Bundle of Contradictions

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JANUARY 12, 2012 12:20PM

The Great Recession: Now It's Personal

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As a good humanist, Judeo-Christian-leaning liberal, I was raised to protect and defend the poor--an instinct so ingrained I have voted and given every year of my adult life from the compass of my bleeding heart. Even growing up under the poverty line, I still had it drilled into me that we were fortunate, and the "truly poor," were to receive our prayers and whatever government subsidies my mother was too proud to take.

 But today, as the news travels that class tension has now surpassed racial divides and immigrant mistrust as our nation's greatest source of friction, I can only offer this warning to the the "haves": It isn't about the poor anymore. It isn't about the faceless and imagined "downtrodden"--a group we may pity but can easily forget. For the middle class, this time it's personal. This time it's us.

As a member of the middle class (whatever that actually means anymore) I have watched the Great Recession creep steadily outwards and up over the last two years. For awhile, it was still hitting a select few--we all knew people who had lost their jobs and were struggling to make ends meet, but it all seemed so random. The sniper-style hits on families were scary, but it still seemed a matter of luck.

Now, however, the recession is hitting nearly everyone in my college-educated, professional peer group. More of us have lost jobs. More of us fear the security of our jobs. More of us are muttering about the cost of groceries, worrying about gas prices, struggling with how to pay for heating bills and phone bills and trips to see family.

At least half of my friends with small children are staying home with their kids because they cannot afford to work. Childcare costs--particularly for two children--outstrips possible incomes, making working a losing venture for many of us.

But it's healthcare costs that have become the true lodestone around the neck of the middle class. For those with employer-paid insurance, it only takes one broken arm and $3,000 in bills later to realize just how little most insurance plans really cover.

And for those of us, like my husband and I, who are self-employed, the insurance  situation is bleaker still. Because I have ulcerative colitis, a chronic condition that leaves me nearly disabled, I need to remain insured. My husband, daughter, and I pay $800 a month for our health insurance and over $100 a month for my prescriptions. I recently received a bill for $400 for a test that I was assured would cost $50. All told, we easily put out $1,000+ a month for healthcare costs. 

How is this sustainable? How is this right?

If we were poor, we could go on Medicaid. If we were rich, we wouldn't have to worry about our costs. But because we're middle class, we just have to suck it up?

If we were poor, we could get childcare subsidies, and food subsidies. If we were rich, we could just hire nannies and buy whatever groceries we wanted. But because we're middle class we just have to hand over our entire paychecks for preschool or stay at home with our kids full-time and watch our earnings potential dwindle?

I feel for the poor. I really do. I know there are pains the poor, not to mention the mentally-ill or disabled poor deal with that I am fortunate enough to be spared. And even with our own struggles to make it day-to-day, we still donate every month to a food bank. But the time has come when I feel nearly as much for the middle class. However battered, we may be hanging on today, but if we don't get help with childcare and healthcare, we will soon disappear into the widening hole of poverty.

Things cannot continue as they are.  


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And there are still so many insisting that this is the land of opportunity, and that those in this situation just aren't trying hard enough. It's criminal.
You hit the nail on the head, a $3000 doctor's bill can swipe you under and it can cause you hardships. I know because I had that happen this year. I just cannot believe the difference between security and insecurity. I worry so much.

Loved your piece. Hit me right in my middle class life- depressing when you think about it.
Bingo, Cedar.

I just had a discussion with a friend yesterday about the impact of this economy on the middle class...and how it actually is hurting them more than the have's and the poor.

And the hurt often is more than just losing a job. My wife is a super worker...and puts in extra hours almost every day. Yet she recently was told that she had to work the next four Saturdays...and that the work was mandatory. (She is salaried and no extra money will come her way for the work.)

When she mentioned that she was unable to make this Saturday because we have a family thing scheduled that cannot be re-scheduled, she was told that she would have to take a vacation day!

