The United States of America. The land of dreams and opportunities. The Statue of Liberty has long stood as a beacon of hope, promising economic prosperity for the poor and hungry masses. That economic prosperity, however, comes with a price. The economy influences every stage of our lives, whether we are young and idealistic, deep in the workforce building a life, or easing into retirement.
With the economic downturn of recent years, the divide between the haves and the have nots has become more distinct. Children born to middle class families suddenly face an uphill climb to financial success and stability. Teenagers in rural areas such as Southeast Ohio can find themselves adrift, without purpose or opportunity. College students, in the hopes of gaining a solid education, face staggering debt that can follow them for the rest of their lives. As these students take ownership of their lives, the economic choices they make are more vital than ever.
It's really tough watching some of my friends struggle down here, and I want to be able to help them but, you know there's only so many opportunities down here. There's not a whole lot of work to go around and a lot of people say, "oh well there's jobs out there." Well there are but they're at places like Toxico, where you make a living cuttin' up batteries and they give you a paid vacation when the lead levels in your blood get too high. And, if you're not willin' to do that then you're pretty much out of luck because no one else really wants to hire locally down here.
It depends upon so much as to whether or not they have anybody in their life, a parent, or somebody to talk to them, to be with them. Sometimes you can get them interested in something. I never have trouble - if I want something done I can ask somebody and they'll help me. But these kids do take a shopping cart down a hill or a recliner chair which I heard of one time. They put a recliner chair on skateboards and took it down a hill. Uh, they ride as fast as they can and they know they're probably gonna get hurt.
Some of them at least go fishing or hunting. Uh, but, they are, they drink too much, they fight, they're having sex too young and they're having babies too young or getting a disease too young. And nobody seems to be telling them how to prevent that.
And, that brings us back to the question of where you get a job. And its a little easier with a college degree but even then you're still gonna have to leave the area. So you're gonna have to move, to an area where you're not sure you're gonna be able to get a job once you get there and you're already, you know, up to your ass in debt to begin with, so by the time you've spent six months looking for a job on top of that, I mean its really rough.
So, you know, the few people I do know that really made an effort and really did manage to go to college and now they're graduating and they're not in a whole lot better shape then they were to begin with.
And, they may not necessarily have the aim to go to a college. They may, maybe their aim is to go into the military, maybe their aim is to learn to be a heavy equipment operator. Some of these people love to work on cars. They have different goals and maybe different ways of reaching there.
They, some of these young people and maybe even older people like me may get their in a slower pace.
I've really wanted to find a good job around here, but uh, I'm more limited due to my family right now and it's priority for me to take care of my family. I'll find a job when the time comes.
It's hard to go from being poor to getting better because the only way to get better nowadays is to have an education and to have that degree stuck up on your wall so someone can see it. And until you can fork over the money to get that degree and the time and the energy, you are going to remain poor. Just think about it. What kinds of jobs do you get without a Bachelor's Degree?
How much I owe in student loans is something I just don't think about until I absolutely positively have to. If I don't think about it it's like it's not there and yeah, it stresses me out, it freaks me out to think about it. Because I mean, for me to be an educator, how much money do we actually make?
When I started teaching at Ohio University in 1965, the tuition was $450 a year. So, the big thing is is that college has become vastly more expensive. What Ohio University did with their tuition is what everyone is doing. They did raise it only by roughly the amount of inflation. In that sense it was a rather moderate increase. I think universities are getting to the point where they're going to find that they are going to be facing a considerable price resistance from students if they continue to relentlessly raise fees.
People simply cannot afford it.
The most emotionally difficult thing for me was when I had to call my mom and tell her that I couldn't register for classes and that I didn't know if I was going to be able to continue my education. That was the hardest thing for me to deal with, because my mom wants me to be here more than anything and yet, I almost had to leave at the end of the last year during winter quarter because I just couldn't pay for spring.
Now there is one survey out recently that said fifty percent of recent college graduates, while employed most of them, not all of them, but most of them are employed, they are under employed. They are taking jobs that simply are not the kind of jobs college students have traditionally taken. There are 107,000 janitors in the United States with Bachelor's Degrees for example. As more and more students get these kinds of jobs, and that is going to be a bigger problem in the future than now, it's going to be this problem is going to grow and fester.
It's bad now it's going to become a national crisis, and then you are going to have some sort of radical change.
Over a 10-year period our state funding has gone from about 46 percent to 25 percent. We've lost 20 percent of the state funding that we've had. So, therein lies the primary reason why we've asked for tuition increases fairly regularly to try to make up for some of the money that we've lost from the state support that we used to receive. So what I try to help students understand is yes, you may have to go into debt today to get a college degree, but that degree will last a lifetime. That debt will not last a lifetime. Eventually you will pay off that debt. So, is it worth it? Absolutely.
What would I say to a student who is taking out loans? (Um) I guess I would tell them that it's going to be hard. It's just it's just exasperating because it feels like the only people that care are the people that get to see you struggle. And the people that make these decisions don’t get to see this side of people upset and crying and peoples futures being because tuition has to be raised.
