Donald Trump is the only presidential candidate in a long time who has connected directly to the hurt of the region's white working class.
It's been a Scrooge of a year, wouldn't you say? Ebenezer Scrooge - whom I caught on television the other night looking a lot like the actor George C. Scott - was a man who refused to share any of his wealth with the world around him. The year 2012 bears a resemblance.
This year, we endured a divisive battle for the presidency, which was fought at times as though the only thing that mattered was how much money either side could raise. That's a sad statement for a country that stands for democracy.
Thousands were wiped out financially and emotionally by superstorm Sandy. Many innocents were lost to deranged gunmen in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.
The economy refused to rebound, and Washington wouldn't come to agreement over anything.
And so the year 2012 was stingy like Scrooge. But in "A Christmas Carol," Charles Dickens thankfully gives us examples of two people who don't lose faith in the old miser: his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit and his nephew, Fred.
Cratchit raises a glass to Scrooge over the family's meager Christmas dinner - and over Mrs. Cratchit's objections. And Fred continues to invite his uncle to dine, year after year, even though the old man riddles him with insults.
We all know the end of the story. After his ghostly visitations, Scrooge accepts dinner with Fred and becomes a generous benefactor to the Cratchits. And so, neither should we close our hearts to hope for the 21st century.
Taking a wide look around, here are a few silver linings that emerged in 2012.
*Apple announced that it is bringing back some of its manufacturing to the United States. In interviews, Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, said the company would spend about $100 million on U.S. manufacturing operations in 2013.
*Several cities, including New York, are reporting declines in childhood obesity - perhaps showing that public health campaigns can be effective. Obesity is a significant factor in health care costs.
*The years-long deployment of soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in an unexpected gain for quality child care in this country. When parents began shipping out, the Department of Defense realized that there weren't enough approved, private child care slots. So the military worked with a national organization, Child Care Aware, to train and certify child care providers, greatly expanding the supply of quality programs.
*Here's another unexpected gain. During the economic downturn that began in 2008, even as people are hurting financially, they are demonstrating more compassion. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports a rise in volunteerism - exactly the opposite of what happened during hard economic times in the past.
There are many more bright spots; we see them in our personal lives every day. Let's hold a hope in our hearts for rebirth in our public life as well.
This essay was first published in Newsday.
Entering adulthood used to be like wading into a gently sloping lake. You got your feet wet with a degree or job. Then maybe you found an apartment, and eventually a life partner. Soon, you were swimming in deep water.
But today, it feels as though the water gets deep fast. Young people can't just splash around and "find themselves" anymore. The world has changed.
Work can disappear with little warning. Skills grow obsolete fast. Lifetime employment and corporate loyalty are mostly things of the past. Compared to two decades ago, the average American worker puts in an extra 164 hours per year on the job, according to economist Juliet Schor. And adjusted for inflation, middle-class U.S. workers make less than they did in 1971.
These pressures mean that anyone who wants to "have it all" - career, family and leisure - needs to look way ahead. We parents would be wise to talk through the choices very explicitly with our children, especially the majority who are likely to want both work and kids.
We can explain the need for a sharply different perspective on career planning. For example, a friend of mine in her 20s who just got married says that she and others her age won't rely on working for an employer. The long hours and lack of security aren't worth it. Her plan is to run her own business and live frugally. Great idea; I hope for her sake it works out.
Another option is to choose an explicitly family-friendly career, something women have been doing for ages - a career with predictable hours and even some job security. Men increasingly are doing likewise; they make up ever more of our nurses, school teachers, bank tellers and food servers.
Even for the most ambitious, there are ways to craft a career that allows for more family time. A study of nearly 1,000 women who graduated from Harvard College between 1988 and 1991 showed that, 15 years after graduation, the ones who became doctors and lawyers had an easier time combining work and family than did those who later got an MBA. The doctors and lawyers had shifted to part-time work, opened their own practices with like-minded colleagues, or moved into the nonprofit sector or government work. The businesswomen, by contrast, faced an either-or choice: Put in grueling hours or quit.
Marissa Mayer, the new Yahoo chief executive, is an example. She's 37, will give birth this fall, and plans "a few weeks" of maternity leave during which she will continue to work. But if you want a different sort of work-family balance for yourself, then perhaps you shouldn't plan on following in her footsteps.
Stories about families working together to make hard choices are encouraging. Austrian tennis player Sybille Bammer, for example, had a child at 21 and quit competing. She went back to tennis after her life partner, and the child's father, became her coach, hitting partner and Mr. Mom. For a while, they lived on $500 a month.
Then there's Angela Braly, chief executive of health benefits giant WellPoint, whose husband left his family business for a more flexible schedule in real estate and teaching. They have three children. How do we discuss the complexities of the modern balancing act without blunting our kids' ambitions? I can hear them mocking us now: Settle for the mommy track early, dear, and save yourself a lot of angst. But that's not the message. On the contrary, what's important is figuring out what you want and planning for it, precisely so you don't end up sidetracked.
Couples considering a family should talk openly about their expectations, too. You know the old saying: If you don't know where you're going, you're sure to get there.
This essay was first published in Newsday.
People leaving jobs for reasons they don't want to discuss often say something hackneyed about spending more time with family. But it appears that Michèle Flournoy literally means it.