Mind you, they are docking here a vacation day for not working an uncompensated Saturday!

She is angry--but the fact is that if she complains, she may be part of the several down-sizing's that have been occurring.

It sucks! My heart goes out to you.
So true, Jeanette DeMain. It's amazing how often the word "lazy" comes up with regard to economic standing.

Mango Sherbert, I hear you on the constant worry. I wonder if sleeping pill prescriptions are up?
Frank Apisa, that's ridiculous! I've been hearing more stories like that lately. Everyone is having to pick up extra work since companies are too afraid to hire. Morale is down for the employed nearly as much as the unemployed.
Excellent post. I was expressing pretty much the same idea in a comment the other day, but this lays it out clearly and cleanly, and from a persepctive that makes it all too real.
You are "lucky" to be young and "only" paying $800 for 3 people. Try seeing what is available if you are laid off at 60. For two people it is $1148 a month for a partially subsidized plan with high co-pays. I suppose we could try going "bare" but since we have some middle class assets we want to keep (house care, home, IRA) we are paying out of out savings. A friend recently incurred over a million dollars in medical expenses in one year. His insurance paid all but a few thousand pointing out why it is incredibly risky to try self pay.
That's insane, Nancy Nichols, and completely what I'm talking about. I'm so sorry, that sucks.

And thanks, Laura Deurmyer!
Thank you for telling it so clearly like it is, from you personal experience. Very powerful. And it is like "sniper-style hits on families " except when it's a massacre, as in certain neighborhoods in north Minneapolis where communities of color were late to the home-buying party and then got suckered by exploitive loan products that were not common in adjacent "White " areas.

And certainly it has come even to elements of the upper middle class as a repo man was telling me last night. (He appropriates their cars where they work so they will behave better. He offers them to give him the keys in exchange for their personal belongings and car seats.) It's a hard knocks world alright, but we have to some extent been laid low by greed and abuses of the system.
The owners of the country don't care about the rest of what they call the peasants. If we had anything resembling democracy, the media would be talking about the unbelievable health insurance cost (the $3000 you mentioned), and the rising cost of living and the huge social gap between the rest and the poor 24/7. But the media (both liberal and conservative), as "guard labor" is paid to glorify the status quo and keep the peasants in line.

The topic of this post should be what everyone talks about, all the time. This is relevant. Excellent post. R
Very true, Steve Klingaman. Greed and abuses of the system have plagued us every step of the way these last years. I also know too well about the situation in N. Mpls--my husband is a Minneapolitan and we lived there for over four years before moving back to Seattle.
Thanks Thoth! I have been disheartened by the general lack of coverage regarding these issues, but I'm hoping it will pick up as it becomes clear this is THE issue for most Americans.
So spot-on, and as always, so well written. The right has done a brilliant job of co-opting the language and using it to symbolize the non-rich. "Welfare", "Welfare Recipients", "Welfare Fraud", "Those who don't want to work", "Income Re-distribution", "Socialists", etc. Makes it easier to turn us poor, unwashed riff-raff into symbols of greed leaching off the hard-working Meritocracy. And here's the bill and good luck.
You're poor, dearie. You just don't realize it yet. There are only two groups, not three.
This reminded me of the day I stood at my management-appropriate desk and opened a letter informing me that I was being dropped from my health insurance because I had a pre-existing condition. Pre-existing to what I was never able to determine from BC/BS, as I had been insured by them when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And the politicians dance on as we burn.
This reminded me of the day I stood at my management-appropriate desk and opened a letter informing me that I was being dropped from my health insurance because I had a pre-existing condition. Pre-existing to what I was never able to determine from BC/BS, as I had been insured by them when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And the politicians dance on as we burn.
I feel ya. I am unemployed and basically unemployable. The cost of gas, transportation and whatever else, makes it a losing proposition for me to drive my now 13 year old car to and from to get to work at anything that doesn't pay around $12.00.

