Why Whites Are More Pessimistic About Their Future Than Minorities

Why is optimism plummeting among working-class whites but holding steady for minorities? And what does this great divergence in hopefulness mean for the 2012 presidential election?

Optimism is plummeting among working-class whites, but it is holding steady for minorities. What does this great divergence in hopefulness mean for the 2012 presidential election?

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They dream in water, cotton, and brick. One of them is losing hope.

Not Tierra, who is black, and whose nursing ambitions could be delayed by another brutal electric bill. Not Ambar, a Latina and an aspiring lawyer who just lost the only home she ever knew.

Dave. Who is white, and who thought, finally, he'd made it. Who broke his back for a dream--a pension, a getaway cottage, security--that seems to be wavering in the Lake Erie haze.

He grew up in Detroit, where the upward mobility of the American middle class could be seen every Friday afternoon. Factory workers, driving cars they'd built, crowded I-75, heading north to their cottages. That was the deal that Dave Miller signed up for when he dropped out of Wayne State University and followed his dad into the firefighting ranks. The deal was supposed to include decent wages, health insurance, tuition, retirement, mortgages, and maybe, with overtime pay, a boat and a house on the lake--a physical reminder that hard work still pays like it always did.

"Here's the ticket! Twenty-five years, a pension, health care, and nine working days a month--that's how they sold it," Dave says. Nobody mentioned going 10 years without a raise; or starting a construction company on the side to make ends meet; or wondering if he shouldn't just sell the little lake cottage that his hard work bought, because he struggles just to make it up there.

Nobody said that one day Dave, 41,  would sit around a table with five other white firefighters and admit, to nods of approval, that his hope for his kids' future "takes a hit when shit goes sour." It is 5 p.m. on a Thursday. He was supposed to escape to the lake 36 hours ago. He feels like he is running out of time.

It is early in the evening on a Monday in South Carolina when Tierra Stewart, 22, leaves the maroon tents where her extended family has passed the day barbecuing and catching up. She loads her 3-year-old boy into her aunt's Jeep, damp blades of grass clinging to his white high-tops. Her cousin points the car down the highway away from their small hometown and back to the little house that Tierra shares with her son, Quay.

There is a $300 electric bill waiting for her there, the second one in a row. Both have been surprises, far more than she expected when she moved into the house this summer. To pay one electric bill--just that bill--Tierra will work eight straight days in two jobs, caring for senior citizens and disabled people. She knows that one more unexpectedly large bill, or one more problem with the car that has already broken down once this year, would devastate her fragile finances. But still, she dreams.

Tierra dreams of becoming a nurse; of wearing cotton hospital scrubs; of traveling outside of South Carolina. She wants to own a house and a car. She wants to earn at least $15 an hour--an annual salary of about $31,000. "I've never made more than $13 an hour," she says. "Thirty thousand would be good for me." She has grand plans for the sleepy boy in the backseat. "He will go off to college," she says. "I don't want him to be here pining on any women, his mom neither. I want him to be somebody. I want him to be successful."

It is mid-morning on a Thursday on the lower west side of Chicago, and the late summer air blows in a chill. Ambar Gonzalez pulls a gray hooded sweatshirt over her sweater. She navigates her neighborhood from the passenger side of a rental car. She is 25, and she has never lived anywhere but this neighborhood. There is my grammar school, she says. There is the school where my friends went. There is the coal plant; I think it gave me my asthma. There is my church. They just washed the bricks. It's even more gorgeous inside. Turn here.

Suddenly the voice that crackled with possibilities during breakfast--a job downtown! law school in Washington, D.C.!--deadens. She is back on a block that she crosses only if she's riding with friends and they forget where they are. There it is on the corner: weather-beaten yellow brick, with red-and-white awnings. It's the home she grew up in, the one that the economy made it impossible for her family to keep. "Turn," she says.

