By Thomas Schulz
Ventura is a small city on the Pacific coast, about an hour's drive north of Los Angeles. Luxury homes with a view of the ocean dot the hillsides, and the beaches are popular with surfers. Ventura is storybook California. "It's a well-off place," says Captain William Finley. "But about 20 percent of the city is what we call at risk of homelessness." Finley heads the local branch of the Salvation Army.
Last summer Ventura launched a pilot program, managed by Finley, that allows people to sleep in their cars within city limits. This is normally illegal, both in Ventura and in the rest of the country, where local officials and residents are worried about seeing run-down vans full of Mexican migrant workers parked on residential streets.
But sometime at the beginning of last year, people in Ventura realized that the cars parked in front of their driveways at night weren't old wrecks, but well-tended station wagons and hatchbacks. And the people sleeping in them weren't fruit pickers or the homeless, but their former neighbors.
Finley also noticed a change. Suddenly twice as many people were taking advantage of his social service organization's free meals program, and some were even driving up in BMWs -- apparently reluctant to give up the expensive cars that reminded them of better times.
Finley calls them "the new poor." "That is a different category of people that I think we're seeing," he says. "They are people who never in their wildest imaginations thought they would be homeless." They're people who had enough money -- a lot of money, in some cases -- until recently.
"The image of what is a poor person in today's day and age doesn't fly. When I was growing up a poor person, and we grew up fairly poor, you drove a 10-year-old car that probably had some dents in it. You know, there was one car for the family and you lived out of the food bank," says Finley. "In the past, you got yourself out of poverty and were on your way up."
American Way Heads in Opposite Direction
It was the American way, a path taken by millions. "Today the image is you're getting newer late model cars that at one point cost somebody 40, 50 grand, and they're at wits end, now they're living out of the food banks. And for many of them it takes a lot to swallow their pride," says Finley.
Today the American way is often headed in the opposite direction: downward.
For a while, America seemed to have emerged relatively unscathed from the worst economic crisis in decades -- with renewed vigor and energy -- just as it had done in the wake of past crises.
The government was announcing new economic growth figures by as early as last fall, much earlier than expected. The banks, moribund until recently, were back to earning billions. Companies nationwide are reporting strong growth, and the stock market has almost returned to it pre-crisis levels. Even the number of billionaires grew by a healthy 17 percent in 2009.
Two weeks ago, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and 40 other billionaires pledged to donate at least half of their fortunes to philanthropy, either while still alive or after death. Is America a country so blessed with affluence that it can afford to give away billions, just like that?
Gates' move could also be interpreted as a PR campaign, in a country where the super-rich sense that although they are profiting from the crisis, as was to be expected, the number of people adversely affected has grown enormously. They also sense that there is growing resentment in American society against those at the top.
For people in the lower income brackets, the recovery already seems to be falling apart. Experts fear that the US economy could remain weak for many years to come. And despite the many government assistance programs, the small amount of hope they engender has yet to be felt by the general public. On the contrary, for many people things are still headed dramatically downward.
According to a recent opinion poll, 70 percent of Americans believe that the recession is still in full swing. And this time it isn't just the poor who are especially hard-hit, as they usually are during recessions.
This time the recession is also affecting well-educated people who had been earning a good living until now. These people, who see themselves as solidly middle-class, now feel more threatened than ever before in the country's history. Four out of 10 Americans who consider themselves part of this class believe that they will be unable to maintain their social status.
In a recent cover story titled "So long, middle class," the New York Post presented its readers with "25 statistics that prove that the middle class is being systematically wiped out of existence in America." Last week, the leading online columnist Arianna Huffington issued the almost apocalyptic warning that "America is in danger of becoming a Third World country."
In fact, the United States, in the wake of a real estate, financial economic and now debt crisis, which it still hasn't overcome, is threatened by a social Ice Age more severe than anything the country has seen since the Great Depression.
The United States is experiencing the problem of long-term unemployment for the first time since World War II. The number of the long-term unemployed is already three times as high as it was during any crisis in the past, and it is still rising.
More than a year after the official end of the recession, the overall unemployment rate remains consistently above 9.5 percent. But this is just the official figure. When adjusted to include the people who have already given up looking for work or are barely surviving on the few hundred dollars they earn with a part-time job and are using up their savings, the real unemployment figure jumps to more than 17 percent.
In its current annual report, the US Department of Agriculture notes that "food insecurity" is on the rise, and that 50 million Americans couldn't afford to buy enough food to stay healthy at some point last year. One in eight American adults and one in four children now survive on government food stamps. These are unbelievable numbers for the world's richest nation.
Even more unsettling is the fact that America, which has always been characterized by its unshakable belief in the American Dream, and in the conviction that anyone, even those at the very bottom, can rise to the top, is beginning to lose its famous optimism. According to recent figures, a significant minority of US citizens now believe that their children will be worse off than they are.
Many Americans are beginning to realize that for them, the American Dream has been more of a nightmare of late. They face a bitter reality of fewer and fewer jobs, decades of stagnating wages and dramatic increases in inequality. Only in recent months, as the economy has grown but jobs have not returned, as profits have returned but poverty figures have risen by the week, the country seems to have recognized that it is struggling with a deep-seated, structural crisis that has been building for years. As the Washington Post writes, the financial crisis was merely the final turning -- for the worse.
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