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The Real Economic Story

Just thinking out loud today…

Perhaps it is due to the media’s fascination with whether Caroline Kennedy is qualified to be a senator along with the Blagojevich scandal in Illinois and Bernie Madoff’s failed, 50 billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, but I’ve been thinking that the real story of the now-official, year-long recession isn’t getting the kind of attention it should.

The big picture is reported: the numbers of mortgage foreclosures and the hundreds of billions in bailout funds handed out to corporations with little or no oversight on how it is used. We hear about the size of the deficit, national debt and the trade imbalance. The frightening unemployment numbers get their 15 seconds of fame when they are released. And this week, there is a trickle of personal stories from millionaires who’ve lost everything because they invested all their money with Madoff.

On that last item, I’m having trouble working up sympathy. I don’t know anything at all about investing except “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” What were they thinking?

What’s missing, however, are stories about how most of us – the poor, the middle class, the people who live paycheck to paycheck and one small emergency from destitution - are getting by. It may not be as glamorous as a millionaire losing his yacht or the scion of a dynastic political family jockeying for advantage, but the real story of the recession isn’t just getting lost, it isn’t being told at all.

There is a small glimpse of the wreckage, hurt and fear in the Washington Post/ABC poll released yesterday. Some items:

  • 40 percent are concerned about heating their homes this winter
  • 10 percent of home owners have fallen behind in payments
  • 29 percent of renters have fallen behind in rent payments
  • Nearly 20 percent say they or a household member has lost a job in the past few months
  • More than 25 percent have had their pay or hours reduced at work
  • More than half are worried about medical payments if a family member gets sick
  • 66 percent are worried about maintaining their lifestyle

Lifestyle? When food and shelter are at risk, Jimmy Choos and Coach handbags are the wrong thing to worry about. What bothers me is that we – the United States and the world – are in a stunning financial crisis that won’t get better any time soon, will impoverish many in the middle class and wipe out many of the poor, but there is no discussion of how it affects the essentials of everyday life.

What’s happened to the millions who are out of their homes due to foreclosure? Where are they living? How are parents who’ve lost their jobs feeding their kids? Have cities and states made arrangements so that people in the northern tier don’t lose heat and electricity through the winter if they can't pay the bill? How many have been added to the 45 million people without health coverage with so many newly unemployed?

And what about elders who lost 20, 30, 50 and more percent of their savings in the Wall Street failures and haven’t a prayer of finding work, or can no longer work? Most of these elders were not rich before and less so now.

Where are these stories? Where is the advice on how to get by when it is obvious that this is going to be a long, hard slog before better times return? What plans have public officials and other organizations throughout the country made for the day-to-day, basic needs of people as the recession continues? I’m concerned that too much hope is being pinned on Barack Obama to fix it all in his first six months. According to that Washington Post/ABC poll,

“Nearly half expect Obama will be able to improve the economy ‘a great deal’ or a ‘good amount.’”

Wishful thinking? I’m not convinced anyone knows how to fix the economy and that we will just have to ride it out wherever it takes us for however long it lasts. There will be no miracle wake-up one morning with “lifestyle” restored to 2005 levels. But there seem to be no plans for people without means to help themselves.

Are cities and towns organizing people to help people? Are members of local groups working together to keep an eye on their more vulnerable neighbors? If it is happening where I live, no one's told me.

I’m one of the lucky ones. Low income, but debt-free. I have enough to live comfortably - without frills. As long as the cat doesn’t get too sick again and inflation remains under control, we’ll be fine. But what about everyone else?

Just thinking out loud today…

UPDATE: A reader named Linda sent an email referring me to a series of posts at Huffington Post where readers are sharing their economic crisis stories. Here are the links:

Blogging the Meltdown - Part 1
Blogging the Meltdown - Part 2
Blogging the Meltdown - Part 3

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lia has a beautiful collection of Postcards from Past Lives.]