Ohio University, like many other public universities in Ohio, recently voted to increase tuition by 3.5 percent beginning in the 2012-2013 school year. Students such as Tonya Atha, a junior Integrated Language Arts major, protested the raise on campus with marches and demonstrations.
“When I realized I had to take out loans, it was after the fall quarter of my freshman year,” Tonya says. “When it came time to pay again for the quarter and there wasn’t any money left, that is when I realized that I had to take out more…”
Tonya was raised in a single-parent household, by her mother in Springfield, Ohio. During the school year, she works as a Residential Assistant at Ohio University. Tonya supports herself financially. She filed for the FAFSA, applied for several loans, and is partially supported through scholarships.
“My dad never graduated from high school and my mom graduated by the skin of her teeth, because they had us when they were 16 and 18,” Tonya says. “So, when I see how far I’ve come, I am proud.”
"…the only material thing I’ve found in this life that appreciates and goes up in value is a college degree."
Even after using alternative opportunities to fund her education, Tonya still finds herself in debt.
According to the College Board, enrollment of full-time students in public colleges and universities increased nine percent in the 1990’s. Between 2001 and 2011, enrollment of full-time students grew 33 percent.
However, not everyone opposes the increases. Those in favor of raising costs, while sympathetic to students, see it as a necessity for the university.
“There are two compelling reasons for it (raising tuition),” says Ohio University President Roderick McDavis. “One is, that there has been a significant decrease over these past years in the amount of state funding, and in order to maintain the quality of education that we provide at Ohio University, it requires us to have sufficient funding. Secondly, and equally as important, are some of the new initiatives that we’re creating to improve the academic quality of the university, as well as to improve the student experience.”
The College Board reports an increase of six percent in the 1980’s and of five percent in the 1990’s of state funds per full time student. In the decade between 2001 and 2011, state funds per full-time student declined by 23 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Despite the stress of student debt, McDavis continues to emphasize that the importance of a college degree in today’s world is worth much more than the cost of paying off student loans.
“I’ve lived a good portion of my life, and of all the material things that I’ve had the privilege to receive, you know gifts or things that I’ve purchased, from cars to houses to clothes, you name it,” McDavis says. “the only material thing I’ve found in this life that appreciates and goes up in value is a college degree.”
The value of a college degree is questionable from Tonya’s point of view.
“I have really conflicted feelings about if what I am doing is worth it. Is going this far into debt to get my degree in education worth it?” Tonya says. “I want to say ‘yes’ because nowadays you are not going to get very far unless you have a bachelor’s degree. At the same time, when I do think about that number that floats out in space that is my debt, I don’t know.”
Tonya and other students are not the only ones worried about rising tuition, and the impact the price-tag on education can have.
Ohio University Professor Emeritus of Economics Richard Vedder has watched the changing landscape of college finance for many years. “So I think, OU, could they have gotten along without the tuition increase? Yes they could have. Would they have had to make some uncomfortable cuts that they didn’t want to make? Yes that’s true too.”
Since Vedder began his career at Ohio University in 1965, the financial situations of students have changed.
“When I started teaching, most students did not borrow money to go to college. Most students financed it themselves through their parents, through loans within the family, or sometimes a bank loan,” Vedder says. “Now two-thirds of all students borrow money to go to college.”
If you walk through Ohio University’s College Green, you will be confronted with many different red brick paths, each path leading to a different destination. Much like the decision of where to go next when walking through College Green, students must choose a direction when pursuing higher education.
Despite working to overcome her financial difficulties, Tonya is still concerned that her concerns are not being felt on an institutional level; “You know what I want to think that people are hearing those students voices, I really do. I want to think the best of people. I want to think they’ve taken it into consideration the fact that the students can't pay for [education]. I am an optimist all the way and yet, I don’t think that anybody has."
As young adults move from classrooms to the workforce in the hopes of building a life, the quest for financial stability can be out of their grasp. In a time when the economy is lagging and unemployment refuses to decline substantially, families are forced to pack up and move from foreclosed homes, away from their comfort zone, and into areas of the country with more promise.
The question becomes: What does it now mean to be an American? How do U.S. citizens now build success, when the foundations of the middle class have been rocked to their core? The U.S. worker must now reevaluate and redefine of what it means to be successful in a post-recession America.
I think it's ridiculous to expect anyone to make a profit off student loans... That lending institutions make a profit [on them], especially when that profit is well over the going rate, is absolutely ridiculous. It's obscene, it really is.
Yes, it's difficult to be away from my family. It's difficult, but oh well, you have to look for a way of life. We have to come here and suffer a little.
Our markets have never been busier. The community wants what we are trying to produce.
At the base layer are these 20 guys putting in 70 hours a week, and the fact that they are the least appreciated- it's upsetting to me and my family in general.
My name is Sergio Mesa Sanchez. I'm from Mexico; my state is Michoacán. I came here to work - to work in the fields. I'm married. I have two daughters. One that is 10 and the other is 7. There are times that I'm able to support them and sometimes no. But that's the idea, to support my family more than anything. That's the reason for being here, to support the family. Otherwise, it would be better to stay in Mexico. What would we do here?