I have the skills to work on Semiconductor Manufacturing Equipment, Two Way Radios, build Computers, but those jobs are no longer in demand. At least not in the USA. It's a bit of a commute to go to Georgia (the Russian one,) Germany, or China to get a semiconductor job. Nobody's going to hire me for fixing radios, or even stereo systems -- just get a cell phone and buy a whole new boombox setup instead of repairing the old ones.

I'm trainable, but at 51, what company is going to want me over some naive 20 something kid willing to work for minimum wage, still living at home?

I may be down, but I ain't out. I'm exploring ideas and working with some younger guys to get their company moving in a more profitable direction. In the meantime, yeah, insurance, taxes, bills, groceries and gas are making it harder and harder for me and my wife (who still is employed, thank goodness) to look at our life and think, "We're doing alright."

Considering I am the fourth son of five children of an enlisted man, living on the cusp of poverty in 1968 (when I was 8) and I was the only kid who went to college (I paid for it myself) I am not upset at how well or poorly I might appear to have done. I went from being below the poverty line to a maximum of earning 60K on my own.

Not too shabby. But the promise of the American Dream in the Land of Opportunity rings quite hollow for this Middle Class American. I worked my ass off to get here and all I got for my efforts was kicked in the face by Corporate America, who sent all their production lines overseas to use child labor and pay them pennies a day, while they charge us the same price or more for the products made elsewhere.


Brian, that's such a good point. Language is being used very much as a weapon.

Pong, Alas, you may be right.

Amy Shea, I'm right there with you. Ulcerative colitis is a pre-existing condition so if I drop my insurance, I couldn't get more (I know there's something about this that should change in 2014 though, right?)

Dunniteowl, I'm so sorry. I know the 45+ group is having an even harder time getting re-employed. It's just criminal.
Amen. After my body fell apart, I went from middle class to the poor class, and even though I was stripped of all my pride and dignity, I am able to be treated. But, being disabled, I get medicare, which does not pay for medications. My meds are over $800 a month. I can eat or get my meds, so I trade off and get half my prescriptions and break them in half and hope for the best. Now, they want to cut entitlements. From what?
Excellent, sobering article. As if having ulcerative colitis isn't enough, you're "punished" for having it by way of medical bills . My husband and I have employer-paid health insurance policies, but they could go at any time, and if either one of us contracts a serious illness...as you know...it's the psychic energy spent in worrying that gets me. I was once rich and there were a whole legion of things it never occurred to me to worry about. Because I didn't have to. It was like walking on a cloud. Now I feel a weight on my chest all the time...just hoping that things will remain status quo as long as possible.
I understand, as a retired vet who has troubles getting proper healthcare. It surely isn't an easy battle.
This is really getting bad. What Thoth said too..
I grew up in working-class Cicero Illinois, where many of the dads (rarely moms) worked at the local factories or were, like my dad, in the construction trades. Both of my parents grew up desperately poor, and drilled into us that we were tremendously more fortunate than themselves and other friends/relatives/neighbors.

Like you, i've never shaken the notion that it is my responsibility -- as one of the lucky ones -- to ensure that the poor are cared for. I paid my own way through college and currently have a good-paying job with so-so medical insurance. My 2 adopted kids have many chronic health issues, and I cannot BELIEVE how much of my income goes to medical expenses. (They're finally out of full-time daycare, thank god, but every summer of it costs me $4000.)

What compounds my disbelief is the callous disregard with which my co-workers regard everyone else's pain. "We can't have the government providing healthcare to everyone!" Really? It's better for any one of us to battle insurance companies and go completely flat-out broke instead? While our CEO earns 25 million dollars and (if he so deems) we might get a 1% raise -- barely keeping up with the cost-of-living?