Flournoy, 50, is a top Pentagon policy adviser and potential first female defense secretary. She announced this week that she will quit after the New Year to have more time with her three children, ages 14, 12 and 9. Her work for the Defense Department often runs from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and over many weekends.
Flournoy's work sounds fascinating. She testifies before Congress, and is strategizing troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a lot to give up for three kids.
Which is why I love that she stated her reason so baldly: The work of being a mother is important, too.
It's possible there's more to her story -- who knows? But her public affirmation of motherhood is brave. It risks the anger of those who argue women can "have it all." Flournoy invites the envy of parents who have to work for financial reasons; she's married to a top deputy at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She risks instilling doubt in the junior women -- perhaps also mothers -- whom she sought to mentor and inspire. And she courts ridicule by the ignorant. Remember when talk show host Mike Gallagher called Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly's three-month maternity leave "a racket"?
Highly visible women should keep talking about the importance of parenting, because they can have repercussions for working moms and dads who aren't among the power elite. There are many parents who don't have the protections of money or status to assert something so basic as the need for time away from a job to raise children.
And working people have ever less leverage now, as the depressed economy has "excessed" so many into the unemployment line. In the spring of 2009, a House subcommittee on Workforce Protections, chaired by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), heard testimony from advocates that the dismal economy was pushing parents out of the workforce because their opportunities for flexible work schedules were drying up. Parents who had worked a four-day week, for example, found their employers suddenly requiring five days.
Sometimes, employers were trying to stretch to make do with the current workforce, because they didn't want to hire anyone new. But the result was often to upset a delicate balance and force the parents out.
Flexible schedules are rarely set down in writing and can disappear when an accommodating manager is replaced by someone less family-friendly. Another possibility -- and the one that most concerned Congress -- was that employers could be using the bad economy to discriminate against pregnant workers and parents.
Recognizing how precarious the work-family balance continues to be, some companies have begun making flexible work arrangements more formal. For example, KPMG, the audit firm based in Idaho, with offices in Melville, has a flexibility website where employees can explore compressed work weeks, telecommuting, job sharing and more.
Of course, accounting firms like KPMG battle notoriously high turnover, so they look for ways to retain employees. At other kinds of jobs, many workers don't even have paid sick days -- in fact, 47 percent of private-sector workers, according to the Department of Labor. We have a long way to go as a country that supports parents.
People like Flournoy should keep up the drumbeat about the importance of child-raising, reminding employers that parents have important work off the job, too.
First published in Newsday.
Regarding the column by Anne Michaud, "Keep school budget talk out of the classroom" [Opinion, Dec. 8], I agree that children need to feel secure in school. Their focus needs to be on learning. A major part of that learning should, in my opinion, be relating knowledge to reality. What good are the three Rs if we don't see the issues that are facing us daily?
We live in a society that has a small percentage of people voting in general and school elections. This lack of response leads to lack of control over the direction our country takes and sometimes even to corruption in government.
It is imperative that our children learn to be good citizens and participate in our democracy. If this means bringing up budget concerns to students old enough to understand, then they should be mentioned. An open discussion talking about the whole process and not focusing just on layoffs, would be in order. This hopefully would bring students to begin thinking about mundane issues that our society faces on a daily basis. Opening their young minds would undoubtedly lead to a more involved electorate later on.
Steve Tuck, Huntington
If a teacher is asked a question by a student, shouldn't it be answered? I find it amusing that a person who contributes to Newsday's Opinion pages wants to now control the things we say in class. Newspaper columnists get their forum without any input from readers.
I find all the harsh rhetoric printed in the last several years about teachers "divisive, angry and unhealthy" as well. When class sizes are larger and programs are cut, remember the true culprits: the financial institutions and oil companies whose employees and owners still get record bonuses each year -- on average, more than teachers make in a year.
Rich Weeks, Middle Island
I believe that Anne Michaud completely missed the point. School budget talks allow Social Studies teachers to discuss relevant and current issues facing our communities. This issue lends itself to great discussions of limited resources, the role of the citizen in a democracy, economic choices and a whole host of other topics. This is what we call a teachable moment.
We do our students a great disservice when we try to shelter them from what is happening in the news.
Kathleen Stanley, Massapequa Park Editor's note: The writer is a high school Social Studies teacher.
As a teacher in a public high school, I feel that I need to explain why teachers sometimes discuss rules governing teacher layoffs (last in, first out) with their students. A lot of students don't understand the difference between being laid off and being fired. They just assume that when someone is excessed because of budgetary reasons, that person has been fired for cause.
I feel it is important to explain to students how tenure and seniority work. It's bad enough when colleagues are let go. I'm certainly not going to let their reputations be tarnished with misinformation.
The column is right in this sense, that younger children should not be frightened by teachers into thinking Mom and Dad hold the key to a teacher's survival, and children should therefore convince their parents to vote for the budget. It's a cheap ploy.
However, I also think that when students come to school and tell me their parents say I make too much money and have it really easy, that I should be allowed to defend my profession. I don't think it's inappropriate to discuss the realities with older students, some of whom will be able to participate in the upcoming budget votes.
Jeffrey A. Stotsky, Forest Hills
Recently, I was driving my seventh-grader to one of her many events, when she began explaining LIFO to me. She told me that the youngest teachers were usually the ones to lose their jobs when there are budget cuts: "last in, first out."