I've been wondering the same thing, where are the real stories? Sometimes I just don't know about the media, they seem to be totally enamored of the flashy and glitzy, the sensational and gory. Well, not just sometimes, most of the time!

I've gone from frugally comfortable to scared. I don't know if I have enough or not. I feel like a deer frozen in the headlights, waiting to see whether it's going to get worse, and if so, how worse.

In my earlier years I spent some time as a Welfare Mom, so I know that one way or another I will survive, but I worked hard for my savings and looked forward to using them to do the things I never could do before, now I feel just a tiny bit cheated. I played by the rules and where did it get me? If I had any advice to give anyone right now, it would be f*** the rules!

I am poor but I get by. I have small savings. It isn't easy but I am frugal. I have a part-time job that keeps my head (barely) above water and word is that I may not have that much longer. I will try to find something else but at 61 with a handicap . . . you know the rest. I am afraid. Hopefully, there's some way I can survive. Unfortunately, I know people who are worse off so I am grateful for what I have.

The stories of those going through this at the most painful level have been in the papers that I read. The Star in Tucson had an article last week about seniors, using one particular couple, who will soon need assisted living but cannot sell their home which is deteriorating without maintenance but the market won't give them enough to let them go somewhere else. The newspapers in Montana and Oregon (I read for both states) have also had quite a few stories on food insufficiency and the problems of the individuals. So there are papers doing this job of letting people understand but I don't know that it's going to help. If we are in a depression, which seems likely as they didn't even admit the recession until a year later, this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better and when it gets better it may never be the same. A year ago the food insufficiency was a big issue out here because most just don't realize how many people, and that includes families with children, simply don't have enough food because they aren't poor or rich enough

Whenever I hear about foreclosures or layoffs I wonder where those people end up. Living with relatives? In shelters? Where? I want to know if they land on their feet.

Out here in Turkey the 'credit crisis' as it is called here is also biting. A factory closes and 6000 people are without jobs - in a country where there is no welfare or state benefits as we know them in the UK. As foreign residents we are lucky. We still have pension income and my language skills mean I can still earn money and that, it would seem, is regardless of age. My 25-year-old daughter teaches English at Berlitz in Istanbul where a large part of the work is going out to teach executives in companies - the latter are cancelling all the time. The good news for us is we are also debt free and food will always be cheap and plentiful here where our neighbours are all growers. We always knew we made the right decision for us to move here in 2004 - now circumstances are really reinforcing that message.

The stories of how ordinary people are dealing with the economy are certainly few and far between. I catch them every now and then going onto MSNBC to get to hotmail. I often think that those I do find are trying to present the subjects of the hard luck as the villains. They didn't do what they are supposed to do, what ever that is. They didn't save. They greedily got into mortgages they surely knew they couldn't afford. They roll up to the local convenience store in a big SUV and pay with food stamps. I have wondered for several years now what happens to those caught in circumstances they can't control--like the pilots for whichever airline went through bankruptcy a while back who found their wages and benefits cut almost in half. No stories about how they coped.

Curiously, I think my local paper is doing a fairly good job of reporting the human damage. Yesterday's feature: interviews with laid off employees of a TGIF whose job had disappeared literally overnight when the franchise restaurant just closed its door with no notice or severance. Today they are headlining the San Francisco City government telling tenants that, even if their landlord is foreclosed, they are NOT subject to immediate eviction.

Maybe this is because we have to worry that one morning we'll wake up and the San Francisco Chronicle will have gone the way of the TGIF.

Every time I hear of yet more layoffs, I wonder about the effect it has on the people who are let go and their families. At times, when in bed warm and comfortable, I wonder who is out there without the luxury of even owning their bed. My husband worries that the animal shelters will become more crowded due to the cost of owning a pet. So on and on it will continue to spiral for who knows how long. Although my low-paying job is nothing to shout about, I feel fortunate to still be working. Our biggest expense that was not counted on was caring for an adult child, and I’m certain we’re not alone. I can’t even imagine what others might be facing. Maybe it’s so overwhelming to consider, we’d rather focus on whether Caroline Kennedy is more than just name recognition.

