Hard Times: From Wall Street to Elm Street

  • Share
  • Read Later

First it was Wall Street that was in trouble. Then Main Street. Now, the nightmare is approaching Elm Street. Even in my relatively placid little corner of the world — a leafy, middle-class, middle-American neighborhood with two- and three-bedroom brick and stone homes built in the 1920s and '30s — it is hard not to feel jittery as 2009 begins.

In Iowa, we remain far from the global recession's hot spots (knock on wood): Wall Street and Detroit, AIG and WaMu, Chrysler and Bernie Madoff. But the state has its problems, from layoffs by major employers to falling grain prices, bankrupt ethanol plants and state budget woes. And some of those recent scary national headlines — "U.S. Loses 533,000 Jobs in Biggest Drop Since 1974," "Recession Propels Skid in Housing Sales, Prices," "Retail Sales Are Weakest in 35 Years," "In Need of Cash, More Companies Cut 401(k) Match" — are translating into tangible, tell-tale signs on the street where I live. (See Obama's agenda for getting the U.S. back on track.)

None of my neighbors here, that I know of, has suffered the calamities affecting many Americans — home foreclosure, bankruptcy, a precipitous plunge into debt, homelessness and poverty. Still, the anxiety, the uneasy sense that things are changing, that dreams are on hold and options more limited, is palpable. Everyone, even the relatively well-off, talks about lost savings and a newfound frugality. (See pictures of a retirement paradise lost.)

The effects of the sinking economy hit home for me last fall, when I started hearing one report after another through the grapevine about neighbors losing jobs or being reassigned to jobs they didn't want. No livelihood seems secure. We are (or were) journalists and college professors, government workers and architects, administrative assistants and teachers, a hairstylist, car salesman, computer technician, library administrator, nurse, social worker, bank employee, crop scientist, graphic designer and small-business owner. And suddenly we seem divided into two equally nervous camps: the overworked company employees and the underworked, often newly self-employed, scrambling to find customers or a new career.

It's all brought back unpleasant memories of the stressful year when my husband was without a job and I became the breadwinner (on a freelancer's unpredictable income). We lost our company-sponsored health insurance and struggled — because of my preexisting condition (a bad back) — to find insurance cheaper than COBRA. We tried to sound reassuring as we explained our new financial reality to our kids. I was suddenly up at night with a new burning sensation in my throat. My husband, the soundest of sleepers, was awake too.

At a community forum in Des Moines on Jan. 2, several activists warned that the ranks of middle-class Iowans were shrinking while the number of poor was rising. Iowa’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in November was 4.3%, compared with 3.8% a year earlier, according to the latest report from Iowa Workforce Development. (By comparison, the U.S. jobless rate was 6.7% in November.) Close to 800 families sought help from a Des Moines emergency food pantry in October, up from 600 to 650 families the same month a year earlier. Sales of Iowa's existing homes for the third quarter fell 16%, more than double the national decline, according to a National Association of Realtors report in November.

Today, one of the most visible indications that something is amiss are the "For Sale" signs that have lingered in front of some houses here for months, freezing into lawns now coated with ice-glazed snow. Even some of the most desirable houses that once sold within days by word of mouth aren't moving, like the Tudor-style beauty that has been empty for five months, the longest I can recall in my 17 years living here. The house sold swiftly last summer. But the new owners recently put it back on the market because the sale of their current Des Moines house fell through when prospective buyers in Chicago couldn't sell their house. So the beauty is for sale again.

Shortly before Christmas, a friend of mine, Veronica Fowler of Ames, Iowa, decided to throw a last-minute bash — not a holiday party but a "poverty" party. About 30 people showed up, dutifully following the invitation’s instructions to bring a "dish to share, a [cheap] bottle of wine, a hard-luck story and a devil-may-care attitude." Fowler, 46, a freelance writer and editor whose guests were mainly fellow media types and academics in their 40s and 50s, says, "It was fun to spit in the eye of impending doom. All of this tension is a lot more tolerable if you can have some fun and look it right in the face and call it what it is. And have a stiff drink."

But not all is lost. I know the dropping price of gas is an ominous indication of the contracting global economy, but I cheer up every time I drive by the pump ($1.78 a gallon!) in my new gas-sipping subcompact. Like some of my neighbors, I downsized last spring after years of driving a relative gas gulper. Small businesses nearby — the outfitter's store, the little cheesecake shop, the coffeehouse, even the independent bookstore — are still open. Word has it that one neighbor finally found a new job and another started a new career. Even die-hard Republicans have high hopes for the new President. And 2010 — when the worst may be over, I gather — is only 12 months away.

So I'm trying to act like a can-do farmer and follow the adage I first heard when I moved here: When things get tough, put your head down and keep plowing into the wind.