When I saw Bill standing, shirtless outside his modest house on a tiny, densely packed street, my first thought was that he could have been posing for a stock photo titled “disgruntled older white man.” Most of what he had to say didn’t change my impression.
He’s a retired forklift operator, he said. He’s lived here for 22 years. He owns the house, but with the way the neighborhood is going, he might move if he could sell it. His truck has been broken into a few times, and somebody keeps stealing the planters of flowers that he puts on the concrete near his front door.
He’s never been married and has no kids. “Hell with that,” he said.
But Bill does live with a long-time girlfriend, Tammy, who came to the door to join our conversation. (They both asked me to use just their first names.) They’re not having an easy time.
Bill gets Social Security and a pension, and Tammy works at a chain thrift store on one of the retail strips in town. She said the pay is “okay,” a bit more than minimum wage. The trouble is she can’t get more than 30 hours a week, and if it’s slow they start sending workers home or telling them not to come in at all.
She got the job two years ago. “You wouldn’t have believed the people standing in line just for the opportunity to fill out an application, just to work in a store,” she said.
Tammy’s been looking for other work. A week ago, she applied for a job as an administrative clerk at City Hall. The job is filing, faxing, copying—all stuff she did for years in previous clerical jobs.
“I’ve heard nothing,” she said. “And it’s for a part-time job. I’m like, ‘really?’”
Tammy said economic struggles are not new to her. Years ago, as a young, single mom whose ex-husband wasn’t paying child support, she managed to find a job at a bank, a babysitter she could afford and some assistance from WIC and other government programs. Then she got her six-month review, and a raise that put her five cents over the programs’ eligibility level. She lost her benefits, clipped coupons and literally lived on macaroni and cheese.
“I just wonder what the young families are doing now,” she said.
Tammy and Bill said things seem much harder for young people now than they did when they were young. The factories where Bill ran a forklift have all closed, and rents have been rising fast. Even run-down apartments in this neighborhood cost so much that young people can’t save up for down payments on a house, Tammy said, and more and more of the landlords make renters pay their own utilities, “yet you’re living in a hole.”
“I feel sorry for the kids today,” Bill said. “They haven’t got a chance in hell.”
I asked how people get by. “You scrimp and you save,” Tammy said.
“You pick up aluminum cans,” Bill added. “Like I do.”
(Image: Bill and Tammy's house)