Don't you think that how you cope with the present economic situation depends to some extent on where you are in life's journey? If I were 60, 5 years from Medicare with a possible 40 years ahead to plan for,(my mother lived to 100)and little possibility of a return to the workforce, the plan would require a lot more finesse than it does where I am now. At 77 I have Medicare, I have Social Security (though not much), and a maximum of 23 years of life left (probably). My husband and I have no pensions. We depend on savings, a small IRA, a small inheritance. So far we have lived modestly on interest and dividends. Although we were conservatively invested we lost about one third in the downturn. So we have the alternative of less pleasure in our old age (okay, elder years) or (shudder) spend capital. My mother used to worry about spending capital when she was 95. When I told her she could spend it until she was 120 and still have some left it made her really mad. This is a discussion I have with my husband, who hates the idea of "spending beyond our income." But, as a financial advisor I once consulted says, "The trick is to be dead and broke on the same day." I wouldn't go that far, but I don't want to give up a trip to New Zealand to see a beloved cousin who just celebrated her 81st birthday.

Ronni, I, too, have been looking for exactly those stories--where do you go when you lose your house, lose your job, lose your health?

I hate it that the whole corporate media story of "how-things-are" is so fake. We're all allegedly in the "richest" country in the world with the "best" medical care and the "most" opportunity, so that when we are stripped (and quite systematically, too, it seems) of riches, health care, and opportunity, we get to feel like individual losers and total failures beyond the pale of notice, one at a time.

I keep finding great stories about this very thing but they come up at random, and that's a shame.

Example: A short news clip I saw somewhere followed a crew of "trash out" guys as they cleaned out a foreclosed house in California. The people were already gone, so this crew's job is to render the house utterly anonymous and ready for resale by carting to a dumpster everything the former homeowners abandoned. This included sad little knick-knacks and the like (some still with price tags on) but the real heartbreaker was that they left stacks of family photos.

As we all know, family pictures are almost the last and most precious remains of identity. Every disaster victim knows that you can always get another TV or pair of jeans, but you can't get another wedding picture of Grandma. The fact that these were left tells of dignity so demolished and a future so bleak as to chill anyone's blood.

You're not gonna see that story in the Wall Street Journal.

Hi Ronni,

Glad you are thinking out loud on this one. My focus is on Boomers and 50 plusser career issues...and they are mighty big issues right now.

This is what I'm hearing. People losing jobs in their 50's with a 15 or 20 year history in the same company. Few savings, not much to fall back on. No jobs on the horizon.

Some people have gone from losing their homes to renting rooms in other people's homes if they can afford it, and staying with relatives if they are lucky enough to have them. At the grocery stores, people are walking in with budgets and taking items out of the carts as they are paying. More and more animals are being abandonned because their owners cannot afford to care for them. School funding (in California) has been cut and the PTA cannot raise enough funds from the parents to sustain the supplementary programs that they've funded for years.

I recently met a man who lived in a beautiful home, lost his job of 20 years, was renting all the rooms in his house to make ends meet and was selling off his prized possesions to have cash for daily living. I can go on and on. We are at the top of downward spiral and while ingenuity and inventiveness will help many rally, people are going to have to help people to make it out of this one.

Belts tighten......here the homeless are women and children. The homeless are teens and kids......without parents, at Father Joe's home for teens.

The illegals that used to line every Home Depot are heading home. I gave $15 dollar gifts instead of spending hundreds to the grankdkids. And too, I was cruel, if a grandchild hadn't said thank you for last year's Christmas gift, I saved money by not remembering them this Christmas.

My husband's company laid off most employees here in the US and in Germany. Most of those employees got jobs at body shops, towing shops, car dealers.

