DREAMS IN CRISIS
In 2006, several years before recession ravaged America's working class and drove so many of Marcia's customers away, a Harvard University economist named Benjamin Friedman addressed the American Economic Association. His topic, based on a book he had just published, was "Moral Consequences of Economic Growth." Friedman laid out a simple explanation for why people, faced with similar economic circumstances, react so differently.
Vast evidence, Friedman said, suggests that people judge their standard of living not in absolute terms, but in comparative ones--specifically, they compare how their families lived in the past and how the people around them live. So no matter how rich a country may be, he said, it will never be immune to "seeing its basic values at risk whenever the majority of its citizens lose their sense of forward progress." Two years before the height of the financial crisis, Friedman worried aloud about how earnings had failed to keep pace with inflation in recent years. "If we continue along our current trajectory," he said, "many of the pathologies that we have seen in the past, in periods of economic stagnation"--for instance, rising anger directed at immigrants and minorities--"will once again emerge."
In Detroit, Dave Miller and his friends wrap their anger in a code word: "subsidation." It's a 50-cent synonym that rests on the tongues of Macomb County's white working class like sour milk. They don't use the "N" word. For a five-figure salary and overtime, Dave protects lives and property in a black neighborhood, but he will talk your ear off about "welfare cheats" and the essential unfairness of affirmative action. "It's a generational apathy," he says, "and they keep getting more and more [apathetic] because they don't have to work."
Dave and his family know whom to blame for their economic plight. They blame white neighbors who borrowed to buy big houses they couldn't afford and then walked away when the payments grew too expensive. They blame a government "welfare state" that punishes workers like Dave and rewards minorities. Dave's in-laws blame Dave's generation for spending too little time with their kids and too much money on Christmas presents. Some family members even blame themselves: Dave's sister-in-law, Lauri Angeleri, recoils in shame at signing her children up for state health benefits when her husband lost his job. "When I filled out that form, I felt this big," Lauri says, holding her thumb and finger an inch apart. "I never thought I would have to take a handout. It was humiliating."
Dave's mother-in-law, Carol Angeleri, typifies the family's worry about the future. "Our grandchildren," she says, "are going to have a terrible time."
That's the sense of stagnation that white working-class families across the country feel in the wake of the Great Recession, says Erin Currier, project director for Pew's Economic Mobility Project. Latino immigrants have, in the past half-century, seen their families race from poor villages toward the middle class.
African-Americans have won major gains in civil rights. Those groups can say, "I'm in a better place than my parents were," Currier says. "Their optimism is reflective of major social and economic changes that maybe other people"--white people--"take for granted."
That's certainly how Marcia Soto Rochel feels. Every morning, she, her sisters, and a niece gather in the kitchen of one of Marcia's sisters. They drink hot water with herbal supplements and protein shakes, watching Mexican television and talking through the world's problems. Marcia will tell you she doesn't trust banks or the government, and she says she worries that Americans don't manufacture anything anymore. But she never points fingers. Too many Americans are angry, she says. Too many live in fear of losing their good life. "When you are afraid, I can do with you what I want," Marcia says. "And I am not afraid."
Broadly speaking, polls show that working-class Latinos and blacks are far less likely than whites to blame their economic struggles on the government--and more likely to support government intervention to bolster the economy. In the Allstate/NJ Heartland Monitor poll, pluralities of blacks and Latinos said that government "must play an active role in regulating the marketplace and ensuring the economy benefits people like me." A plurality of whites, on the other hand, agreed with the statement, "Government is not the solution to our economic problems; government is the problem."
That divide helps explain the country's increased political polarization. It also illuminates a hurdle for President Obama's reelection campaign. Pessimistic whites are deserting a president who explicitly views government as an economic tool, not a hindrance. To replace lost white voters in his electoral coalition, Obama likely needs to increase his appeal to minorities--particularly Latinos--whom many whites see as undeserving recipients of government support.
Tierra Stewart says she trusts government institutions to take care of her when she needs it. (Medicaid, after all, insures her son.) But she declined to go on welfare after Quay was born, to the relief of her Aunt Cynthia, who warns her social-work clients that they'll have to depend on society for their entire lives. "Never once did Tierra get that lay-about syndrome or get that typical idea that you get pregnant, you get on welfare, you get your own place, and let the system support you," Cynthia says. "Tierra still talks about going to school."
Although Tierra manages to save a few hundred dollars a month, any shift in her monthly finances--a broken car, a higher-than-expected electric bill--can throw her off. The other looming threat is another pregnancy: Tierra's boyfriend wants a kid. Aunt Cynthia has begged her not to have another until she settles down and marries.
It wouldn't be the end of the world, of course, but a child now could temporarily derail Tierra's nursing ambitions. It took her several months to scrounge up the money just to get her nursing-assistant certificate. "People don't just have $700 lying around," she says, and college costs much more. But she is confident that her dreams will come true eventually.
Over dinner at a Red Lobster near her house, Tierra spends about 15 minutes trying to figure out the cause of the high electric bills--a bit of an obsession since $300 is nearly one-fifth of her gross take-home pay for a month. Did she leave the lights on during the day? Did Quay accidentally sleep with the TV on? What about the air conditioning--did she crank it up too high? What if the utility misread the electric meter--is she paying for the electricity of the surrounding homes, also owned by her landlord?