THANK YOU so much for this post!! So articulate, heartfelt and on-the-money!
Health care and medicine costs in the US are out of control. I live overseas and have expat health insurance. Basically, it is half the price of a domestic policy. But, I have coverage in the US, if I had worldwide except the US, my insurance would cost half as much as I pay, or a quarter of the cost of a domestic US health insurance by the same insurer (Aetna). This is true regardless of what insurance company you have.

So, basically, they are saying I can go to the best facilities anywhere in the world (except the US) but if I want to go to the East Podunk Community clinic in the US, it will double or quadruple my costs.

Think about it. Quadruple.

You can get online quotes for expat insurance and see for yourself.

The Republican solution seems to be to assume if you get sick, it must be because of your moral failings.
"Unsustainable" is a word I've been using for years. Unfortunately, the issue is not being addressed. The rich know it's unsustainable and are just trying to grab up all they can while they can. The poor have no say in our society and the rest choose denial ("This can go on forever!").

No one believes anything can be done, ergo nothing gets done - a recipe for death.
I totally agree, but I will ask... If the middle class is by far the largest portion of our population, in numbers massive enough to surely bring change if we were a collective, who is to blame? Who still seems to select politicians who ultimately do us no good, or worse, do us harm?
I understand that the complexities of getting us all going in one general direction is a huge mountain to move, but it still doesn't allow us to dodge the fact that as a group we're scattered and fractured.

To some extent the middle class allowed this situation to occur, and large numbers of the middle class, even unemployed are still consumed by championing the rights of the rich while they flounder.
We do not have only our selves to blame, but much of the middle class should accept that they are also a large part of the problem.
Scanner, that breaks my heart. How could a just and moral society allow for that?

DivorcedPauline, how interesting that you've been on both sides of the equation. That must give you an even better perspective. The psychic worry is everything.

Michelle, veterans should not have to worry about healthcare. That we ask people to lay their lives on the line and then dump them after their service is unconscionable.

CiceroGal, I don't understand that disregard either, and I'm always shocked when I see it. Sometimes I fear we've lost our sense of empathy as a nation.

Malusinka, that's really interesting. All my friends who have moved to Europe have said they can't afford to move back to the U.S. for that reason.

Harry's Ghost, you're spot on. We're all so demoralized that we just sit by and take this. It's time to start speaking up.

Perling, even though I think it's a little more complicated how we got in this mess, you're right--we need to stand up and start demanding change in this arena. The Occupy movement helped to start making things more visible and shifting the debate. But we need to start showing just how much this is mobilizing the middle class.
Well said. I let my Health Insurance go. I put money (when I can) into a 'health' account for the big emergency. Insurance is the middle man in the health transaction and they don't deserve to make money on the sick or needy.
Wonderful post. It's a sad state walking that line - making too much to receive state and federal services, but making too little to not struggle making ends meet. I seem to be permanently straddling that line.
"Not too shabby. But the promise of the American Dream in the Land of Opportunity rings quite hollow for this Middle Class American. I worked my ass off to get here and all I got for my efforts was kicked in the face by Corporate America, who sent all their production lines overseas to use child labor and pay them pennies a day, while they charge us the same price or more for the products made elsewhere."

dunnitowl, couldn't have said it better. I am lucky, in that I skidded through life unimpeded by health issues until my Agent Orange exposure hit me at age 63, some 40 years later. I was doubly lucky, as I got into the VA just before my downward health slide began, then I got disability which pays 100% for my health care. So I'm outside the system that literally eats those it supposedly helps.

Unfortunately, this is just one aspect of the unbalance we all are experiencing in a broken system that seems incapable of repairing/correcting itself, as it divides a once proud country, into something I no longer recognize.

We, allowed this to happen on our watch, and perhaps it's not too late, but as I see it, it's going to require huge changes, great sacrifices, and pain to everyone. I can't see it happening any other way. Will we have the guts to pay these prices, to reinvent ourselves, and jail the true criminals in our midst? I simply don't know.