We've been doing this all my life and it's everything I can handle to keep up. And, uh, these guys - the quality and how much they care, is off the charts. We still hire a lot of local folks, we're hiring now if anyone wants to come work. [But] if you put them in a field, with a hoe, they won't come back after lunch.
Yes, it crosses your mind, all of that, to cross [illegally]. Because over there you don't have the resources for your family. You don't have money. A lot of things... You don't have things to maintain the family.
My father-in-law was here illegally a few years ago, in 2001. He left because you have to be with your family. You can't stay here all the time. It’s really difficult, being illegal here, because you can't go [home] every year. You have to stay here longer, at least two or three years... Because you can't cross often... because of the border patrol, that doesn't let you pass.
Thanks very much to immigration for giving me the visa. And thanks to the Wittens for giving me the opportunity to work with them. And I hope I don't let them down.
If I earn $300 in a week, I might send $200. Or $150 - it depends on what I earn per week. If I don't earn much, I don't send very much. It all depends on how work is in the fields. If life turns to let me retire...maybe yes. Or maybe life won't reach that point. That's why I don't know.
Here we are in the present, and we'll see what happens in the future. The days pass, and the years... and we look at what we have, and what we will have after.
Witten Farms began hosting seasonal migrant workers from Mexico and El Salvador in 1993, while Tom Witten and his brother Scott were in grade school.
The Wittens use the Federal H-2A non-immigrant work visa program to bring in dependable labor during the farming season each year. Under this type of visa, foreign workers are authorized for one-year to three-year stays. After three years, a three month stint outside the United States is required before reapplying for the visa.
“It was low unemployment so [we] couldn't find a lot of local folks. People were driven to use more and more migrant labor and the migrant labor force was plentiful,” Tom explains. “[But now,] even with unemployment at 10 percent these people are not breaking down my door. We still hire a lot of local folks. We are hiring now if anybody wants to come work, but if you put ‘em in a field with a hoe they won’t come back after lunch. Ninety-five percent of ‘em.”
“We would love to hire local folks. We have to provide housing for these folks; we have to pay for the bureaucracy, the legal representation,” Tom says.
The H-2A program requires that if a local labor force is available, employers must hire them first. To ensure that they follow federal guidelines the Wittens advertise their job openings in local papers and online. The minimum pay wage is listed as $10.95 per hour, yet still local workers are not coming. The need for a stable work force necessitates the migrant labor at Witten farms. The government visa program requires specific treatment and housing guidelines to bring workers in.
“We have the best guys ... and we don’t want ‘em next to Redneck Randy who gives ‘em trouble and then when the cops show up, the migrant guy can’t get his point across.”
“Finding housing for Mexicans really shows you how hard-hearted people are,” Tom says. “We have a good reputation for paying our bills. We would do the security deposit; we’d do anything and it was the slum lords who were the only people who would even turn to you.”
In 2009, the Wittens finished construction on a small blue duplex, designed to house the 15-20 seasonal workers. Set between the cow pasture and the fresh blooming fresa (strawberry) fields, the duplex provides a relaxing safe-haven for the workers, away from the streets and prejudice.
“We have the best guys ... and we don’t want ‘em next to Redneck Randy who gives ‘em trouble and then when the cops show up, the migrant guy can’t get his point across.”
The duplex has become a second home for the guys. In the evenings they gather outside and kick back with a cold Bud Light. They pass the time talking or kicking around a tattered soccer ball. Inside dusty boots gather in a corner of the kitchen, while the bare feet that filled them minutes ago shuffle into the bedroom to watch los peliculas (movies). Tonight’s scheduled programing: “Adventuras a la Centra de la Tierra (Journey to the Center of the Earth).”
A few yards down the gravel road from the duplex, the full aroma of cow manure and flowers fills the noses of the patrons of the Witten farm market. A pair of elderly women roams the green houses, investigating the hanging baskets. They seem not to notice the four darker-skinned men working diligently around them.
“Our markets have never been busier; the community wants what we are trying to produce,” Tom says. “In the summer we balloon to 160-180 local people running the wagons and the cash [registers]. We'll hire 12 truck drivers, three more tractor operators and another mechanic ... those jobs were all created because of the base layer of these 20 guys putting in 70 hours a week and the fact that they are the least appreciated is upsetting to me and my family in general.”
The Wittens make it a point to foster positive relationships with their migrant employees. In past years, when Tom’s father ran things, they joined in on holiday meals and family parties. Now the relationships are more professional, but backyard soccer games and occasional meals together are not out of the norm.
“We get along well. They’re good people,” says Sergio Meza Sanchez, a 34-year-old from Michoacan, Mexico. “They gave us work and a place to live—what more can we ask for? I’m thankful for these bosses. Yes, they treat us really well. If not, we wouldn’t return.”
“They gave us work and a place to live—what more can we ask for? I’m thankful for these bosses. Yes, they treat us really well. If not, we wouldn’t return.”
“When you work with someone for 15 hours a day and really just put it all out there like that, then there’s an unspoken respect built,” Tom says.
Fifteen hours a day is no exaggeration. The long hours are not forced labor; the motivation is internal.