I don't consider this information a seventh-grader should be thinking about - except perhaps when learning labor history in the classroom. She said that her teachers, and others, have been talking about the politics of school budgets.
It may seem a little soon, given that budgets won't be up for a public vote until May. But people are thinking ahead since this time around will be different. New York schools will be budgeting to stay under the 2 percent property tax cap passed earlier this year.
This week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo negotiated a deal to restructure state income tax rates so that New York will be able to afford a promised 4 percent increase in state aid to schools next year. I hope that deal takes some of the tension out of the classroom, because I don't think school budget cuts are a proper topic for students.
I first heard such concerns from my daughter when she was in fourth grade and came home to report that her teacher might lose her job if the school budget didn't pass. The message to parents was that we should get out and vote "yes." It was the emotional equivalent of dangling a baby over a banister.
I sent an email to another teacher, who was the supervisor of my daughter's program, and said I didn't think they should be talking in class about teacher layoffs. First, it's scary for kids to think that the teacher could suddenly be gone. There's an emotional attachment between student and teacher.
It's also frightening for kids to contemplate how their teacher might be harmed by job loss. Last, it's unfair to imply that Mommy and Daddy hold the only key - the ballot box - to saving Teacher's job.
Could it be that if the school board had negotiated a more modest teachers contract that it could afford to pay more teachers year after year? Of course. Could it be that if administrators found savings - like condsolidating their ranks or settling for less luxurious compensation packages - that the system could afford to lay off fewer teachers? Right again.
But I didn't say that when I emailed my daughter's school. I simply said that I felt the financial conversation was best kept among adults, and that students might be frightened by layoff talk.
When teachers raise district budget issues in class, it feels like divorcing parents who are pointing blaming fingers at each other. It's divisive, angry and unhealthy. I feel the same way about teachers refusing to stay for after-school help or wearing black to school to protest that they're working without a contract. These "conversations" should occur among adults. Kids should be able to focus on adaptive immunity and rational integers and the branches of government without being distracted by budget politics.
Teachers surely want to be treated like professionals - and I've met far, far more good teachers than the occasional inconsiderate one. But a few loose comments - such as how my daughter learned about LIFO - can poison the atmosphere.
With the tax cap in effect, the conversation about how to pay for public education is going to become tenser in coming years. We can figure it out, but let's do it in a room where only the grown-ups are allowed.
First published in Newsday.
“Can Obama lose this election?" a friend asked the other day. It's something supporters of the president are well within reason to ask these days, given the widespread economic misery that has opened a big double doorway to that possibility. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released last week, 54 percent see the current troubles as the beginning of a long-term national decline, not simply a trough for the U.S. economy that will give way to prosperity soon.
And so with a race that could tilt either way, Americans are obsessed with who's ahead in the Republican pack, and President Barack Obama's sympathizers gleefully chalk up the gaffes: restaurant executive Herman Cain's groping allegations, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's forgotten list of federal agencies to shutter, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's shifting stance on health care.
But the president will be missing a crucial responsibility over the next 11-plus months if he allows the Democratic Party's message to center on the horrors of the Republican roster. That responsibility is this: to reassure Americans that there's a candidate in the race who can't be bought and sold on Wall Street.
According to that same Journal/NBC poll, three out of four people say the nation's economic structure favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of us. That's an incredibly skewed perception of the basic fairness and merit-based achievement that are supposed to underlie our democracy. We aren't Dubai or Panama, are we?
No wonder half of those responding to the poll say they identify with one of this country's polar extremes: the tea party or Occupy Wall Street.
But beyond a broad disaffection fueled by high unemployment and underwater mortgages, the perceptions of poll respondents were specific to Obama as well: About three-quarters said the president has fallen short of his promises to improve oversight of the banks and Wall Street.
That's why the Obama administration's position is confounding on a proposed national settlement between big banks and federal and state officials over mortgage abuses. Attorneys general around the country are examining foreclosures made, perhaps illegally, through a hasty process known as "robo-signing." The president's people are said to be pushing for a $28-billion agreement - while a few outlier attorneys general are resisting: Eric Schneiderman here in New York, Kamala Harris in California and Beau Biden in Delaware.
Let's face it: $28 billion is a puny sum compared with the harm caused. To put it in perspective, negative equity in the housing market tops $700 billion. The government shouldn't give bankers immunity from legal liability - perhaps for any sum - but certainly not for so little, and not before a thorough investigation of banks' role in the near-meltdown of the global financial system.
In the past, a little salve on the wound - $28 billion in mortgage forgiveness, refinancing, credit counseling and legal services - might have been a very smart election-year gambit. But the economic pain and resentment of the last three years is too deep, and the Internet has made the public better informed. Reacting to news about the possible bank settlement, the Occupy Wall Street folks hoisted a sign reading, "Obama, don't be Wall Street's puppet."
Perhaps the president has good reasons for urging this settlement with the banks. If he does, he should take his case to the public. Because there's a lot more at stake than which party takes the White House. We could lose our faith that our government works for most of the people, most of the time.
First published in Newsday.
With millions out of work, complaints about the decline in middle-class wages may seem misplaced. But without some shoring up, the middle class will remain dispirited -- and our economy, which is 70 percent dependent on consumer spending, will remain in the dumper.