The house appears again, this time on the left. Freckles tighten around her light brown eyes. Do you ever think about buying it back? "Yes," she says, instantly. "Even if I don't live there, I want it to be my house." It gives her direction: She will leave, she will learn, she will win the job that will bring her back to claim the cradle of her middle-class dreams.


Like Dave, Tierra, and Ambar, others in America's working class still dream of a better life and the totems--the cottage, the uniform, the house--that represent it, even in the grips of an economy that has snuffed so many hopes. The dreams vary with the color of the dreamers' skin, though not in the way you'd expect.

The Great Recession and the weak recovery have soaked working-class Americans across racial and generational lines. But the groups who suffered most, amazingly, are the ones who remain most hopeful that life will improve for them and for their children. Optimism is plummeting among working-class whites but holding steady for minorities, a divergence that risks inflaming racial tensions. It could also sway the 2012 presidential election.


Census figures show that all American workers slid backward in the past few years. Median income fell by 6.4 percent between 2007 and 2010, to the lowest level in 13 years (adjusted for inflation). African-American incomes fell by more than 10 percent, and Latino incomes fell 7.2 percent. White incomes dropped less, by 5.4 percent. In 2010, income for blacks and Latinos remained 40 and 30 percent lower, respectively, than the median income for whites. Hispanics lost two-thirds of their household wealth between 2005 and 2009, and blacks lost more than half, according to the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends project. Whites lost less than a fifth of theirs.

Yet polls suggest that far more minorities than whites believe they are still advancing toward their economic dreams. Latinos and blacks remain more than twice as likely to say that today's children will have more opportunity than they did, according to an Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll conducted this summer. Minorities are also far more likely than whites to say that their own economic opportunity exceeds their parents'.

This "optimism gap"--the reason that Tierra and Ambar see the bright side while Dave loses faith, in the face of similar adversity--is a function of economic direction, not circumstance, according to polls and economic research. Minorities are steadily pushing their way into the middle class, which was once the province of whites. In 1979, whites constituted more than 80 percent of the earners whose income fell between the 30th and 70th percentiles, according to an analysis of Labor Department data by the liberal Economic Policy Institute. By 2010, whites had fallen below 68 percent of that middle-income group. Over the same period, the black share grew from 10 percent to 12 percent; the Latino share nearly tripled, from 5.4 percent to 14.4 percent.

The shift was most pronounced over the past decade, when 1.7 million Latinos joined the middle class and 1.5 million whites fell out.

A poll this spring by the Pew Economic Mobility Project underscored how minorities and whites see their divergent economic trajectories. Whites earning between $25,000 and $75,000 per year were more than twice as likely as blacks in the same income range--and nearly twice as likely as Latinos--to say they had already achieved the American Dream. Some three in five working-class blacks and Latinos say they haven't yet reached that dream but that they expect to in their lifetimes. Just over one in three whites say the same. A majority of Latinos and a plurality of African-Americans say they expect to be making enough money 10 years from now to live the lifestyle they desire. A majority of whites say they don't expect to be there.

Working-class whites, in other words, are already more prosperous and secure than working-class minorities, but they're less optimistic because they don't believe they're climbing anymore--they're simply trying to hold on to what they've got. Whites today seem to think that the middle-class security their parents and grandparents achieved may be crumbling beneath them. Minorities seem ready to accept the idea that their ascent, while steeper at the moment, will nevertheless deliver them to the middle class someday.

The stories of three families--one white, one black, one Latino--help to explain why.


Christine Angeleri's great-grandfather, Salvatore Angeleri, emigrated in the 1920s from Italy to Detroit, where he set up a wholesale produce business. The working class in his newly adopted country was white and poorly educated. It stayed that way for generations, as Angeleri's son took over the family business and his grandson, David Angeleri, passed on a produce career for a more secure position working dispatch for the Detroit Fire Department. There was no lake cottage for David's daughter Christine to grow up visiting.