“I have two daughters. One that is 10 and the other is 7. I try to send money every 15 days or every three weeks. That’s the reason for being here, to support the family,” Sanchez says. “Otherwise, we’d stay in Mexico—what would we do here? The opportunities in my country are not the same.”
“These guys want 70 hours a week and, frankly, I like to work too, but sometimes they push me because they are not happy with anything less that 60 to 70 hours a week,” Tom says. “It’s so hard to explain that to other people because it’s so foreign to be hungry and watch your kids be hungry. I can’t. I don't really try to pretend to understand. But you know, you put your two- or three-year-old to bed hungry then it changes the way your head works.”
The Wittens get it. Their dreams are the same.
“We are trying to do the best we can and that’s what they’re trying to do.” Tom says, “That is the American Dream: To work your ass off and give your kids a chance at something better.”
My name is Akeyna Dishong, I'm 27-years-old. I live in Coolville, Ohio.
In my household there is myself, my fiancé, Derrick, our two children, Kaleb and Jherica. I also have my mom and her two adopted children. Financially, it is better for me to be here because I do not get charged rent. Um, because I help in the house. And me not working right now, you know, I do get assistance from the state, but it's only $450 a month plus $526 in food stamps.
Mom's also said, well, "You need to go back to work." I do understand that. This is the longest I've never worked. And it is driving me crazy. You know and like I told her, "Mom if I get a job now, it's not going to last, you know, you're getting ready to have knee surgery. You can't take care of two kids yet alone four kids." It's draining to live in a household with seven people. You know my mother doesn't really realize it because she's having a hard time herself with her bi-polar and depression.
I feel like I'm holding the house together, you know if I don't do the dishes they're going to pile up, if I don't, um, do the laundry, it's going to pile up.
I've been living out on my own since I was 18-years-old. I am used to my rules, my way. Raising my children the way I know and think is the best. So just blending two families together and trying to compromise in the middle somewhere. I do feel like I'm putting my life on hold, but equally I'm not going to sit here and complain about it.
My mom has taken care of me, and you know that's what children are supposed to do. You know, I'm not going to have my mom forever, so it is important to know that I'm doing everything I can so you know, I'm talking about, you know, years down the road in the future when something happens to her, you know, I'm not going to have any guilt. I know that I've done everything I could.
To some, it might consist of the loving, nurturing place you call “home,” full of people to whom you know you can always turn. To Pam Jones and Akeyna Dishong, their family might not be “typical,” but even through these tough economic times, their family is working together to make it through each day.
“Oh my gosh, there is certainly not anything typical about this household at all,” Pam says. “It is very loud, rambunctious, you never ever ever know what one of the kids are going to do.”
Pam was born into a large family, one of 13 children—a family so large they “never had to invite friends over for a baseball game.” She is the mother to two biological daughters while having also assumed the role of guardian for other troubled children throughout her life. Although many of those kids have left the house, Jones stays busy raising her nephew, Aaron, and his sister, Angel. Both children have special needs—Angel was diagnosed with autism and her brother with bipolar disorder. While having always opened her door for those in need, Jones found that she could do with some help herself when she began to experience poor circulation throughout her lower legs.
“Akeyna lives with me because I’m not allowed to live by myself,” Pam explains. “I’m supposed to be frequently in bed with my legs up and not up on them because they do turn blue and swell. And I fall a lot.” Pam also has depression, diabetes, and uses oxygen at night for asthma. She is currently preparing for her upcoming knee surgery, with her diabetes putting her at a higher risk throughout the procedure.
One in every eight Americans is providing care for an elderly family member or a disabled child.
“They’re going to repair the meniscus in my knee, so I will be down for a little bit having to take it easy,” Pam explains, while also mentioning that she does not qualify for any at-home help. While a pro at caring for children, she discovered that she could no longer do it all on her own. Due to Pam's unpredictable condition, her daughter, Akeyna Dishong, accompanied by her two children and fiancé, has moved in and assumed the role of the primary caregiver. Every day, Akeyna assumes responsibility for making sure the entire family takes their medication, showers, and goes to bed as well as makes it to school on time. The shift of authority in the household has taken some adjusting, but Akeyna tries to maintain order while making the transition from sister to parental figure.
“As an authority figure, Aaron and Angel respond to me not very well. You know, they look at me more as their sister, not the person that should be disciplining them,” Akeyna says. She says her role is “to be everybody’s mother,” and such a large role in the lives of her family leaves little time for herself, let alone time for a job. She hopes to return to work as soon as the home reaches a stable condition, but until then, the day-to-day shopping and bill paying sometimes taken for granted can become a major concern for families in such situations.
According to the Pew Research center, over one in every eight Americans is providing care for an elderly family member or a disabled child. This “sandwich generation”—baby boomers squeezed between their own debt, children, and financially supporting their parents—is quickly increasing while more Americans slip into poverty.
In 2009, 34.7 percent of all people in Athens County Ohio had incomes below the Federal Poverty Line. In 2011, the number of Americans in poverty nationwide reached a new high, with 46.2 million people living below the threshold.
“I do feel like I’m putting my life on hold, but equally I’m not going to sit here and complain about it. You know, I’m not going to have my mom forever, so it is important to know that I’m doing everything I can so… years down the road in the future when something happens to her, I’m not going to have any guilt. I know that I’ve done everything I could.”