It may be that there's a role for government to play in buttressing these eroding wages, which result not only in a declining standard of living, but also in a family life so pressure-filled that it leads to its own problems: angry homes, fast-food diets, dependence on alcohol and drugs.
Calling for any sort of government role during these tea party times can raise charges of socialism. But the idea of a wage that supports some minimum standard of living -- shelter, clothing, food -- has been broached on and off for more than a century.
In the late 1800s, social activists began protesting wages earned by a working-class man that were not sufficient to sustain his family, without the additional wages of working children and mothers. The Catholic Church published a fundamental social teaching, "Rerum Novarum" (on capital and labor), that read, "Wealthy owners of the means of production and employers must never forget that both divine and human law forbid them to squeeze the poor and wretched for the sake of gain or to profit from the helplessness of others."
Shortly afterward, Australia's courts ruled that an employer must pay a wage that guaranteed a standard of living that was reasonable for "a human being in a civilized community" for a family of four to live in "frugal comfort."
In the United States, these ideas led to laws forbidding child labor, making education compulsory and protecting women from exploitive labor conditions. The campaign to establish a "family wage" was defeated, but in 1938, a lower standard, the federal minimum wage, was passed.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel Patrick Moynihan and in 1968, a group of 1,200 economists including Paul Samuelson and John Kenneth Galbraith, have all supported some kind of minium income guarantee.
Echoes of this debate are being heard now, in the Vatican's critique last week of the global financial system, and in places where labor unions still have some sway: In the New York City Council, which at the urging of retail workers may require employers in commercial developments built with public subsidies to pay at least $10 an hour, a "living wage" higher than the minimum wage of $7.25; and in Albany, where the State Legislature in April passed an increase to $9 an hour for home health aides, who are represented by the influential 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers East. That increase takes effect on Long Island in 2013.
It's easy to see why the lowest-paid workers would need a boost from someone powerful enough to argue on their behalf. But to make the argument for the middle class, one has to believe that this great swath of America, nearly half the country, has special value. And it does: The stability and upward mobility of the middle class not only underpin the U.S. economy but give America its famously optimistic and innovative spirit.
That spirit is on display as the middle class makes the best of things today: The average American has added around a month's worth of work, 164 hours per year, in the last two decades. One-third of American families have reduced their savings for college, according to a 2010 Sallie Mae/Gallup poll, and another 15 percent are not saving at all. Retirement savings are in similar decline.
How much more can the middle class cinch in its belt, before we lose what's precious about this way of life?
Atop sports bleachers and inside minivans across Long Island, gloom about the economy is never very far from mind. The current generation of middle-class householders is used to the normal ups and downs of the economic cycle, but none of us is prepared for a second "down" right now -- the terrifying, rumored double dip.
Recently, as I rode with some other parents along Route 110 from Huntington through the busy Melville corridor to Farmingdale, the conversation turned to how many empty buildings we were passing. One man recalled visiting a now-vacant office center to close on the purchase of his house. A favorite wedding reception hall had been demolished. The Checkers drive-through was suddenly out of business -- open one day, and stripped of its signs the next. Even the dollar store -- maddeningly misnamed "Things Over $1" -- has closed.
How does a dollar store fail during a recession, when everyone's looking for a bargain? The unspoken fear is that perhaps this time, it's something worse.
The Week magazine recently concluded that we aren't in an ordinary economic cycle, but that Americans are in the process of paying off mountains of debt. We had grown used to living on credit, and we are now regretting having covered ourselves with piles of bills just as the economy was about to stumble. For an economy that was 70 percent propelled by consumer spending, tight home budgets are incapacitating.
Others say that the emerging economy -- outsourced and technology-dependent -- is unfavorable to the middle class. It can only benefit those at the top. While economists pull apart the numbers to make sense of it all, the middle class is endeavoring to persevere.
Many are forming new philosophies about kids and college, for example. Two years at a community college add up to a potentially employable graduate with an associate's degree. Meanwhile those same two years at a four-year institution equal, perhaps, nothing more than a college dropout with loans to repay.
One acquaintance told his high school senior that if she wanted to go to a private university, she would have to pay the difference between that tuition and SUNY's. There is praise for the child who chooses the practical -- accounting or engineering -- and a roll of the eye for liberal arts majors.
Nobody says directly that money is tight, but that thought is always lurking. Without asking if we needed it, my daughter's orthodontist offered us a financing plan. While we were school shopping, the clerk at Macy's warned that the jeans we were considering cost a whopping $89.
These small kindnesses are a balm in difficult times -- especially because the opposite coarseness so often confronts us, too. School clubs demanding payment for expensive class trips. The classmate whose outfits display Abercrombie & Fitch logos. The burgher purchasing a case of good red wine, and tipping the clerk to carry it to his Cadillac Escalade SUV.
There used to be far more class trips, designer clothes and Escalades. Or, so it seemed. The new polite is to talk cheap. Where to find the best thrift stores, and bargains at the gas pump. Good buys in used cars. Off-price movie tickets.
Because even if we aren't having financial troubles, we know many who are. The new adult horror story is the acquaintance who hopped the Long Island Rail Road to attend nine job interviews with a potential employer -- only to have the company eliminate the opening in light of more bad economic news. A divorce lawyer remarked that he used to divide up assets; now he parcels out marital debt.
