'm in charge of the guys to make sure the sound system is ready, the field is in good shape, the markers are set up, you know. We each also have our regular area in the school to clean up on a nightly basis. I go in from two-thirty to eleven at night during the weekdays." He works with the students, too, he said, and his fondness for them was clear.
The Bartelles' oldest boy, Ernie, sixteen, who was returning from high school football practice, burst into the kitchen through the aluminum screen door. His brother, Hector, fourteen, ran in right behind him. They gave us a nod and a smile and introduced themselves. Then they bolted through the living room toward the back of the house. Anna stood and reached over to put her arm around Hector as he streaked by.
Like Ernst, Anna has a high school diploma. Employed in a local social service agency, she works nine to five, providing clients with information about available programs, managing the office, and doing casework for the mostly His panic clientele. She and Ernst, both Mexican-American, speak fluent Spanish. This is her fourth job in eight years. She returned to the work force at the age of forty-two. Because she had little seniority, she was laid off at each of her pre various jobs after six months or a year as a result of staff reductions. Each layoff was a bitter experience, she said.
In 1989, Ernst earned $12,500. Anna, who had worked about half of that year at $5.50 an hour, made nearly $6,000, so together they earned about $18,500. This was a pretty typical year for the Bartelles, although their income has fluctuated depending upon how much of the year Anna was able to find work.
Ernst also volunteers at Anna's agency. Because their work schedules conflicted (Anna's jobs were all nine to five), Ernst and Anna were rarely able to see each other. On an ordinary day, Ernst left home at two in the afternoon to walk to the high school, and Anna didn't arrive home until after five When Anna got the job at the social service agency, how ever, Ernst decided to start going in with her, volunteering three hours each morning at the agency. "Sometimes I get tired," Ernst said. "Eleven hours a day."
The Bartelles own a three-bedroom home, bought in 1978. The bedrooms are small and crowded, but Ernst says it is enough for them. In 1989, the Bartelles' housing costs averaged $495 a month, including utilities and telephone. "We've been lucky the roof never leaked," Anna said. "Everybody else's around here has." Ernst added, "It's a ten-year roof, and it's been over ten years. You just keep your fingers crossed." They spent about $75 a week for food. The cost of their 1981 Mercury, which had gone about 80,000 miles, came to nearly $2,400, including gas, insurance, repairs, taxes, and depreciation. "The car's falling apart," Ernst said. "Constant repairs, the clutch. They tell us we should get rid of the car, but we can't afford to buy another one." Ernst's job paid for most of his own medical insurance, but not for Anna's or the children's. Medical and dental insurance for the boys, which came out of Ernst's paycheck, cost about $1,600 in 1989 (Anna still was not covered). Total medical costs were nearly $2,100 for the year. The Bartelles spent roughly $600 on clothes for the four of them and $2,200 in federal income, Social Security, and state income taxes. These expenses amounted to about $17,100 in 1989. This left just $1,400 of the Bartelles' income to repair the house and furniture, buy appliances, purchase everyday household and personal items, go out to a movie or concert, or take a vacation. In fact, the Bartelles have gone out to eat or to the movies "only once in a blue moon," in Ernst's words. During the past eight years, the only vacations the Bartelles have had were a few weekend visits with one of Anna's sisters, who lives in a town about sixty miles away.
"It's been tough," Ernst said to me. "When I get my pay check and my mortgage is due, after medical insurance and what the government takes, the whole thing doesn't cover my mortgage. The whole thing's gone. A couple of days ago, I just heard they want to raise the electricity rates another 13 percent. If they raise the rates, we're going to eat less. The only place we can cut back on is places like the food budget. Sometimes we've gone days just eating potatoes and eggs . . . sometimes just potatoes. When we buy food, some times, we don't have enough money to pay other bills. In other words, you rob Peter to pay Paul. You just juggle back and forth. We're always behind."
I wondered how the Bartelles clothed four people on $600 for the year. Ernst said, "We don't have any clothes, really. We just buy for the kids. The last time I bought clothes was at Montgomery Ward's. A couple of shirts and a couple of pants for work. Work clothes, really, is what it is. I still owe my sister $90. She bought them." Anna said, "My sisters bring me things, that's how I man age. They have a lot of nice clothes. My sisters have provided me with nice clothes. They [my sisters] are about my size. I don't mind, because then I know I don't have to spend. I don't mind taking from my own family, but I wouldn't want to take from another person." From time to time, Ernst and Anna have gotten other types of help from family members. One day, for example, the Bartelles received a check for $1,000 from one of Ernst's brothers. "He just sent it," Ernst said. "He didn't expect me to pay it back. I've got my pride. I won't ask. But if it's offered, I've taken it."
Ernie and Hector came back into the kitchen. Ernst gave Ernie the keys to the car, and the two boys left. "We've been good parents," Ernst said. "We've tried to instill good values. We want the best for them. We're not drinkers or smokers. We've taught them to be very respectful of people They don't join gangs or do drugs. Knock on wood that that never changes. But there's lots we haven't been able to do. I always wanted to take my kids places, take them around the country. Always wanted to expose them to things. I've wanted to take them to the national capital."
Anna broke in, "We haven't been able to furnish our home, make it nice. Look at those couches. Under the sheets they're worn, and they have holes in the seats. They're uncomfortable and ugly. The kids are going to be gone before it ever changes."