Most striking about the family is their realism. Their home life might come as a surprise—Pam’s hospital bed in the living room, the cramped children’s bedrooms, the congested countertops and backrooms—but the family is very close and remembers what is important, even Akeyna, whose life has been paused for the moment.
“I do feel like I’m putting my life on hold, but equally I’m not going to sit here and complain about it,” she says. “You know, I’m not going to have my mom forever, so it is important to know that I’m doing everything I can so … years down the road in the future when something happens to her, I’m not going to have any guilt. I know that I’ve done everything I could.”
A rise in poverty has also caused Ohio to see a steady increase in the amount of people requesting aid from Food and Nutrition Service programs. From 2008-2010, 16.4 percent of Ohioans were labeled as “Food Insecure,” a condition that arises from lack of money and other resources necessary to acquire food. With both mother and daughter unemployed, the pair receives aid from places like Ohio Works First, while Akeyna’s fiancé, Derrick, brings home a steady income from full-time work at a restaurant for minimum wage. Still, providing meals for everyone in the home can be a struggle.
“I get $526 in food stamps. And I use that and that’s what we live off of, like food-wise for the month— $526,” Akeyna explains. Seated at their small kitchen table, surrounded by clutter and family, her face is steady, and she seems almost determined when she speaks. Smoke from her cigarette floats out of the window as she adds, “...You just make it work.”
The situation that the Jones-Dishong household finds themselves in is not a unique one in Southeast Ohio, but the way they are handling the hardships they have been handed is somewhat surprising. The pressures of their financial circumstances do not weigh them down in despair, and they still find time to talk, laugh, and remain optimistic on life. They find comfort in family camping trips and bonfire nights, proof the American spirit lives on as they keep rolling forward day by day.
They set an example for keeping in mind what is important during these troublesome times. And if you ever get the chance to visit Pam and her family, just know that she will greet you with open arms and simply say, “Welcome to the family.”
As people move from middle age into retirement, the troubled economy is shifting the way the golden years are lived. These shifting standards create an opportunity to define our lives by something other than money. As the economy slowly begins to recover, Americans have a chance to discover our actual worth was always greater, deeper, and stronger. It has, and always will be defined by the pursuit of happiness, whatever that may be.
Just the satisfaction of being able to do your job, come in every day and do it and do it well, or strive to do it well, you know there's a lot of satisfaction in that. Or there was to me. So yeah, I miss work. I felt you know, we were middle class most of my working life. My wife worked full time most of her life. We didn't have a lot of luxuries but we didn't have to scrimp a lot either.
Of course, that changed dramatically after I got fired and she had to take a medical leave herself. Things got pretty tight then and it would have been a lot tighter had it not been for the fact that we live rent free or mortgage free, and my father in law helps out with the utility bills and everything. You know, there's people that's went from middle class to homeless in less than a year, and that's just really frightening.
I would look for work for two and a half years. Used up all the unemployment that I had but, you know, I couldn't get anyone to hire me because they would look at you and think to themselves, eehh, this guy's too old. It was hard to deal with that. So yeah, I was disappointed, I was upset.
When I was a senior in high school I knew I wanted to marry my wife. Through the church we had a combination wiener roast-marshmallow roast and then, of course I'd see her at school and we would talk, but our first actual date was the hay ride. She's not a big part of my day to day life. I still love her, I'd like to spend more time with her. A person with depression, they get very withdrawn and it's too bad, because I miss her. Even though she's twenty feet away, she might as well not be here. With Linda's depression, all the chores that would normally be split up between a couple, they all fell on me. The only time I had any enthusiasm for life was when the grandkids were here.
I'm really close to them and I like to think I'm a better grandfather than I was a father, simply because I can give them more time. My biggest goal was just to try to be successful at whatever I did. I've always worked a lot. Until not to many years ago, I always worked two jobs. I'm not necessarily comfortable, but I have everything I need. I just hope that there's nothing big that comes up. And we can survive, here. I don't know if you could define it as living.
I worry about both my grandkids and their future. Resources are getting tighter, people are having more problems making ends meet. They'll be okay, they probably won't have as good a lifestyle as their grandparents or great grandparents had, I just don't think they will.
Jerry spends more time outside than he does inside. Sometimes in the morning he wakes up and watches the sun rise while sipping coffee. Then he will make breakfast for his wife and father-in-law, out of food bought with the $396 worth of food stamps they receive each month. He will take his fibromyalgia medication, which he has split to make last six weeks instead of three. He will also forgo the $400 prescription medication that would treat his Crohns disease, because his father-in-law foots the bill and Jerry feels guilty. The rest of the day he will spend doing laundry, yard work, or trimming around the 58 things in his yard (he counted one day). Unless he gets a visit from his grandson or granddaughter, he spends most of the day by himself or with his terrier-mix, Jigs.
Jerry, 61, lives in his 93-year-old father-in-law’s house with his wife Linda, 62, two rescued cats, and spunky Jigs. The living room of the modest home hosts five ornate clocks (some made by Jerry’s father-in-law)—a constant reminder that although the minutes and hours may change, the future will present no opportunity to break from the monotony of unemployment.
