By BOB HERBERT – New York Times
Buried deep beneath the stories about executive bonuses, the stock market surge and the economy’s agonizingly slow road to recovery is the all-but-silent suffering of the many millions of Americans who, economically, are going down for the count.
A 46-year-old teacher in Charlotte, Vt., who has been unable to find a full-time job and is weighed down with debt, wrote to his U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders:
“I am financially ruined. I find myself depressed and demoralized and my confidence is shattered. Worst of all, as I hear more and more talk about deficit reduction and further layoffs, I have the agonizing feeling that the worst may not be behind us.”
Similar stories of hardship and desolation can be found throughout Vermont and the rest of the nation. The true extent of the economic devastation, and the enormous size of that portion of the population that is being left behind, has not yet been properly acknowledged. What is being allowed to happen to those being pushed out or left out of the American mainstream is the most important and potentially most dangerous issue facing the country.
Senator Sanders is a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats. He asked his constituents to write to him about their experiences coping with the recession and its aftermath. Hundreds responded, including several from outside Vermont. A 69-year-old woman from northeastern Vermont wrote plaintively:
“We are the first generation to leave our kids worse off than we were. How did this happen? Why is there such a wide distance between the rich and the middle class and the poor? What happened to the middle class? We did not buy boats or fancy cars or diamonds. Why was it possible to change the economy from one that was based on what we made and grew and serviced to a paper economy that disappeared?”
A woman with two teenagers told the senator about her husband, a building contractor for many years, who has been unable to find work in the downturn:
“I see my husband, capable and experienced, now really struggling with depression and trying to reinvent his profession at age 51. I feel this recession is leaving us, once perhaps a middle-class couple, now suddenly thrust into the lower-middle-class world without loads of options except to try and find more and more smaller jobs to fill in some of the financial gaps we feel day to day.
“All we want to do is work hard and pay our bills. We’re just not sure even that part of the American Dream is still possible anymore.”
One of the things I noticed reading through the letters was the pervasive sense of loss, not just of employment, but of faith in the soundness and possibilities of America. For centuries, Americans have been nothing if not optimistic. But now there is a terrible sense that so much that was taken for granted during the past six or seven decades is being dismantled or destroyed.
A 26-year-old man who emerged from college with big dreams wrote: “I had hoped to be able to support not just myself by this point, but to be able to think about settling down and starting a family. My family always told me that an education was the ticket to success, but all my education seems to have done in this landscape is make it impossible to pull myself out of debt and begin a successful career.”
How bad have things become? According to the National Employment Law Project, a trend is growing among employers to not even consider the applications of the unemployed for jobs that become available. Among examples offered by the project were a phone manufacturer that posted a job announcement with the message: “No Unemployed Candidate Will Be Considered At All,” and a Texas electronics company that announced online that it would “not consider/review anyone NOT currently employed regardless of the reason.”
This is the environment that is giving rise to the worker protests in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere. The ferment is not just about public employees and their unions. Researchers at Rutgers University found last year that more than 70 percent of respondents to a national survey had either lost a job, or had a relative or close friend who had lost a job. That is beyond ominous. The great promise of the United States, its primary offering to its citizens and the world, is at grave risk.
A couple facing foreclosure in Barre, Mass., wrote to Senator Sanders: “We are now at our wits end and in dire straits. Our parents have since left this world and with no place to go, what are we to do and where are we to go?” They pray to God, they said, that they will not end up living in their car in the cold.