Hope, for many of us has been lost, and for the future generations. We need to provide a life for ourselves that once again holds out the promise of hope. My solution, short of executions, would be to start with eliminating the "Citizens United" decision, limit political office to 1 term, and eliminate the loop of politician to lobbyist. It wouldn't hurt to put a few thousand banksters on the chain gang, either.
And yet so many who reside in the middle and poor classes continue to vote against their own interests, for the political representation that fights against the assitance and reforms needed to address the problems of the larger population.
My wife and I thank our local VIM Clinic every day. If we did not have this we would spend our entire monthly income on her meds alone. The phrase "Don't get sick!" Has never been truer!
We're living the American Dream right now!! Whoo!! Wait, this more a nightmare!! ~nodding~ :D

It became personal for me in March 2010 when I lost my job of 11 and half years and am still looking for a replacement, nothing shiny, heck, I've put in for jobs cleaning toilets and been rejected without an interview, so it can't be my face!!

Anyways, it's all going to get better as soon as them "job creators" get off their asses and create some jobs!! ROTFLMAO!!

Sorry...I meant....~proud American Can Do Smile~

Although the rightwing does its best to deny it, the poor and the middle class have common interests. In a political system dominated by wealth, our strength is our numbers, our determination, our collective intelligence and our ability to organize for change.

I think that is why Occupy Wall Street and its many spinoffs met with such political repression and why the tent encampments were shutdown with such violence. It wasn't about the problems associated with them, those problems exist everyday in American cities.

It was the idea that poor and middle class people were living together and trying to develop a strategy to turn this nation in a decent direction. That was terrifying to those in power.The Occupy Movement is now regrouping, focusing on less visible local actions and trying to continue its mission.

If Occupy proves to be unviable, than we will need another social movement that unites the poor and the middle class, hopefully having learned from the weaknesses and shortcomings of Occupy.
"rich people march on washington every day"
--i.f. stone

"We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."
--supreme court justice louis brandeis

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"
--upton sinclair

"One withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas."
--victor hugo

"The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid dens of crime that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern. "
--cs lewis

occupy party reaches critical mass/seismic effect--now what?
Darla Carmichael, I really like the way you put it--line straddlers.

plantlover, it does seem that the system is broken. I think we sometimes forget just how young our country is.

Brian Carter, you're absolutely right. I complain about this all the time.

upthedownpout, glad you have that clinic! Think about how much worry would be eliminated if we had universal health care!

Tinkerertink69, I am sending good thoughts that you find a job!

Bob Simpson, you're spot-on. We really need to unite and start reaching out to each other.

vzn, great quotes!
@Bob Simpson, thank you for your clarity, simplicity, and vision.
This recession will become more and more "personal" as it makes inroads well into upper reaches of the middle class. Who will be left when it's all over? I don't know.
The way to create jobs is to raise the tax rate on the rich, not lower it. Look at the data over history. At times of higher tax rates on the rich, the unemployment rate is lower, not higher. The reason is this: If you are rich and the tax rate is high, you need a lot of tax deductions to keep your money. You have to invest in places that create jobs. If the tax rate on paper investments is too low, like it is now, you can pull your cash out of the economy, buy financial investments like bonds that don't create jobs that involve producing real goods and services, and pay a 15% rate instead of 30%. Government needs to punish people who take money out of circulation and reward people who don't. Bankers don't really produce anything, but the tax code rewards them and punishes real production.
You're absolutely right about what's going on with the middle class. The need for insurance keeps people stuck in jobs they don't like; and even at that it's not enough. Everyone's life is precarious now. For me it's the rent that increases astronomically each year while I'm on salary freeze at my job. And god forbid if you have some kind of health condition such as you unfortunately have. You can feel the tension and anxiety everywhere you go. It's not a pretty thing.
Well said, Cedar! And I think you're thinking of a millstone, not a lodestone. A lodestone points in a direction. Or you could always use albatross! An excellent piece, thank you!
NOW it's personal? Welcome to the club.