Christine married Dave Miller, a blond,  baby-faced, second-generation firefighter who ran a construction business on the side. Together for 11 years, they work three jobs and finally bought the ultimate middle-class trophy: Butter-yellow with white trim, the Millers' cottage is crammed on a narrow lot between a dirt road and Lake Erie. A jet ski rests behind it on a metal boat lift in hip-deep, choppy water. Far across the green-blue lake, Cleveland looms faintly on the horizon.

A year or so ago, Dave and some friends tore off the cottage's roof and added a second floor, doubling its size to 1,400 square feet, consuming several cases of beer in the process. "Dave lives to come here," Christine Miller says, lounging in a lawn chair overlooking the beach. "This is his American Dream."

Yesterday, Christine had called Dave on her way up to the cottage. He told her he hoped to join her that night. But he had a home-repair job to finish--the housing bust all but eradicated new-home construction in Detroit, so Dave handles less-lucrative repair and remodels now--and he was already sounding pessimistic that he'd make it on time, if at all.

Waiting for Dave, Christine and her sister-in-law sit with their feet atop the break wall, watching from the front yard of the cottage as their children play in the waves. "You've got to hope it will get better for your kids," Christine says. "If not, what do you have?" The children will need more education that she got, but college tuition is getting out of reach. "It's a vicious cycle."

Those attitudes typify the working-class white perspective across the country. A recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll found that whites without college degrees are just as likely to believe they have fewer opportunities than their parents did as they are to believe they have more. Only a quarter of whites believe that their children will have more chances to get ahead than they do.

Dave Miller wrestles with pessimism, too. "I'm going to work my ass off to see [my children] have better opportunities than us," he says over breakfast at a Detroit-area diner. He just finished a 24-hour shift at the station and needs to wrap up that home repair. The cottage will have to wait.


For blacks in South Carolina, the road into the working class ran from fields to cities and factories. Tierra Stewart's grandmother, Betty Stewart, picked cotton in Union County when soybeans, peach trees, and apple orchards also dotted the landscape there. Agriculture eventually yielded to the booming textile industry, and then to factories where Tierra's aunts and uncle worked eight-hour shifts baking frozen dinners and building luxury cars.

Nationally, about two-thirds of blacks believe they enjoy greater economic opportunity than their parents did at the same age, double the percentage for whites, according to the Heartland Monitor poll. Only one in eight say they have less opportunity. Nearly three in five believe that their children will find even more chances to get ahead than they have.

It's easy to see why Tierra believes she'll do better than her parents. Her mother shuttled between jobs, working for an Adidas plant or for the payroll department of a health care company. Tierra never remembers her father holding down steady work apart from the occasional construction job. Later, he landed in jail for fatally shooting his girlfriend in a domestic dispute.

Tierra's best economic role model today is her Aunt Cynthia, her closest relative to go to college. Cynthia and her husband of 23 years live in a planned community with a well-manicured lawn and a spotlessly clean truck in the driveway. Cynthia is a social worker who deals with troubled youth. She offered her car when Tierra's broke down, and she often bails her niece out when something goes wrong. Like Cynthia, most of Tierra's aunts and uncles own their homes. They buy new cars. Occasionally, they take vacations (a few of them recently returned from a wedding in Las Vegas). They've worked for the same factories or companies for 10, 13, 17, or 30 years, jobs with health insurance.

The family members in Tierra's generation enjoy less security, but they dream bigger. Tierra has round cheeks and a wide smile, and she looks young enough to be in high school. Her voice is quiet and low. At work, she wears gold hoop earrings and pulls her hair into a tiny bun; at home, she prefers jeans and fitted T-shirts, a sharp contrast to how she dresses Quay--in colorful, brand-name polo shirts, ironed shorts, and white socks.

After high school, Tierra made $8.90 per hour at the Wal-Mart bakery. But then she earned a certificate as a nursing assistant from Spartanburg Community College in May 2009 and quickly found work in the booming medical field. Now she works at homes for senior citizens and disabled people, making $10.55. "Grandma Betty was picking cotton in the fields when she was my age," she says. "My life is better."