“I keep myself busy. If you’re just sitting around waiting to die, that’s what’s going to happen, and I’m not ready to do that,” Jerry says. “So you have to stay busy physically and mentally, otherwise you just deteriorate.”
Keeping busy can be a challenge for Jerry however, as unemployment leaves his schedule clear every single day. Just surviving can be a challenge, as he has no income and his wife only receives a monthly Social Security check for $289.
Appalachian Ohio has been known for being a poor region, but since the last recession began in 2002, the area has struggled more broadly. Consistent with trends from the past, rural parts of Ohio are the most poverty-stricken; in 2009, 11 counties had poverty rates in the top 25 percent of more than 3,000 counties nationwide.
“There are people that have gone from middle-class to homeless,” Jerry says. “And that’s just really frightening.”
The recession precipitated wider poverty in many counties, Athens County being one of them. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate in 16 Ohio counties rose three percentage points after the start of the recession, and five other Ohio counties had poverty rates that rose five percentages points or more—Athens County included.
“The recession knocked out so many jobs that people had previously. We hear a lot from people at the food pantries, [the] same people who used to volunteer at the food pantries are now coming to the food pantries to get food,” says Nick Claussen, Community Relations Coordinator of Athens County Job and Family Services. “They have people coming in that would never have dreamed about going to the food pantries years ago.”
Athens County is one of five Ohio counties with the highest levels of poverty and lowest unemployment rates. This is due to the fact that there are large portions of low-income people in the Athens County population who are not employed—younger children, college students, the elderly, and people with disabilities—and thus are not included in unemployment data.
When Jerry was let go from the job he held at Auto Zone for 10 years, he spent two and a half years searching for another job before giving up. Due to his depression, fibromyalgia, and Crohn’s disease, he doubts that he would be able to work for 40 hours a week in his current state of health.
“I really do [miss work], just the satisfaction of being able to do your job, come in everyday and do it and do it well, or strive to do it well,” Jerry says. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in that. Or there was, to me. Yeah, I miss work.”
"There are people that have gone from middle-class to homeless. And that’s just really frightening.”
The Great Recession’s most notable effect on the Athens County population is the widening of the income inequality gap, which separates the rich and the poor. The gap has widened to such a degree that people who had been able to eke out a living before the recession now find themselves needing government assistance. “The biggest change I’ve seen is people asking for help that never had to ask for help before to survive,” says Rhonda Bentley, founder of the non-profit Nelsonville Community Center. “New poor is different from old poor.”
When Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” in 1964, he initiated programs like food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid, which brought about huge results and lowered the poverty rate. The national poverty rate dropped to 12.1 percent in 1970, and Ohio’s poverty rate came in at 10 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Ohio’s poverty rate consistently stayed at least one percent below the national rate from 1970 until 2002, when the last recession started a downward spiral, further fueled by the start of the Great Recession in 2007.
“Some people are just falling off the rolls and not being counted. So you always wonder about that, how many people are actually out there that aren’t working but would like to be working. We don’t have enough jobs.”
People struggling economically were further hurt by welfare reform in 1996, which decreased the number of people receiving cash assistance, but did not decrease the number of people living in poverty. The lack of services available to the impoverished as well as restrictive eligibility criteria make it necessary for communities to create free programs that can help people living in poverty. The Athens County Department of Job and Family Services has created a five-page Community Resource Directory, listing the many programs available to Athens community members in need. The non-profit Nelsonville Community Center, created to work “within the community to educate and promote healthy family living by providing resources to families,” is absent from that list.
Tucked away among the other storefronts in Nelsonville Square, the small center helps a surprising number of people in need in the community. The community center provides 150-300 lunches to children in schools in partnership with the Southeast Ohio Food Bank, has a free food cupboard, houses a free clothes bank, hosts a weekly free lunch, and most importantly, provides struggling members of the community a place where they can find support from other community members. Among the crowd present at the weekly free lunch is a mother of four living in low-income housing, a young expectant mother, senior citizens, and young children. Rhonda Bentley started the community center after seeing the needs of the people living around her, and spends 50-60 hours a week working there. “New things come up every week,” Rhonda says. “Last night I had a woman come to the shelter with no place for her and her 14-year-old daughter to sleep for the night. I let them stay here for one night.”
"Last night I had a woman come to the shelter with no place for her and her 14-year-old daughter to sleep for the night. I let them stay here for one night."
Athens County only has one homeless shelter and a very limited amount of low-income housing available for those that qualify. Jerry and his wife do not need the support of the shelter or low-income housing because of the support given to them by his father-in-law. Jerry lives a life of luxury in his father-in-law’s home, considering the amount of money he has in his bank account. The cost of renting or paying a mortgage on a home is typically the largest expense for low-income individuals, but Jerry is fortunate enough to not have to worry about that. He lives rent-free, and although he used to split the utility bills with his father-in-law, he no longer can since losing his job. Many families are forced to double-up in the wake of a foreclosure, but Jerry did not move into his father-in-law’s house as a result of the recession. He moved in to help his mother-in-law through an illness in 1985.
