We haven't hit bottom yet.....
By BOB HERBERT
Published: September 24, 2010
Marcus Vogt is 20 years old and homeless. Or, as he puts it, “I’m going through a couch-surfing phase.”
Mr. Vogt is a Wal-Mart employee but he was injured in a car accident and was unable to work for a couple of months. With no income and no health insurance, he quickly found himself unable to pay the rent. Even meals were hard to come by.
(His situation is quite a statement about real life in the United States in the 21st century. On the same day that I spoke with Mr. Vogt, Forbes magazine came out with its list of the 400 most outrageously rich Americans.)
I met Mr. Vogt at Master’s Manna, a food pantry and soup kitchen here that also offers a variety of other services to individuals and families that have fallen on hard times. He told me that his cellphone service has been cut off and he has more than $3,000 in medical bills outstanding. But he was cheerful and happy to report that he’s back at work, although it will take at least a few more paychecks before he’ll have enough money to rent a room.
Other folks who make their way to Master’s Manna are not so upbeat. The Great Recession has long since ended, according to the data zealots in their windowless rooms. But it is still very real to the millions of men and women who wake up each morning to the grim reality of empty pockets and empty cupboards.
Wallingford is nobody’s definition of a depressed community. It’s a middle-class town on the Quinnipiac River. But the number of people seeking help at Master’s Manna is rising, not falling. And when I asked Cheryl Bedore, who runs the program, if she was seeing more clients from the middle class, she said: “Oh, absolutely. We have people who were donors in the past coming to our doors now in search of help.”
The political upheaval going on in the United States right now is being driven by the economic upheaval. It’s sometimes hard to see this clearly amid the craziness and ugliness stirred up by the professional exploiters. But the essential issue is still the economy — the rising tide of poor people and the decline of the middle class. The true extent of the pain has not been widely chronicled.
“The minute you open the doors, it’s like a wave of desperation that’s hitting you,” said Ms. Bedore. “People are depressed, despondent. They’re on the edge, especially those who have never had to ask for help before.”
In recent weeks, a few homeless people with cars have been showing up at Master’s Manna. Ms. Bedore has gotten permission from the local police department for them to park behind her building and sleep in their cars overnight. “We’ve been recognized as a safe haven,” she said.
In two of the cars, she said, were families with children.
It’s not just joblessness that’s driving people to the brink, although that’s a big factor. It’s underemployment, as well. “For many of our families,” said Ms. Bedore, “the 40-hour workweek is over, a thing of the past. They may still have a job, but they’re trying to survive on reduced hours — with no benefits. Some are on forced furloughs.
“Once you start losing the income and you’ve run through your savings, then your car is up for repossession, or you’re looking at foreclosure or eviction. We’re a food pantry, but hunger is only the tip of the iceberg. Life becomes a constant juggling act when the money starts running out. Are you going to pay for your medication? Or are you going to put gas in the car so you can go to work?
“Kids are going back to school now, so they need clothes and school supplies. Where is the money for that to come from? The people we’re seeing never expected things to turn out like this — not at this stage of their lives. Not in the United States. The middle class is quickly slipping into a lower class.”
Similar stories — and worse — are unfolding throughout the country. There are more people in poverty now — 43.6 million — than at any time since the government began keeping accurate records. Nearly 15 million Americans are out of work and home foreclosures are expected to surpass one million this year. The Times had a chilling front-page article this week about the increasing fear among jobless workers over 50 that they will never be employed again.
The politicians seem unable to grasp the immensity of the problem, which is why the policy solutions are so woefully inadequate. During my conversations with Ms. Bedore, she dismissed the very thought that the recession might be over. “Whoever said that was sadly mistaken,” she said. “We haven’t even bottomed-out yet.”