Long Islanders can be resilient. But we'd like to know, how much longer?
After listening to President Barack Obama's job-creation address last week, I kept coming back to the idea that he wants to give payroll tax breaks to businesses that offer people pay raises. That struck me as odd, given that unemployment stands at 9.1 percent, and you'd think that this hard-times president would be focused exclusively on getting people back to work.
But even people with jobs are facing time and money pressures in this economy, pressures that are bad for families' health.
Certainly, putting cash in people's pockets should help to rev up the listless consumer economy. But it looks like the president is also acknowledging just how much wages have eroded in the last couple of decades.
Real wages have been declining since 1983 and that means the middle class has less buying power. At the same time, the average American has added around a month's worth of work -- 164 hours per year -- in the past two decades. The number of dual-income households has risen, as well as the number of people working multiple jobs. It's not hard to imagine that people are putting in more time at work to make up for the erosion in their wages. That sounds like a very busy -- an overly busy -- middle class.
This busyness has consequences for the mental and physical health of parents and children -- and study after study substantiates this. A six-year study of 11,540 working parents in France, published in 2007, showed that people who had higher work stress or greater family demands were more likely to miss work due to poor mental health, particularly depression. Research on working parents in New York's Erie County demonstrated a relationship between family-work conflict and depression, heavy alcohol consumption, poor physical health and high blood pressure.
Time pressures also contribute to weight problems. For the first time in history, there are more overweight than underweight adults worldwide, according to new research at American University. A study published in the January-February issue of the journal Child Development found that children's body mass index rose the more years their mothers worked over their lifetimes. One explanation offered is that working parents have limited time for grocery shopping and food preparation.
Not so long ago, as a society we were asking, is it better for families if parents stay home with kids or work outside the home? Moms were usually the parents in question. Now, because of steadily declining purchasing power, for most people, it's less a matter of choice than necessity.
I have to ask myself, was this a conscious decision? Did Americans choose "working parents" as the better alternative? Was it a good direction or have we lost something in the translation? Have we perhaps given too little thought to how parents can give both their employers and their children what they need?
The financial and time pressures on families are what make us so vulnerable to implied criticisms, like those on display in Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." It registered so strongly with American parents because we're insecure about having adequate resources to meet the challenges of raising children now.
It's too early to tell if the Obama tax break, if adopted, will be effective in raising people's wages, or even whether, if we made more money, we would choose to spend more time with our children. But it's worth trying to reverse some of the trends that are putting so much pressure on families' health.
Pushed along by those twins of the Great Recession -- unemployment and foreclosure -- America may be moving back under the multigenerational roof.
At a recent reunion of high school friends, I talked to one who had returned to her mother's house, along with her brother and sister. The whole family was back together again, this time with grandchildren added to the mix. It was a disaster. The siblings were fighting as much as they had in high school.
Another friend's son was enlisting in the Army to avoid moving back into her home after graduation. The Census Bureau says that 54 million Americans were living in multigenerational families in 2010, up from 49 million two years earlier. That's the highest count since 1968.
Of course, it's nothing new for large extended families to live under one roof. In many parts of the world, it's the norm. In this country, Asians and Hispanics have higher rates of multigenerational living, perhaps reflecting greater cultural acceptance.
But for the most part, since the 1950s, the American middle class has assumed that one is up and out at 18. Each nuclear family, according to this standard, had its own home.
And that attitude can make moving back in together -- or "doubling up" in demographers' terms -- feel like a step backward. It can be a sign of financial desperation, a response to unemployment, lack of child care or health care, or affordable rents.
But there are many advantages that generations can offer one another: care-taking for the young or old, emotional support and the sharing of life lessons. Those benefits -- as well as the financial considerations -- are what led the Huntington-based Family Service League, a social services agency, to create its HomeShare program, which matches older adults with someone who could use their spare bedroom.
Artist Milton Colón, 47, heard about the program through Fountainhead Church in East Northport. He is sharing the Smithtown home of Meinhard and Aino Joks, who are 86 and 85. Colón does the laundry, cooking, bed-making and errands, allowing the Jokses to stay in their home even though their home health care benefits have run out.
In turn, the Jokses have given him shelter and stability. Colón's wife of 22 years died in 2008, of an accidental overdose, and he fell apart. He began living out of his car.
While she was alive, Colón had made a living painting portraits. He was as busy as he wanted to be -- before the recession drained his Brentwood business of customers.
The Jokses are from Estonia and Finland and tell him stories of their emigration after World War II. "I'm a World War II history buff," Colón says. "So, that's something we share. I love history. I could take it in all day."
In the evenings, he works at a basement desk on a comic strip that he's developing. It's about a proud Puerto Rican father named Flores who moves his family from Brooklyn to the suburbs -- "Flowers in Blue," Colón's own story. His new home with the Jokses not only tethers him back to family life, it gives him an artist's freedom from financial worries.
That's the facet of multigenerational living that is not often expressed. We all know about the tensions and bickering -- the fall from the ideal after having somehow slipped off the path to the single-family home. But there is sweetness, too.
So why not make the best of what, for some, has become the new American reality? With 8.8 percent unemployment and 2.36 million homes foreclosed by banks between 2007 and 2010, the middle class is struggling. Independent living may be an American value, but so is helping each other through hard times.