“I’ve filed for Social Security Disability, but you have to sue your government to get something you paid into all your life because you can’t keep up with the paperwork. So I hired a lawyer, but it takes two years,” Jerry says. “Now what is a person to do during that time? I applied for a medical card with job and family services, but that takes anywhere from six to eight months, and you have to file a disability claim with Social Security before they’ll even consider it.” Because Jerry and his wife no longer have insurance, they utilize the Hospital Care Assurance Program (HCAP), Ohio’s version of the Disproportionate Share Hospital Program required by the federal government. HCAP compensates Ohio state hospitals that provide a “disproportionate share of care” to people utilizing Medicaid, people below the poverty line, and people without health care. “I just found out a month or so ago [that] I can actually go to Ohio State and see two doctors up there through the HCAP program, which has a very simple form that you fill out and is either approved or disapproved based on your income,” Jerry says. “Its like a sliding scale thing. And since we have no income, we don’t pay anything.”
Jerry’s lack of knowledge about HCAP also raises the question as to why people living with a low income are not made aware of all the resources available to them. This is another issue that the Nelsonville Community Center tries to address. “The whole goal is to help people to learn how to survive by themselves, it’s not all give, give, give. I don’t think that’s the answer,” Rhonda says. “We need to change people’s ideas about what to eat and [what to do]. A lot of what we do here is provide information and direction to people who haven’t had to apply for assistance in the past.”
For the unemployed, there are many services that they can seek for training, job placement, and resume assistance. According to March 2012 data from the Office of Workforce Development, unemployment rates in the state of Ohio are improving. Compared to March’s nationwide unemployment rate of 8.2 percent, Ohio’s unemployment rate has dropped to 7.5 percent. Athens County and the surrounding counties around it have an unemployment rate above the national average however—between 8.4 and 12 percent.
"The whole goal is to help people to learn how to survive by themselves, it’s not all give, give, give. I don’t think that’s the answer."
However, unemployment statistics cannot be used as a source to completely represent the population, because people who are counted as unemployed are those who are not currently working and have been looking for jobs within the past four weeks of the survey. The statistics exclude people who have left the labor force altogether, so the number of unemployed people is actually much higher.
“Some people are just falling off the rolls and not being counted,” Nick Claussen says. “So you always wonder about that, how many people are actually out there that aren’t working but would like to be working. We don’t have enough jobs.” Reports from the Department of Labor that the number of unemployed has declined from 12.7 million in March to 12.5 million in April do not include the long-term unemployed, who account for 41 percent of people out of work.
Jerry’s wife Linda joined Jerry in the ranks of that 41 percent when she resigned from her job with the school board due to her severe anxiety and depression. Since then, the Barkers’ economic standing has been weak.
“I used up all the unemployment I had, that I was entitled to, and the reason I had it for so long was because of the [four] extensions the federal government did because unemployment was so high. Otherwise I’d have only been on unemployment for six months to a year,” Jerry says. “The first year I was without work my wife was still working, and all our insurance and everything was through her. After she was not able to work, then things got real bad, because I was out of unemployment [benefits] and we’d lost our insurance and everything.”
Much like how unemployment statistics do not fully represent the population of unemployed citizens, statistics that show there has been a 26 percent drop in Ohioans receiving welfare. That may be the lowest rate since before the recession began in 2007, but it is not necessarily demonstrative of people supporting themselves. Some have had their assistance revoked.
Change could be on the horizon for the Ohio welfare system. Yet most likely, the changes that will occur will not be beneficial for those in need of assistance. Ohio has failed to make welfare recipients meet the weekly 30 hours of “work activities” required since 2007. Ohio faces a $130 million federal fine if it is not in compliance by September.
“The welfare numbers have gone down across the state, but that is more due to how welfare is set up now, and the fact that the state is pushing people off the rolls as part of this whole work participation requirement thing which we're fighting against,” Nick says. “There [are] a huge number of people being pushed off welfare.” The access to welfare for those in need in Ohio is already more limited than it could be, even before considering the valuable funds they will lose if forced to pay the federal fine. Most families on welfare in Ohio only have access to assistance for three years, even though federal government welfare reform in 1996 imposed a five-year maximum.
"We can survive here. I don’t know if you could define it as living..."
Change also might not bring good things for Jerry, his wife Linda, and Jigs. Jerry knows that when his 93-year-old father-in-law dies, he will no longer have access to housing in Athens. He will have to move to West Viriginia to live with his parents. Hope of positive change in the future is not on Jerry’s radar. “I think that is pretty much it for the future. I don’t see things changing a whole lot. The big thing will be my father-in-law passing away, and we’ll have to move. There are four heirs to this property, and I can’t afford to buy it obviously,” Jerry says. An issue not usually discussed when considering people with low income is their quality of life—the inability to do things that bring them happiness and self-fulfillment, because their most important concern is survival. State resources might be able to provide people living in poverty with means of survival, but those resources only skim the surface of their needs, so the impoverished remain preoccupied with trying to survive. For Jerry, surviving and living are not always the same.