I really worry.

Several commenters have mentioned that people are having to give up their pets as a result of this economic crisis. I volunteer at an animal shelter and am increasingly seeing people with tears streaming down their faces surrendering their beloved pets because they can no longer afford to feed and provide health care for them, or because they have lost their homes and can't keep pets in their new accommodations.

Particularly heart-breaking is the increased number of elders who are being forced to surrender their pets, their beloved companions. Usually this is extra sad for the pet because not only is it losing it's beloved owner, but most that are surrendered by elders are not young, which greatly reduces their chances of being adopted.

More than once these sad circumstances have caused me to consider giving up volunteering because of the emotional toll that it extracts. But, I continue since I feel that these poor animals need people to love them and make their stay at the shelter a little easier.

I dread thinking about the future if the economic crisis gets worse. The animal shelters are already filled to capacity and under great strain. We are also getting more and more large animals (horses, goats, sheep, etc.) because they are extremely costly to keep. Just a few weeks ago we added about two acres of paddocks to accommodate the increased number of horses we're getting.

Unfortunately, the plight of domestic animals,as well as people, is overlooked by the media. They're too concerned about the latest escapades of Britney Spears or some other spoiled brats in the entertainment and sports industries.

Ronni, maybe the two-thirds of poll respondents who said they were worried about maintaining their lifestyle were just like so many of us, and meant they were worried about keeping the house they live in and maintaining it, heating the house and eating decent meals. I was horrified by the prices this afternoon at the grocery store when I went to buy some meat. We have to "settle" a lot.
We have always been frugal and have no debt, but inflation is making things harder. Notice that when the government announces inflation figures, it always leaves out the cost of food and fuel. Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to consider them, either?
I'm in my 70s and working is no longer a possibility, but feel so badly for the half-million a week who've been losing their jobs. What are they going to do, especially if they are middle-aged or older? Maybe they'll get the blame when the bank forecloses on their homes!
The talking heads on TV seem to give plenty of advice on how to cope, but much of it is silly. People are told to retrain but that may not help you if there fewer and fewer jobs available.
Our own Social Security raise will go toward much higher premiums for medigap insurance and the Part D drug insurance. In other words, it's being paid out to the insurance companies and pharmaceutical industry.
Our newspapers have been doing some reporting on how things really are, but newspapers can't do as much as they used to, because they are laying off staff, too.

I also wonder what happens to people after they are laid off, fired, lose their homes, etc. And I read everything I can find on this topic.

Anxiety is all around us in Canada too, as we ponder our economic future. I wonder about increased violence, more people seeing therapists.

A big division between haves and have nots. What bugs me is no real punishment for those who got us into this situation in the first place.

Also, ever time I read the Gazette, I see full page ads for cars. Nobody I know is buying a new car, yet the papers and tv keeps on shilling for big cars, while on the other hand we are advised to hold back and not spend.

Buy a new car, but be frugal. Does not make sense.

I won't be buying a new car until the makers do something right and give us small, economical, good quality rides.

I've been paying a friend's car loan who lives in L.A. and has been laid off for over a year. He's mostly living off his 401K, which was supposed to be for his retirement.

Many, many similar stories out there. People are hurting.

We had an Obama campaign get together to talk about our issues going forward, mostly health care, civil rights, and energy oriented. We donated canned food to the food bank and toys to Toys for Tots, which is really hurting this year. It's not much, but we do what we can to help.

Keep close to your friends, help those you can. Don't be afraid to ask if you need help. We all will get through it together.

I worry when we say "the media," which I see here over and over. Not all media is ignoring this story. The good local newspapers all over the country are covering the individual struggles in these bleak financial times with integrity, offering good, helpful, practical information in where to go and how to cope, from offering energy saving techniques, to how to get a safe loan. So let's not be so bleak as to paint media as with the same brush. We cannot lump Fox News and a good newspaper in the same category. Look to your local papers and their websites.

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