First published in Newsday
Every year as the cold weather arrives, the U.S. Conference of Mayors conducts a survey of who's living in homeless shelters. This year, it uncovered a troubling statistic: a 9 percent increase in the number of families who are homeless.
These numbers have been increasing - the Department of Housing and Urban Development notes a 30 percent growth since 2007 - and are expected to bump up again next year.
Many of these families, remarkably, continue to function, even as the basic need for shelter is threatened or removed entirely. Wendell Chu, the school superintendent in East Islip, says that more students are showing up for class with their homes facing foreclosure. Many more qualify for free and reduced-price lunch - another measure of families in distress.
"This creates stress for these kids," he says. "It affects how kids come to school, their readiness to learn."
As the country continues to pump billions of dollars into homeless programs, food stamps and other safety-net services, the very people these programs are meant to help - mothers and children - continue to struggle. While the welfare overhaul of the late 1990s was intended to create a path from welfare to work, its effect in the current troubled economy may well be simply dumping people without support.
The mayors were asked to identify the three main causes of homelessness among households with children. The top responses were unemployment (76 percent), lack of affordable housing (72 percent), poverty (56 percent), domestic violence (24 percent) and low-paying jobs (20 percent).
To be sure, we are living through a historic economic catastrophe, and this period will leave a mark on our national psyche. More Americans were poor in 2009 - 43.6 million total - than at any time since the U.S. Census Bureau began estimating the poverty rate 50 years ago. Jobless rates are also very high.
Our social safety net simply has too many holes. While some dismiss the homeless - depicting them as either too crazy, drugged or afraid of the authorities to seek help - surely we're not ready to concede that there's an acceptable level of homelessness for families.
The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless is preparing for its annual count of homeless people later this month. Last year, the group found 1,046 families in Suffolk County and 446 in Nassau living in emergency shelters or transitional housing.
Long Island wasn't part of the Conference of Mayors survey, but the coalition's Julee King says the trends hold true here. In the past 18 to 24 months, the coalition has fielded more calls from families, particularly those being evicted because the homes they're renting are being repossessed.
It's extraordinary that this is happening on well-to-do Long Island. Fortunately, we have a network of charities, religious and secular, that provides temporary housing. But it would be better to prevent homelessness in the first place. The dislocation is disruptive, as the school superintendent points out, and it's inhumane.
Boston is experimenting with banning evictions. Many cities, including Chicago, are expanding consumer credit counseling. Of those surveyed in the mayors' study, 92 percent said housing vouchers to reduce rents would be an effective remedy for homelessness, and 71 percent advocate higher wages for low-end jobs. Given economic realities, that's unlikely to happen any time soon.
Still, these are important ideas. Nobody, least of all children, should have to cope with so much insecurity when it comes to something as basic as shelter.
Originally published in Newsday
Even as news reports offer hope of economic recovery, the figures on home foreclosures remain stuck in a recessionary winter. When the books close on 2010, banks will have repossessed a record 1.2 million U.S. homes, up 33 percent from 2009.
On Long Island, we ranked a dreadful second in a new measure published last month: Given the current rate of home sales, it would take 30.4 months to sell all the foreclosed and "distressed" properties here. Only Miami has a larger, slower-moving inventory.
The housing crisis is entering its fourth year, yet people are still losing their homes at a disastrous rate. In Nassau and Suffolk counties, 893 new foreclosure cases were opened in November alone. Despite a series of programs intended to prevent foreclosures, lenders and the federal government have failed.
A congressional panel overseeing the federal programs admitted as much earlier this month. The marquee initiative, the Home Affordable Modification Program, will end up preventing only 800,000 foreclosures, at a maximum, vastly fewer than the 3 million to 4 million it initially aimed to stop. Even more worrisome: This is the third foreclosure prevention effort launched by the federal government since 2007, and the fourth overall. The first was initiated by the mortgage writers themselves - an early washout.
The fundamental flaw in every case is relying on lenders to voluntarily reduce a borrower's monthly payments to affordable levels. One would think that keeping the mortgage checks coming would be in lenders' interests. By foreclosing on a home, they recover only a fraction of the value of the loan.
But apparently there are financial incentives working in the opposite direction. In our system of bundled, resold mortgages, the companies that service the loans can sometimes make more money by charging fees throughout the foreclosure process.
One way around this would be to make loan modifications mandatory. The House voted in 2009 to give bankruptcy court judges the power to reduce mortgages so that people could afford to stay in their homes. Regrettably, the Senate refused to pass this measure. It should be reintroduced.
The government's half-steps to date reflect an unwillingness to "reward" people who foolishly signed up for mortgages they couldn't afford. But many who are struggling have fallen on hard times for unforeseen reasons, often because of job loss. It's a Catch-22 that some people could relocate for new jobs - if only they could sell their homes in this terrible market.
To be sure, it would be better if the housing market recovered and the value of people's homes came back. Some believe the quickest route is to allow the foreclosures to proceed. But blaming homeowners ignores the culpability of lenders, who duped many buyers with teaser rates, balloon payments and outright lies about the loan terms - to say nothing of recent revelations that lenders couldn't produce paperwork to prove they hold the loans. Bankruptcy court judges should be given discretion on whether a lender acted in bad faith.