“We can survive here. I don’t know if you could define it as living, you know we don’t travel, and I don’t think my wife would travel even if we had the money because of her mental health,” Jerry says. But despite the fact that Jerry does not practice hobbies—like refurbishing furniture—as he did in the past, and despite the fact that he spends most of his time by himself, there are sources of light in his life. “I’m really close to [my two grandchildren], and I like to think that I’m a better grandfather than I was a father, simply because I can give them more time than I could my kids. I think that’s the best thing a grandparent can do, is give them time,” Jerry says. “They’re a big help. It’s fun to watch them discover, not only things that they see, but what they’re capable of doing.”
While Jerry has no concerns about the ability of his grandchildren, he still has doubts about how good of a life they will live once they are older. “I worry about both my grandkids and their future. Resources are getting tighter, and people are having more problems making ends meet,” Jerry says. “I think they will be alright unless something very catastrophic happens. But they probably won’t have as good of a lifestyle as their grandparents or great-grandparents because of the economics in this country.” Instead of hope, there is a sense of helplessness for Jerry and others like him in Athens County. “You feel like no matter how much you do, there is always more. As a fellow human being on this planet, I feel like there is a responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves,” Rhonda says. “Most of us have never experienced that.”
My dad used to say, 'you gotta stand for something or you'll fall for anything,' and this is just something I decided I had to stand for.
It's like going out and buying a new car, and after you paid for that car for a year, they come back and say, well, we want that car back. Well, where's my money at? If somebody would've told me 15 years ago this was gonna happen, they was gonna try to beat us out of our benefits, I would've had a hard time believing it.
Century Aluminum terminated the benefits for the post-65 retirees effective January 1st, 2010. I don't think you can put words to how terrifying it is to be our age and know that you're not gonna have any medical insurance and know that you can't possibly afford to go out and pick it up on your own.
We worked and paid for them benefits. Everyday, every man was down there.
They sacrificed for years to make sure that they have that benefit, and then when they need it the most, just, psshh, yank it right out from under them. I was actually laying right there on that couch and I was just crying my eyes out and my daughter Jody came in, and she says mom, she says, 'you've got more fire in your britches than any woman I've met in my life, you can do this, you get up off that couch and quit crying and fight back.' I was just at home one day trying to figure out what we were gonna do next and I thought, you know what we need to do, we need to go occupy Century Aluminum.
We had our retiree meeting at the union hall and I said, 'How many volunteers do I have?' And I mean it just gave me chills because the next thing you know about 15 people had their hand up. We were there for 75 days, and it's one of the Christmases, I don't know how many years I got left, but, it'll absolutely be on the top of my list as to one of the greatest Christmases I ever spent.
This country needs more of it, a lot more of it- needs people to stand up and fight for what they believe in. It's what the country was built on and as far as I'm concerned that's what the country will go down on. I have voted every election ever since I was old enough to vote. You know what, I've supported you people all of my life and now it's time you hear me. It affected people big time when this thing shut down, and now, you know, with the talks of restarting it, they're gonna need help, experienced help, to start that thing back up. I would go back and help them, but I want to see what's gonna happen here first.
I'm really anxious to watch, and see just how sincere they are about really putting a new face on Century Aluminum. We have to have industry, but if things continue in the path they're headed right now, just like what Century did, what's happening across this country the young children aren't, I mean the younger generation have nothing to look forward to. Nobody should have to work until you put your feet in the grave.
I want to know that when they wanna take that little fishing trip with their buddies, you know up in the streams up in the mountains or take a hunting trip or take that little journey down to Florida in the wintertime, that they can now use their pension for what their pension was entitled to be used for.
That's my mother. My dad. Every one of them's gone.
I think I'm doing pretty good to be 97 years old. I get out here and mow my own grass. I cut weeds. Plant potatoes. And I do about anything that I want to do.
To leave here and have to be moved from somewhere else to a rest home, I'd rather for the Lord to take me home.
My son, he wants me to come back to Columbus. My nephew, in West Virginia, he wants me to come, and live in there. But this place just seems like home to me. I don't want to leave. And I'm not going to leave unless I just really have to.
I've got so many friends here. And you can tell that when you go to Lottridge. Virginia's got a car. And I started running around with her. And she introduced me to her friends.
And I'm not going back to Columbus. I'm old enough that I know what I want for myself.
Thelma, there's not a judge in this country that ain't going to let you do that.
I met Thelma about five years ago when I got involved in the community center here at Lottridge. When you get to be 97 years old and you're living on your own, and you're not having problems, the quickest way to make that person go downhill would be to move them in somewhere where they didn't do anything. The neighbors here I know would see that she would get to the post office and grocery store and whatnot like that.
My caseworker, she's wanting to get me a place where HUD will pay. I pay $85 dollars a month here. But if I can't find no place around here close, I'm not going to move.
She loves when Good Works comes out because she gets to cook a big meal.
Good Works is my second family! There's cake in there. And fruit salad. Just holler. Still riding horses. Wow. So when was that taken? Uh, last year. For my birthday!
With people like Thelma, they don't consider themselves poor. Because they remember when they had nothing.
I really feel myself lucky.
Are we having a birthday soon? Can I have my hug today? Yes. Good. Yes sir!
I love ya!
And I love you too.
There's a lot of things that money can't buy.