Welcome to the new normal

November 11, 2010

A SocialistWorker.org contributor describes some up-close encounters with the suffering caused by the Great Recession in the suburbs outside Chicago.

IT'S A special day at the food bank.

"Hallelujah!" my mother exclaims.

"Don't we just love life's little surprises?" chirps the volunteer at the first station.

The cause for celebration? A single, unwrapped roll of toilet paper the food bank is giving each participant today. Toilet paper is one of those necessities not covered by food stamps, and one that the manager recently decided to stop providing for free at the shelter where my mom lives.

"They don't have this every time," my mom explains, putting the roll in the top of her cart.

The suburban Chicago community center running this food bank is one of few resources in the area for the unemployed and the poor. It always seems to be packed with people signing up for free classes in English as a Second Language, literacy or computer skills, or picking something out from rooms full of donated clothes.

In suburbs like this one, where the American Dream is supposed to wrap prosperous, happy nuclear families safely inside of white picket fences, the phenomenon of extreme poverty is creeping in, even among white-collar professionals who've been out of work for long enough to deplete their savings.

Volunteers pack boxes of donated food for low-income families in Anderson, Calif.
Volunteers pack boxes of donated food for low-income families in Anderson, Calif.

Today, the food bank also features a basket of sample-size toiletries and another containing a few over-the-counter medicines. My mom spots aspirin and grabs it.

We begin to stroll through the maze of shelves, stopping every few feet where another volunteer explains what quantity of items mom can choose from each section. First, she can pick three items from a series of stacked trays that hold naked aluminum cans, each marked with a black-on-white printed label: "Green beans," "Mixed vegetables," "Peas."

"Fresh vegetable, hot dogs or pizza dough," says the next volunteer, pointing to the rows of items in her station. There's only one fresh vegetable left, since we've arrived at the end of the pantry's hours. It's a pale, slightly wilted bunch of celery, but it will do.

When we get to the meat freezer, there's another celebration. Usually, each participant is allowed two items, but today, there's enough for everyone to pick three.

I start to help her rummage through, approaching the task like I would at any grocery store. I look for expiration dates, and soon realize they've all been covered with stickers or blacked out with marker. A few of the items don't look so good. A package containing a single veal chop has its plastic punctured, and the meat's turned black. All the packages of ground beef are badly freezer-burned.

As we reach the end of the route, a final volunteer greets us and walks with us to the car to put the bags of food in the trunk. He's friendly, but not overbearingly chipper, offering a few tips about what time of day to try back to find various kinds of supplies.

My mom explains when we're back in the car that he, too, has been laid off and volunteers at this community center to pass the time.

SHE'S BEEN coming here as regularly as she can. Each participant who signs up with the center may visit the food bank once a month, by appointment. But because of the lack of public transportation, it's not always easy to get here.

At a local township aid office, I recently picked up a listing of all the food pantries in the county. The seven-page document lists 46 facilities, arranged in a spreadsheet that also indicates the restrictions for each one. Most only serve residents of one or two small suburbs, and others are marked "emergency only." I wonder what qualifies as an emergency.

Within a 10-mile radius, there is only one other food bank my mom is eligible to visit, also just once a month.

My mother has found herself in the company of growing ranks of the long-term unemployed who are struggling in the suburbs. Driving out to visit her, I sometimes see middle-aged, white men and women risking the traffic on Roosevelt Road to ask passing drivers for spare change.

The effort required to eke out an existence without an income provides a jarring contrast to the scenery: The ominpresent shopping malls and sprawling rows of once-million-dollar homes.

DuPage County, west of Chicago, remains a relatively wealthy area. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county is 84 percent white, and had an unemployment rate of just 8.1 percent as of August 2010. In 2008, DuPage had a median household income of over $77,000--$25,000 higher than the national median.

Yet for those who lose their job, the bleak economy combined with a lack of institutional resources means it's easy to feel lost.

Some have developed a systematic approach. A part-time resident at the shelter my mom lives in has been unemployed for two years, but has hung onto her car and knows the full network of local charities. She keeps a relatively busy schedule, collecting goods like paper shopping bags that can be turned in for small amounts of money through local recycling programs, walking dogs, and visiting four food banks each month, despite having given up looking for work.

Others aren't so lucky. A month ago, my mom met a woman who graduated just two years after my mom did from the same Chicago high school she went to. This woman, formerly a secretary and now an unemployed diabetic in poor health, depends on a network of beds in scattered church basements that comprise the main shelter system in the area. For the season, only 65 beds were available. When more than 65 people applied, a lottery decided who got a place.

The night before my mother met her, this woman had lost the lottery. She not only didn't get a bed, but also missed the free dinner participants receive. So, shaky and tired, she scrounged for a few empty cardboard boxes behind the Jewel grocery store and then spent a sleepless night in a park under heavy rain.

My mom worked as a public school teacher for nearly 20 years. She taught bilingual Spanish and English classes. She kept her room stocked with snacks for kids who came to school hungry, and crocheted scarves and hats for the students who couldn't afford proper winter clothes. Recently, she encouraged her students to take the day off to attend May Day immigrant rights protests each year.

She has a master's degree and has taught education courses at the graduate level. But in spring 2009, she lost her last teaching position. That year, her district laid off some 500-plus full-time faculty and staff, with some schools losing their only librarian or their only social worker.

Since then, she's applied to nearly every school district in northern Illinois, but she's 59 years old, nearing retirement age, and with her level of education, she's too expensive to hire in the present climate of public school "reform."

"LIFE'S LITTLE surprises" delivered her into a nightmare she never saw coming. Last spring, her poor health cost her a retail position where she earned $8 an hour without benefits, and had to struggle to get assigned more than 10 or 15 hours a week. Shortly after that, she fell behind on rent and was evicted.

She had already been in the midst of bankruptcy. She filed a Chapter 13 a few years ago to deal with unpaid medical bills. The terms of her bankruptcy called for small monthly payments over the course of three years. With just five months of payments left in the program, she ran out of money and lapsed.

So now, she'll have to file all over again. While she'd likely be approved now for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which wouldn't require monthly payments, she'll need legal assistance to do it. Her last filing cost $2,800 in lawyers' fees.

Her life now revolves around her attempts to navigate the endlessly complicated aid process, with all its applications and restrictions. She receives a small monthly stipend and partial prescription coverage from a county aid agency, for which she must produce a detailed time sheet showing 30 hours a month of community service and four job-hunting contacts made each week. The assistance is both a godsend and a pittance--it amounts, in practical terms, to a part-time job at less than the minimum wage.

She applied in July for Medicaid, but hasn't heard a peep in response. The caseworker at the Department of Human Resources who helped her file her application recently clarified that there's only one office to handle Medicaid claims for the entire state of Illinois. So while a few years ago, applicants could expect to hear an initial response in one to two months, it now takes four months or longer.

A religious advocacy group has been collecting information on her skills, education and work experience to help place her in a job for several months. They feel they're getting close. The group itself pays for participants to work 20 hours a week at $8.25 an hour wherever they can find employers to take on their clients.

This arrangement would keep her well below the poverty line, but would mark a step up from her last job.

Because my mother's teaching jobs paid into a pension system rather than Social Security, she has few benefits to look forward to when she turns 60 and can officially retire. So her new, unofficial job of searching out aid won't end at that point.

On days like today, I have a few things I'd like to say to those Democrats and Republicans in Washington who are preparing to chop what's left of the social safety net to bits.

My mom is one of millions of people in this country who--according to the politicians--is "living beyond their means," because she manages to survive, even though her means are nil. But that doesn't mean she should be the one to pay for this crisis.

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