A new law taking effect Jan. 22 in New York will allow bankruptcy filers to retain up to $150,000 in home equity, or $300,000 for a couple, potentially allowing many to keep their homes. Time will tell if this will be adequate.
It's striking that during the 1930s, the most recent era when U.S. home prices fell so dramatically, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made not only a practical argument to save homes, but a moral plea: The "broad interests of the nation require that specific safeguards should be thrown around home ownership as a guarantee of social and economic stability."
It's time we made this commitment to stability too.
Originally published in Newsday
In July, a Congressional committee, the Joint Economic Committee, heard from work-home experts about the disappearance of flexible work arrangements – a hazard of the economic recession. Cynthia Thomas Calvert, deputy director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California said callers to the center “unanimously expressed their needs for flexibility and feelings of near desperation at facing unemployment because of their inability to work a standard schedule.” Calvert went on to say that employers may be using the recession as an excuse to terminate family caregivers. Between January 2008 and July 2009, the center had heard from 45 women who were fired shortly before, during or shortly after their pregnancies. In many cases, supervisors had expressed doubt about their ability to combine work and family.
Thirty percent of working moms, whose companies have had layoffs in the past 12 months, are working longer hours, according to CareerBuilder’s annual Mother’s Day survey taken in 2009. Fourteen percent or working moms had taken on second jobs in the past year.
In good times, workers frequently seized the opportunity to use “flex time” and family leave, to telecommute and to take paid sick days. But the recession has brought with it a "silent fright" among workers, Joanne Brundage told the Washington Post in March. The executive director of a mothers’ networking group, Mothers & More, Brundage said the current mindset is to "work as many hours as you can. Make yourself indispensable. Don’t ever complain. Don’t ever ask for anything. I’m just horrified. We may as well just forget the last 20 years.”
The Center for American Progress, a self-described non-partisan think-tank that is nonetheless fairly left-wing, has issued a report called "America's Middle Class Still Losing Ground." Authors Christian Weller and Amanda Logan find that middle-class families are less able to weather a financial disaster today than they were as recently as 2000. They write:
--The sharpest deterioration in middle-class financial security is associated with the cost of a medical emergency.
--Drops in personal wealth have contributed to the decline in middle-class financial security. Because house prices started to fall and debt continued to rise in 2007, we also observed the share of families who could weather an unspecified emergency equal to three months of income decrease to 29.4 percent in 2007 from ... 39.4 percent in 2000.
--The share of families who had enough resources to cover a spell of unemployment has declined since 2000. (To 44.1 percent in 2007 from 51 percent in 2000.)
Weller ads in a video presentation that middle-class Americans have been whalloped by a "trifecta" of decline in wealth: a stock market crash in 2001 that is repeating itself in 2008; falling home prices; and high and increasing mortgage levels.
The report's prescription includes a bigger earned income tax credit, easier access to union membership, universal health care and a stronger program of unemployment insurance. At the same time, the Center's David Madland finds that unemployment figures hide some of the job loss that is happening today. Many people are being asked to work fewer hours for less pay. And only 35 percent of people who are unemployed are getting over the hurdles to actually receive unemployment checks.
The job numbers released today by the Department of Labor provide further evidence that that the economy is not working for most Americans, with new indications that the labor market is likely to remain weak for some time. In July, the economy lost another 51,000 jobs, and unemployment increased to 5.7 percent from 5.5 percent, its highest level since March of 2004. Job losses were widespread, declining in construction, manufacturing and several service industries....
The economy has lost jobs for seven straight months—the longest stretch since the period ending May 2002—shedding 460,000 jobs since January. This is the longest stretch of job loss since the period ending May 2002 – the tail of the last recession....
Not only are people losing jobs, but those with jobs are increasingly likely to have their hours reduced to part-time. The number of people who are working part time involuntarily—predominantly those who have lost hours or cannot find full-time work—jumped to 5.7 million last month, an increase of almost 1.4 million over the last 12 months. And many people who have lost jobs are having significant difficulty finding new ones. The number of people who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer increased to 1.7 million people, up from 1.6 million the previous month and 1.3 million the previous July.
... when Congress returns from their August recess, one of the first things they should address are reforms to unemployment insurance. They should temporarily extend the length of time the unemployed can collect benefits, and significantly expand the reach of unemployment insurance. The reason: currently only about 35 percent of those who are unemployed receive unemployment benefits due to structural rigidities in the system that do not take into account new work patterns in the economy.
So, Dan's new company has shifted an overseas meeting right into the one week of summer vacation we were planning to take this year. And how can he say no, really? He is under tremendous pressure to prove himself, and if he keeps getting another job every two years, he'll pretty much always be under pressure. The corporations have we peons right where they want us. I've spent a lot of time and care planning this vacation. It's a week at the beach, Sunday to Sunday, and now Dan has to leave on Thursday. My resentment level is pretty high.
Newspaper people are losing jobs left and right. And, you know, being verbal types, they are writing a lot about it. The Columbia Journalism Review is giving them a forum to sound off, called "Parting Thoughts." Most of the posts are good reads. But there is one I particularly enjoyed, by Todd Engdahl, a 31-year veteran of the Denver Post. Engdahl is merciless with people who don't adjust to the changing times. His post is entitled, "Sorry to be blunt, but get over it." Yes, it's a little journalist-style macho. But I loved this line (last paragraph): "Your job is not your identity."
