Posted by: MC | June 28, 2010

Working Change

“We have an amazing work ethic in this country.
We’re not all working in the same direction, and that’s
normal to some point.  You’re not supposed to always
be working in harmony, but I hope the work ethic
and the sense of shared humanity in that continue.”

This morning in the New York Times, Paul Krugman, an esteemed if controversial economist, forecast again the third Great Depression for the U.S. economy (  Like the extended negative economy following the Panic of 1873, and the acute unemployment following the stock market crash 1929 Krugman sees current trends leading only to more difficulty ahead – this time with vast global implications.  Specifically, Krugman points to the wrong-headedness of the international strategy of belt tightening adopted by the G-20 this past weekend.  In contrast, his analysis continues logically to indicate the advisability of spending to stimulate economic activity – particularly relative to the maintenance and creation of jobs.  When people work, economies work.

You can see the controversial part, of course.  Save? Spend? Either way it’s change.  And, while the speculation is unnerving, the real experiences of unemployment and iffy job security are where the living of it removes speculation.

The shaky economy is far from news for working and poor people in this country.  Their experiences render Krugman’s forecast academic at best.  For many of the voices of EX:Change, the challenges were already evident in early 2009.

Bruce, the almost-30 year old Native American man I saw again at last week’s powwow, sat in the passenger seat of the Mini Cooper in Albuquerque on Valentine’s Day, 2009.  “It’s been pretty tough looking for work,” he said.  “I think the change that’s coming, that’s promised will bring work back here to the United States.  But that needs to happen through more green jobs as opposed to oil, gas, uranium, and nuclear.   And, we need to have more permanent jobs that will provide for more than the next two or four years.  Sustainability.

“I don’t expect it to be an overnight thing,”  Bruce continued, “but I’m hoping it will get better as far as understanding people who are living below the poverty line and people who are having cultural, I guess, despair.”

Bao, the homeless Street Roots vendor I’d spoken with a few weeks earlier in Portland anticipated Krugman’s prediction by 18 months.  “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Bao said.  “And it’s going to get worse.  Six more months, you’ll see people will be jumping out of windows.  The true survivors are guys like me who know the streets.  You never lived on the street!  What would happen if you end up homeless?  How are you going to be able to handle it, you know what I’m saying?   The shelters are packed.  You ain’t going to be able to sleep out in the snow.  You don’t know how to do that.  You dont’ know how to get cardboard and go underneath for some shelter and put a tarp up.  You don’t know that kind of lifestyle.”

Still, Bao had given up little of his belief in his own capacity for work.  “I’m the top vendor,” he said of selling Street Roots, the newspaper of the streets in Portland, Ore.  “I buy bricks every day.  I buy double this.”  He held up a stack of about 25 papers for emphasis.  “I pay 20 cents a paper.”  The going rate for vendors selling in front of libraries, grocery stores and coffee shops is $1, an 80 cent profit. “Yesterday I did 47 papers, but I hustled.  On my excellent day, I did 83 but that’s my top day, and that’s a lot of running. That’s a lot of hustling.  You know, working it.  I stayed here 12 hours the day the new paper came out.  There’s a reason for that.  I want to hit every single customer.”

Lena, the bilingual educator in Woodburn, OR gave context to the spirit of work in America.  “There’s a lot that’s really beautiful about American culture,” Lena said.  “When I go to other countries and they ask me what America is like I say, ‘Americans are really hard working people.’  When I tell them the hours we work and that often both parents are working, they’re in awe.  We have an amazing work ethic in this country.  We’re not all working in the same direction, and that’s normal to some point.  You’re not supposed to always be working in harmony, but I hope the work ethic and the sense of shared humanity in that continue.  We do pretty well there.”

It’s unlikely the hope that echoes in these quotes from early 2009 has remained as high.  Just a few minutes ago, and related to Krugman’s editorial, this graphic was posted by the Huffington Post staff.  It shows staggering evidence from 2010 (

“This chart, from the Saint Louis Federal Reserve, shows that long-term unemployment is skyrocketing:

This visual is staggering.  The living of it and the fear of it are the basis of Bao’s predictions reflected and given clout with Krugman’s editorial.

In the midst of all of this, I ran into another of the 100 voices this morning.  Totally by chance, David J. was sitting having his second cup of coffee in the Starbucks on E Burnside.  When we spoke in April, 2009 we sat on the stairs of the college where he contracts 2/3 of the year with the food service office.  The rest of the time, David is an independent business man.  His primary venue is the internet.

“I would love to see everybody get a job and start buying stuff again,” David began.  “I do need people to buy the product from me. See what I’m saying?  Although I do get a lot of random hits, it’s still not the same when people don’t have the money to buy anything.  But I’ve got to keep doing it.

“I don’t have as much money as I did.  (laughs)  Life isn’t all about money.  In fact back in the 70’s when I was making minimum wage, I was better off than I am now.  Back then I was able to save, but I can’t save anything anymore.  Every dime I make goes out on something.  You just have to ride it out.  And now I’m still kind of riding it out a little bit.  It’s going to probably take a good many years before anybody can do anything about this economy.”

This morning after enjoying the coincidence of paths crossing 14 months later, I asked about business.  “It’s going good.”  David said.  “In a few days you’ll probably see some signs of it.”  “Really? How?,”  I asked.  “I’m making motorized bicycles.  Gonna be setting one right out here on this corner in a few days.”

Brilliant.  And not just brilliant – bold and optimistic and indicative of that “never say die” spirit so evident in the voices of EX:Change.

What makes this spirit even more remarkable is the fact that circumstances for working Americans are anything but comforting these days.  Sitting here in this corner coffee shop, I’m being a bit jolted by the reality of the tension in all this.  People are edgy.  They’re snipping at each another.  In the time I’ve been writing, I’ve seen two instances of unnecessarily disrespectful and harsh treatment of barristas and just now I saw a pedestrian waving his arms in offense at a motorist’s move.  That would have been comparatively unremarkable except the driver then stopped mid intersection (busy, btw) and threw the car into reverse to have her say with the complainant.  No fisticuffs…but geez.

Then there’s the kid in the gold lamay baseball cap who just sat down next to the newspaper boxes on the corner.  He’s holding a makeshift cardboard sign asking for food money.  Kids and adults with signs are on too many corners in the city these days.

We’re tense and way too many of us are struggling, but David, Bruce, Bao and millions of others press on, because that’s the way we work in this country.  Like David said, “I’ve got to keep doing it.”


  1. Interesting that the man living on the streets and the academic economist came to the same basic conclusions. More and more I am seeing that this current state we are all wrapped up in leads right “up the ladder” to the wealthy few that set policy and direction for the gigantic conglomerations that provide for us.

    What will it take for us to rise and be heard by them??

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