Tierra and her 24-year-old brother, Antwan Booker, both harbor dreams of returning to college, securing middle-class--even corporate--jobs, and leaving South Carolina, if not for work then at least for vacation. Tierra wants to become a hospital nurse, a job that she's heard pays as much as $28 per hour. After three years of job searching, Antwan now makes $17 an hour at a paper plant, but he hopes, someday, to land an accounting position at a big bank in Charlotte, N.C., where he might earn enough to buy season tickets for the Panthers or the Bobcats.

Their aspirations embody the relentless optimism of black Americans. Typically, the younger you are, the more hopeful you are about the future. A Pew Mobility Project analysis this spring found that, holding all other factors constant, being black was "equivalent to knocking 20 years off one's age in terms of hopefulness."

Tierra and Quay keep their dreams in a one-story pale-blue cottage in a working-class, mostly black neighborhood across from a church. They moved in this June. It's the first house Tierra has ever rented on her own.

In financial terms, it's a house of cards.

Ambar Gonzalez took her first steps in the brick house with the brightly striped awnings and the cookout-size back yard. It's just down the street from the big Catholic cathedral in a neighborhood built by Germans, who gave way to Italians and Poles, and eventually Mexicans.

Ambar's mother, Marcia Soto Rochel, moved to this neighborhood, Pilsen, as a young bride from the Mexican state of Durango. As a child, she lived in a village so small that one store sold everything. She and her siblings studied at a boarding school in a larger town nearby. It was a simple life but a comfortable one, Marcia says, and she did not want to leave it, even when she agreed to marry a young Mexican-American who intended to take her back to Chicago.

She cried when she walked down the aisle on her wedding day. Thinking that she grieved for her recently deceased mother, the congregation cried with her. Marcia was grieving, yes--for her independence. Her fears foreshadowed how quickly the marriage would end: A few years later, she left her husband.

Marcia lived for a hot Chicago summer in the bed of a canopy-covered pickup truck, with her two toddler sons and the much-younger sister she was raising in her mother's absence. She waited tables and enrolled in beauty school. She drove south to leave the children with a relative, then north to work, then south to pick them up afterward. She learned to cut and style hair. She opened her own shop. She saved money scrupulously, remarried, bore a daughter, and moved into the house on South Hoyne Avenue just before Ambar's first birthday.

Ambar has the height and cheekbones of a beauty-pageant winner, which she is. She giggles in small bursts and speaks in a low melody that slides seamlessly between English and Spanish. She grew up surrounded by drugs and violence, but Marcia wanted her daughter to escape all that. When Ambar was in fifth grade, she often forgot to bring her homework from school--so Marcia made her carry the entire contents of her desk back and forth every day.

Mother sent daughter to a private school in the suburbs, a bus and a train and another bus ride away. "She was always there, pushing me, telling me I could do whatever I wanted," Ambar says over breakfast at Nuevo Léon Restaurant, a Pilsen eatery famous for its flour tortillas. "She always told me that I had to go to college, but I could be whatever I wanted to be."

That optimism girds Latinos in America. Nearly three in five surveyed by the Heartland Monitor poll said they believe that their children will have more opportunity to get ahead than they did. A similar number said they have more opportunity today than their parents did at the same age.

Ambar seized the opportunities her mother created for her. She earned a political science degree from DePaul University in 2009 and decided to become a lawyer. She prepped for the LSAT exam and worked at a nonprofit agency helping immigrants. She lived with her mom in the three-bedroom house that had become a hub for extended family members rolling in and out of Chicago.

Almost every weekend, everyone in the family barbecued together in the backyard on South Hoyne. Marcia's salon was just around the corner, and in 2008, she took out a second mortgage on the house to remodel both buildings. She turned the basement into an apartment of sorts, complete with a kitchen, for guests. In the shop, she laid gleaming new wood floors and painted the walls bright colors, in hopes of attracting back the customers who suddenly weren't coming around nearly as often.


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.'


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.