For so many of us, this is what job loss is about, losing our identity. I was lucky in that I confronted similar identity issues when I had a baby and, about two years later, left my high-profile reporting job for stay-at-home mommy status and a little freelance writing. I suffered the entire meltdown at that time and so no longer have to worry about losing it ever again. (Maybe.)
For three months, my heart raced at odd times throughout the day. I saw a doctor, who gave me a portable device to record my heart rhythms. I would then connect the device to a phone and beam them in to the lab, as a sort of progress report. I believe the technical term for my problem was panic.
How much of this is going on with the current wave of layoffs? Do people become immune to it after being fired a few times? Or does it slowly destroy their souls?
Why do we judge each other based on our professional titles, anyway?
If you're out there reading, why not post some ideas on this.
So, Dan started his new job today. He had to take a train into the city, which was so wonderful for me, because he left a full 15 minutes before I had to get out of bed. I wanted to let my dreamy thoughts wander around, but mostly they took two directions. One, I was extremely relieved to feel a sense of loosening in my whole body of the pressure of holding the familiy finances together. And the second, I was frightened that he was stepping out into another world of pain and failure from which he will return in roughly two years, battered and hardly the man I found him to be when I met him 17 years ago, so full of optimism and dreams. I fell on my knees out of bed, good Catholic girl, and prayed God to let him rack up a few years this time. Is there something about Dan that makes him a target of layoffs? Are there certain people who should be laid off? Clearly, that's what my co-workers believe. They are very merit-based, no room for bad luck. Today, they were discussing whether a political candidate had a job or was unemployed. As I approached, their circle throbbed in and out with the discomfort of allowing in an avowed kin to the unemployed. A sympathizer. Someone who mingles with non-winners. I want to say to them, "Hey, relax. I understand there's a stigma. I know it looks bad that my husband has been laid off a lot, but really, he's a great guy." It's clear that I can't really convince them of that. Words can't really convince them. The prejudice goes deep, and it is reinforced when their colleagues are laid off (I'm in the newspaper business, after all), and they are asked to remain working. There is survivors' guilt and also survivors' superiority. I share it, I admit. I know what I am -- productive -- or I would not be holding my job. I'm like the Albert Brooks character in "Broadcast News." They keep me because I'm versatile.
So? It's a living. I never pretended to be Anna Quindlen.
So, Dan got a good job offer yesterday, but it's in the city, which makes me nervous. That's an 80-minute commute, roughly, one-way. I know because I did it for nearly five years. I'm worried about being the parent who has to get home and fix dinner. For the past five years, Dan has been working closer to home than me, and he's taken on that responsibility. Mostly I worry that I'll be late sometimes. In my office, people generally leave at 6 or 6:30, and it's a half-hour trip home. Maybe I could work it out with my boss. I KNOW she would understand, but we are pretty short-handed here, and I hate to give her yet another management challenge. Plus, 7 or 7:30 is pretty late for a child to have dinner, and it doesn't leave us much time for homework or just plain hanging out together. We're covered for the summer because we have a college student watching our daughters, and she's great and makes them practice their violin and piano. But I worry about the YMCA, where the girls have been going after school three days a week. They don't do homework at the Y, and it closes at 7.
On the other hand.... it would be nice for Dan to have a job where we can save for college and retirement, etc., etc., and stop worrying about that. In 2-3 years, I could probably scale back if I felt the girls needed me to be home more. I could freelance, or ask about part-time.
Dan has been offered a job. This is extraordinary, since he's only been out of work for two months. He has turned over a layoff this fast once before, finding a new job before he had to leave the old one. But the problem is the offer is a low ball. By which I mean that it's a $20,000 pay cut, two weeks vacation, a very iffy bonus (his last job was a 25% bonus if goals were met) and no stock options -- another $17,000 cut from last year. All of this I'm willing to live with. We can get by, though our retirement and college savings might suffer. The only aspect that really bothers me is the minimal vacation. It's what a kid out of college would be offered.
A couple of times we've waited out the first year of one of his jobs with meager days off -- one week in the first year. It means we don't visit our families at Christmas, and that our daughters and I have invented what we call "girl trips." Meaning that I take them on trips by myself rather than miss out altogether. Niagara, Washington, DC, Sturbridge Village. They're sweet memories, but they leave me exhausted. Don't get me started about how we're never going to Disney World. Yeah, OK. I have an entitled attitude.
What middle class family doesn't want to go to Disney World once while the kids are young? Dan won't bump up to 15 days vacation for five years. Our daughters will be in high school.
It's not only the particulars of this job offer that have me steamed, but the way in which it's been laid out. It took 2-3 weeks for them to make the offer, after Dan took a drug screening. Who moves that slowly? I wonder if they were trying to make him sweat, make him more desperate, so they could get him cheaper.
They won't tell him the generally accepted work hours, which is maddening. I don't get out until 6 or 6:30 p.m., kind of a late day. How do we know we'll be able to pick up the girls from after-school care every night? It closes at 7, and I have a half-hour drive from my office. This company makes out like it's unreasonable for Dan to ask these questions or to negotiate on the vacation.
He's got interviews with two other companies lined up in the next six days. One interview is the third time he's spoken with the company. But the unemployment rate keeps climbing. Do we dare risk it?