She needs to call the landlord. Another item for her To Do list, which she races to clear between working two jobs and caring for Quay. Rather than call Aunt Cynthia, Tierra is determined to solve this by herself. She'll make it happen. In due time.
Boxes and books clutter the second-floor apartment on West Cermak Road in Pilsen. They pile up on furniture and across the dark, polished wood floor. Ambar's college friends sold their used books at the ends of semesters, but she wouldn't dream of letting hers go. So here they are. Marcia apologizes. They are still just moving in.
It has barely been a month since the family packed up the house on South Hoyne Avenue, since Ambar cleaned out 25 years of clutter from her closets, including a duffel bag stuffed with Barbie dolls. They moved a few blocks away--Ambar, a brother, and her mother--to an apartment above Marcia's shop. The three bedrooms are big enough for beds, dressers, and not much else. The family's grill fits on the back deck. From there, they can see the cathedral, but not the familiar red-and-white awnings.
Customers didn't return to Marcia's salon after the remodeling. In the first half of 2009, she couldn't understand what had gone wrong. She began calling clients who had vanished. Sorry, they told her. I lost my job. My husband was laid off. We left town to look for work. I can't afford to get my hair done anymore.
Marcia's second mortgage was drowning her, so she put the house on the market. Ambar pleaded with her: Let me take over the payments; I can afford it. No, her mother said. You're going to law school. If you take this on, you'll never leave. I won't allow it.
It remains a sore subject. Marcia and Ambar argue gently about it on a Friday afternoon, over a long lunch of chicken mole, Spanish rice, and warm tortillas, cooked by Marcia's sister Paula. "Education is more important than one house," Marcia tells her daughter. "With education, you can buy many houses."
Ambar sets her jaw. "It's my home," she says. "It's my safe haven. I feel comfortable [in the apartment], but that's definitely the place I thought I was going to be for a long time. I thought I would walk out of there married. I thought I would visit it with my children. I always saw it in my future."
Marcia has moved on from the house. She's getting ready to leave the shop behind, too. There are too many mornings when only one or two customers walk through the door. She's down from four employees to one. She'd like to open a Mexican restaurant, a simple one with quick service, in the suburbs, where people have more jobs and more money to spend.
Shortly before moving out of the house, Ambar aced the LSAT. She landed a job as an administrative assistant at an immigration law firm in downtown Chicago. She's applying to Georgetown, American, and George Washington University law schools. The thought of studying in Washington excites her. When she's done, she wants to move back to the neighborhood and start her own firm. Even before Ambar took the LSAT, her nieces, nephews, and cousins were calling her a lawyer, fired by her ambitions to dream for themselves.
In the apartment, lunch ambles to an end around 4 p.m. Ambar mops up her mole and helps her mother wash dishes. Paula says something in Spanish, and Ambar translates: "She says, 'You came to interview the richest ladies on Cermak Road.'
THE WAKE-UP CALL
It's 6:59 a.m. on Friday, and Dave Miller is leaving the station when the alarm rings. A store is on fire at 7 Mile Road and Gratiot. "Damn," he says to himself. He was headed to the cottage, finally, but here's another obstacle. Another damn fire.
If upward mobility is the American Dream, the next few years will be a measure of the resilience of that ideal. Dave has one foot in the past (firefighter, union member, government pension) with his eyes fixed on a brighter future (striving small business owner). He's a man with 21st-century ambitions holding down a dangerous and dirty 20th-century job. Can he pull it off? He thinks so, but for the first time in a few generations of Millers and Angeleris, the answer isn't a slam dunk.
Dave walks back toward the station and two more hours of overtime work. Then he spots his relief walking in the door. "I'm outta here," Dave says with a wave. Aiming his car toward the cottage, Dave turns around to see smoke rising from a burning building. "Not my problem," he says.
Ambar wakes up at 5:45 a.m. on Monday. She dresses in her new black sweater, pants, and heels from Marshalls. She snags a ride with an aunt to a tall office building in the shadow of what she, like most Chicago natives, still calls the Sears Tower.
Her first paycheck will arrive a month later. Half will help pay the bills (hers and her mom's). The other half, she'll save for law school. And maybe, just maybe, the brick house on South Hoyne.
After dinner at Red Lobster around 8 p.m., Tierra rolls through Spartanburg on a busy thoroughfare lined with gas stations and fast-food restaurants; few other cars are on the road.
The horizon holds a thin sliver of pink. It's cool enough to keep the windows rolled down--the type of early-evening glow that makes any city look dreamy. She heads back to her house on Briarcliff Road. Quay jumps out of the car, eager to play a few rounds of video games. Aunt Cynthia calls to check in.
Tierra tries to decide if she'll wear cotton scrubs to work tomorrow, just like a real nurse would.
Dave turns onto a gravel road and feels his pulse slow. He slips quietly into the cottage--Christine and the kids are sleeping--and pulls on his swimsuit. He walks out the front door and grabs a white bar of Ivory soap that he keeps near the lake. He is a practical man: Ivory soap floats.
Dave could look to his right and see Detroit on the western horizon, but he doesn't. He looks ahead--and plunges into the cold, dark water that washes the sweat and soot from his skin.
This article appeared in the Saturday, October 8, 2011 edition of National Journal.