America Today: Three tell stories of difficulty, adjustments and success in a tough economy

By Jim Mackinnon
Beacon Journal business writer

Three people in the Greater Akron area with very different lives found their own paths to coping during the financial crisis of the Great Recession and its aftermath.

They’ve had varying success and, despite one saying his position in life is “dead-endish,” they count their blessings.

As part of the America Today series exploring how people were affected, the three were promised they could remain anonymous in sharing their personal stories about how the economy is impacting their lives.

Two worked through setbacks, while the third moved successfully through the downturn on an upward trajectory.

But each person illustrates the complexity of the crisis as they discuss changes in retirement and health-care benefits, wages, job security and their feelings about others, government aid, bankers, politicians and finding peace.

Government aid was critical

In the first instance, a 48-year-old Summit County man who works at a large private employer feels he and his wife did well in weathering the Great Recession — it officially started in late 2007 and ended the summer of 2009 — even after suffering a job loss.

“We were on the extremely lucky side,” he said. “My wife did lose her job at the height of the recession in 2009. Her job was helping people write resumes.”

Because government income dropped, her entire department was laid off, he said.

His wife was able to use other government money to go back to school and get a degree in health information technology, he said. They checked job trends and projections and that field appeared to be poised for significant growth, he said. She now helps doctor offices computerize their paper records.

“She had a job two months after graduating. I’m glad we did what we did,” he said.

He said he kept a close eye on trends in his own industry and positioned himself in a job that made outsourcing less likely.

“My employer had been looking at moving the kind of work I was doing to India, where someone could do the same job at about a quarter of the cost here,” he said. He said he expanded his area of expertise and was able to move into a different, more secure job within the company. “That worked out really well for me,” he said.

As a result of the changes he and his wife made, they are making “considerably more money now. I’m really doing well. I have a high school diploma and I know there’s guys coming out of college who can’t get jobs,” he said.

They don’t live fancy, he said. They are raising a grandchild. They drive two cars that are now 9 and 10 years old. The couple is able to put money into savings and retirement, he said.

In his case, his retirement money goes into a stable value fund in a 401(k) plan.

“My social leaning is to the left. A traditional retirement plan and expanded Social Security is a better idea. I would rather do that,” he said. But he no longer has a traditional pension and was put into 401(k) because of that.

He said he does not follow advice from financial experts. “I don’t think they have my interests at heart,” he said.

He also said he will not give money to banks. “I changed to a credit union. I felt that the banks were sticking it to people,” he said.

He and his wife also prefer to shop locally owned businesses.

“We don’t shop at Wal-Mart. We do shop at Acme,” he said. “I’ve increased my tips because I’m doing OK and other people aren’t.”

He said that he thinks the current state of the economy goes back to the time of the Reagan administration and the deregulation movement. “Even Clinton, I felt he was too far to the right,” he said.

Banks and companies lobbied the government and then banks “made a mistake” that they didn’t mean to and the crash happened, he said. “I blame the Democrats and the Republicans both for taking lobbying money. I don’t blame the homeowners.”

Vet has no car, no benefits

He’s 50 years old, divorced and has two children, a girl age 14 and a boy, 9. He graduated from high school in 1980, went into the Marines and then was a mariner in the U.S. Merchant Marine.

Since getting laid off from a job in 2000, he has worked a variety of part-time and temporary jobs around Akron.

He has been with his current employer since 2004, where he started as a “permanent part-timer, working about 35 hours a week. No vacation, no benefits,” he said. He was laid off every summer and used a temp agency to find work and then was rehired each fall by his main employer.

In 2009, he and others classified as permanent part-timers were let go and replaced with younger people making less money, he said.

“I ended up getting hired back,” he said. “I’m in the same department but in a different job. I work 37½ hours a week. I have no benefits whatsoever. Zero. No vacation. Nothing. I recently got an 8 cents an hour raise, but cost of living really isn’t a raise.”

“The only change I have made is with my outlook. This is kind of dead-endish,” he said. “The only comfort I have is, I write poetry. I also collect books. In my apartment I have between 3,000 and 3,500 books, mostly on religion, science and black history.”

He said he writes his poems in what he calls collages, using large rolls of paper. “I try to use visual words,” he said.

“I definitely have had to make some adjustments in recent years. I don’t have a car now. There’s a lot of foot action. It’s helping keep me in shape — that’s the spin I give it,” he said. “ I refuse to ride the bus. I don’t like the atmosphere. I’d rather walk. It takes me 23 to 25 minutes to walk from home to work. I ride the bike a lot.

“I’m still able to eat. I still have a roof over my head,” he said. “I see a lot of suffering. There are a lot of people worse off than I am.”

He said he feels sorry for college students he hears talking about how they are going to graduate and make money. “I don’t see that as realistic, with all of the debt and the jobs no longer here,” he said.

He doesn’t believe the numbers he hears about unemployment.

“There’s a whole sector of people that isn’t being counted [as unemployed],” he said. “There are college graduates that don’t have jobs after three years. You’re standing next to me flipping burgers.”

He said he was not impressed with the presidential candidates and their “talking jobs, jobs, jobs” rhetoric, he said. “The government’s function is not to make jobs for people.”

He recalled that while he was in Marine boot camp his drill instructor made him vote for Ronald Reagan using an absentee ballot.

“I didn’t vote again until 2008 when I voted for Barack Obama. But he didn’t do what he promised,” he said. He also did not like hearing what the president was saying after the election as well, including using the words “too divisive” a lot, he said. “That’s when I got disenfranchised with the voting process again.”

Her situation improving

She counts herself among the fortunate ones in the struggling economy.

The woman, who is in her early 30s, got a graduate degree in 2005 and now is in a real estate-related field in Summit County. She worked her way through graduate school with jobs intended to advance her career; she credits those job choices as contributing to her subsequent success after getting her specialized degree.

She says she is better off now than when the Great Recession started.

“My life has been on an upward trajectory,” she said. “I’m doing OK.”

She had bought a home in a trendy neighborhood elsewhere in Ohio after finishing grad school and at the peak of the housing bubble, she said. She sold the home in 2007 “when things were going down,” she said. “I didn’t lose money on the house.”

The subsequent downturn in the housing market made her nervous about buying another home, so she was happy to become a renter again, she said.

She has since married and moved into her husband’s home.

“I was very proud to be a renter. Not everybody is meant to be a homeowner,” she said.

The lowering of lending standards contributed a lot to the housing crisis and the Great Recession, she said. “Everybody was pushed into thinking they could afford more than they could.”

As a result, the housing market corrected, she said.

The economy has hurt nonprofit organizations that she is familiar with, she said. For instance, the economy has hurt the investments that nonprofits depend upon to fund projects and programs intended to help people in need, she said.

“I do know it is difficult for nonprofits,” she said. “People are more cautious and conservative and it is harder to fundraise.”

Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com.


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