As I See It: Daniel, Part One
August 10, 2009 Victor Rozek
Unless you’re a statistician or a baseball fan, statistics are boring. The numbers generated by the seizing economy and the ill-chosen efforts to resuscitate it, are sterile, too big to grasp, and void of back story. For the purpose of understanding, statistics are to experience what birth certificates are to giving birth. In other words, stripped of all consequence, there can be no understanding. William Greider, in his groundbreaking book Secrets of the Temple, an in-depth exploration of the workings of the Federal Reserve, acknowledged that each time the Board of Governors voted to increase interest rates, they understood that their decision would spike suicide rates. Such real-life consequences of economic policy, however, are seldom reported.
Likewise, the effects of mass layoffs (a single company firing 50 or more people) are seldom the stuff of headline news. But they can be especially pernicious for small communities with few if any employers large enough to take up the slack. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that “employers took 2,763 mass layoff actions in June that resulted in the separation of 279,231 workers.” (“Separation” being a boring word for a life-changing experience.) But each worker has a story. Some find work and move on. Some descend into poverty and addiction. For many, their homes, families, and futures are put in jeopardy. And some, like Daniel, lose them all.
It was clear and cold the first morning that Daniel stood in line with the other disposable men. Most huddled in greasy jackets, caps pulled tight over their ears, shuffling their feet for warmth, waiting for the doors to open. Others looked shocked, as if they had just landed on the Moon and wondered how the hell they got there. When at last the doors opened, the line inched forward like a centipede in pain, each pair of legs carrying the private burden of personal dissolution.
The Mission, like other organizations offering public assistance, was straining to operate beyond budget and capacity. The 200 breakfasts it was equipped to serve morphed into 250, then 300, then 325, and more men arrived each day. Like Daniel, their newer clothing and nervous discomfort betrayed their recently acquired superfluousness. Their shame said they didn’t belong here; their need said they did.
A year ago, things had been different for Daniel. He had a home, a wife, and two kids under the age of 10. There was also a car and a minivan, three computers, four credit cards, and the thing that kept them all afloat–a job. Daniel had customized and maintained a distribution system for an auto parts supplier. He had survived two rounds of layoffs, but like the company’s other remaining employees, could not survive the plant closure.
He received a month’s pay and three month’s health insurance as parting gifts, but since his wife stayed home with the kids, they lived paycheck to paycheck, and it didn’t take long before they began tapping their meager savings. At first Daniel looked for work, but the closure had sent hundreds of desperate people looking for employment. The market was saturated and no one was hiring. The only work he could find paid a fraction of what he previously earned, and would make him ineligible for unemployment benefits. But the benefits were less than he hoped ($351 per week), and there was the usual bureaucratic delay between application and approval; plus additional delays before he actually saw a check.
Meanwhile, expenses gathered like storm clouds, and just after his health insurance ran out, came the deluge. Daniel’s oldest, a 9-year-old boy, shattered his ankle while skateboarding. The injury required surgery and extensive physical therapy. The bills, they were told, could top $10,000. That month, Daniel missed his first house payment.
Daniel was seven years older than his wife, and he believed she had married him in part because he offered the stability and security so absent in her first marriage that had produced nothing memorable beyond the children they now shared. Above all, he wanted to protect them. So, wishing to minimize his wife’s stress, he decided not to tell her about the missed payment. He would, he believed, find a way.
Daniel cut expenses where he could but soon discovered that one of the hardest things in the world is dramatically changing your lifestyle. The cable package, the cell phones, the health club membership, had become the baseline, as much a part of their survival as food and water. Giving them up was an admission of defeat. So, he repeatedly reassured his wife that he would handle it, and they continued living much as before.
But his frustration mounted as the money waned and the job search fizzled. Daniel found himself becoming resentful of his wife’s well-meaning inquiries about his prospects, and the fact that the entire financial burden fell to him. Meanwhile, the bank was threatening foreclosure, the credit cards were close to maxed, and with each minimum payment he was falling farther and farther behind. Guilty and ashamed, Daniel became withdrawn, and when he spoke to his wife at all, it usually led to arguments. Frequently in the afternoons, when feelings of uselessness and frustration kicked in, Daniel would disappear and drive to a local bar where he drank with other unemployed men.
By the time Daniel finally told his wife about the pending foreclosure, it was too late to do anything about it. There were numerous empty homes in their community, boarded and neglected, so selling was not an option. With the looming loss of their home, something irreparable broke between them. The home represented his wife’s hopes and anticipations, which were now in free fall. She felt betrayed and frightened; Daniel felt helpless and masked it with anger. After two more weeks of fighting and recrimination, she took the children and drove the minivan West to a central California trailer park where her mother lived.
Daniel’s decline accelerated after his family departed. For a time, he stayed with a buddy, sleeping on the couch. But his drinking and moroseness strained his welcome, and one day he just left without plan or preamble: a man without a future has no need for a destination. He forwarded the remaining unemployment benefits to his wife’s account, looked for day jobs, and migrated like so many homeless toward the city. Now, on a cold morning in March, he stood in line with the unemployed and the homeless, the drunk and the drug-addled, the mentally ill and the indigent, waiting patiently like livestock for breakfast.
As for his government, when Daniel’s benefits ran out, he was no longer counted among the unemployed. He was no longer counted as anything. He was fully disposable, dead skin on the body politic. Had he been aware he might have been amused by the two great ironies of his situation: When the unemployed are dropped from the rolls, the national unemployment statistics improve, and politicians can brag about how well the stimulus is working. Plus, his parent company reported an increase in earnings after closing Daniel’s plant. Its stock rose, further evidence that the worst is behind us.
This past year, the number of mass layoffs increased by 1,046, and associated unemployment claims increased by 104,483. Since the start of the recession, the total number of mass layoffs was 39,822, and the number of claims filed in those events was 4,090,538. The number of lives and families that have been destroyed is apparently too statistically insignificant to track.
One of the most profound truths I have ever encountered was Greider’s observation that “Everyone’s values are defined by what they will tolerate when it is done to others.”
Look at it by the numbers: 45 million people without health insurance; 16 million unemployed; 1.5 million foreclosures this year alone; and 1.5 million people whose unemployment benefits run out this year.
What does that say about our values?