"And that's what hurts," Ernst said. "The kids know it. In their minds, when the kids are gone, it's going to be, 'Oh, the parents were always scratching and scraping.' That's a hell of a legacy to leave them. I'm hoping that someday I can quit my job here at school and get something rewarding that I like to do, and that's to help human services. I've put in applications all over," so far to no avail. "I'll tell you, I used to believe in God. Once I did. I don't know any more if there's a God. And if there is, I do know one thing: He doesn't love me."
Circumstances weren't always like this for Ernst and Anna Bartelle. In the last half of the 1970s and early 1980s, Ernst had been the area manager for six family-style restaurants owned by a national corporation. By 1982, his salary was almost $40,000, including commissions. Scheduled to work six days a week, he often worked on the seventh day, too. "I was always on call," Ernst said, "day and night."
The Bartelles purchased their home during those years. They also bought the Mercury new in 1981, having bought a Pontiac in 1978. They often went out in the evenings of his day off, and they took vacations. They could afford clothes for themselves and the children, and good furniture. They bought the better cuts of meat at the grocery. "Life was good," Anna said.
In 1983, on New Year's Day, Ernst learned that he would be laid off. "We just happened to find out by accident," Ernst recalled. One of his associates called and said he had heard that the corporation had sold the restaurants and that everyone was going to be let go. "It turned out it was true," Ernst continued. "We found out, 'Happy New Year. You don't have a job.' The first I heard anything in an official way, directly, was by memo. They informed me by memo a couple of weeks later, I think it was. The memo said that I was laid off, and the date of the layoff was the date I got the memo. That was my last day. We got no severance pay, no notice or anything. They were letting everyone go. I mean everyone." Another corporation had acquired the restaurants and replaced all the personnel. Ernst had turned fifty only five days earlier.
"I was devastated," Ernst said. "All of a sudden you've lost your job. Where do you go from there? You know if you're a young man you can always go looking. I knew I was going to have a hard time trying to get back into some other kind of business."
Anna remembered, "It was like the world suddenly collapsed, and I said, 'It's my turn now. I got to get out there and keep the family going.' So I went out looking for a job." Until 1980, Anna had worked as an admitting clerk in the county hospital. She had left her job in order to be home with the children, and thanks to Ernst's salary they did not need her paycheck. She had never stopped earning money, however. She started a private child care center in her home, and by 1983 five children were coming to her house from nine to five. She earned about $150 a week. "The living room was wall-to-wall baby cribs," Anna said. When she went back into the labor force in 1983, she soon got a new job as an insurance processor for a private hospital, earning $7 an hour.
Ernst was not as lucky. From 1967 to 1974, he had done social service work, eventually becoming director of the local Head Start program. In regard to his search for a job in 1983, Ernst said, "I applied for the state, the federal, the local, Catholic social programs, the aging, everything, because I had that kind of experience. I had social services experience, a lot of it. But I never got the jobs. I'm still not positive why. I was more experienced than a lot of them that got the jobs." It was an agonizing experience for him; both he and Anna believe that age discrimination kept him from getting the jobs.
Instead, while Anna went off to her job, Ernst kept the child care center going at home. "I baby-sat," he said. "I took over her job." Eventually, he found a job with the local school district as a truck driver's assistant in food services. He helped load the trucks, starting at five in the morning, and helped unload the food at various schools. It was a minimum-wage job. "After being turned down right and left for other positions, I wound up in food services, you know. I had to swallow my pride and work for minimum wage. It was very demeaning. I stayed at that job for about a year and then transferred over to the maintenance department, and I'm still working at maintenance." His six-year search for a better job has failed.
Anna said, "Things were out of control. I felt so sorry for Ernst. It's really a touchy subject for me to talk about, because I still cry about it. It was very sad for me to see a person of Ernst's capabilities going up there and being turned away time after time, and then he had to settle for a menial position. He was too over-qualified or not qualified. He still applies for jobs and gets turned away."
"At one point," Ernst broke in, "the mortgage company wanted our house because we were behind on the payments. They finally went after it, but we were always able to borrow money to keep them off. [Simply keeping up with monthly expenses during the eight months he was laid off used up all his savings and forced him to borrow $4,000, mostly from other members of his family.] It's very scary because all of a sudden everybody knows who you are. We had people coming to our home to look it over, right here; we had to tell them literally to get away from our property. They were contacted through the mortgage company. They have a network identifying people who are potential home losers- We were scared. Very scared. Sometimes, it's very hard to explain, but sometimes I felt like I wish I was dead, you know. I got to the point that I wish I weren't here. Death would end it. Death is a way out. If I was by myself, I wouldn't give a shit. My life had become worthless."
Ernst continued, "There's been a lot of fighting between us. There's never enough money. If it weren't for potatoes at times, we'd starve. We're very proud people. We never asked for food stamps, you know. We've never asked for any public assistance except for unemployment. I took unemployment. That's very demeaning, and it was, but I needed the money. But as for welfare and food stamps, I never applied for them. I'm not afraid to work. I'm not too proud to take a job that doesn't cover my mortgage."
Anna said, "Ernst is a quiet person. He keeps things inside. But I voice my feelings. He took a lot of pressure from me. I blamed him, and I grew to hate him that he couldn't get a decent job, something more than he got. I detested him." Still tormented, she paused, near tears, before continuing, "I was at the point of breakdown. I felt like I was clawing for my life, fighting for my life and my family." She stopped again and then said, "You ever seen a hamster in a cage? It just runs and runs on its wheel and gets nowhere. That's what I feel like sometimes."