Recession Roadtrip: Telling Tales Of 'Hard Times'

NPR's Debbie Elliott and Richard Gonzales spent a month on the road across the nation, reporting stories of economic struggle for the NPR series "Hard Times." They heard stories of people and places grappling with economic hardship, and also found a few bright spots along the way.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Over the past month, NPR reporters have set out on a recession road trip, to find out how we're adapting to these challenging economic times: from Maine to Mississippi; Billings, Montana, to Solano County, California. They reported on stories of people and places confronting economic hardship and going through a process of change.

A business owner in New Orleans trying to reinvent tourism post-Katrina, a single mother forced to leave her career for a job, a town searching for new purpose when the main employer leaves.

We'd like you to be our reporters today. Whether it's a family, a business or a town, tell us a story about adjustment to hard times, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR's Debbie Elliott and Richard Gonzales led the reporting for the "Hard Times" series, and Richard Gonzales joins us now from his base in San Francisco at member station KQED. Nice to have you on the show, Richard.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Good afternoon, Neal.

CONAN: And I know one of your stops was Billings, Montana. Well, there are hard times in a lot of places - not necessarily in Billings, where there's a lot of optimism. Veritae Thalen(ph) is a 29-year-old nanny there, and has quite the sales pitch for her town.

VERITAE THALEN: There's a job here waiting for you, I promise. I know that because everywhere I go, there's always help-wanted signs up. There's help-wanted signs on restaurants. There's help-wanted signs in retail stores. Banks even have help-wanted signs up.

CONAN: And we have to remember: Hard times in many, many places, but that is not universal.

GONZALES: That's correct, Neal. You know, this was a counterpoint to our theme of hard times. We also wanted to go to places that seemed to be doing very well. So we wound up going to Billings, Montana, which has a very diverse economy. They're right on the edge of the huge oil boom that's in western North Dakota. They've got gas refining, cattle, agriculture. Their banks are strong. Their financial services are very strong.

And Billings also has world-class medical facilities there. And so we went there to find out, you know, what people were saying and doing, and try to get a sense of how they saw these times that we're in.

CONAN: We should also point out, you visited closer to your base there, Solano County, California, which has the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country.

GONZALES: Yes, Solano County is smack dab in the middle of San Francisco and Sacramento. It's largely a bedroom community that serves both those metro areas. And what we found there were a lot of people who were very distressed over the foreclosure crisis and the unemployment problem.

And we - I talked with a lot of people there who were just - you know, they were just trying to figure out when this thing is going to end.

CONAN: And one of the big cities in that county, Vallejo - we did a story a little while ago - they're hoping to come out of bankruptcy but boy, that didn't help.

GONZALES: Well, that's right. You know, Vallejo is probably the poster child for this county. But there's also communities such as Vacaville, Fairfield, Sassoon City, that have just seen just massive foreclosures. Basically, there was some overbuilding there. People were overextended. We know this story very well.

And you visit just about any block in some of these cities, and people will just point and say, you know, every other house on this block has been foreclosed upon.

CONAN: Debbie Elliott now joins us from her office in Orange Beach, Alabama. Good of you to be with us.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And one of Debbie's stories took her to Collinsville, Mississippi, where she met a couple who recently discovered they had slipped out of the middle class.

NORA SKALADIS: I can't work. I'm just unfit for just about anything. So I'm stuck with what I get from Social Security disability, and from the V.A. And that money makes it very difficult for us to do much more than just eat and pay the power bill.

CONAN: And Debbie Elliott, as we hear stories of people adapting to hard times, people like this family - boy, adaptation is not in the cards.

ELLIOTT: No, they're really in a rough place. That was Nora Skaladis(ph). He was wounded serving in Iraq and is 49 years old. So he was put on early retirement and ended up not getting his full benefits because of the number of years of service that he'd had.

And so the family found their income cut in half, basically, yet they still had the same bills they had before he left for the war. So they were really struggling to try to figure things out. And I think they were most frustrated because they felt like nobody was looking out for their interests. They feel like, you know, every - especially leaders in Washington are looking out for themselves and making money and that nobody really is looking out for them anymore and that there is really no middle-class hope.

You know, they're at that age, he was 49, she was in her 50s, that they should be thinking about how to retire. Well, they are retired, and it's nothing like they had planned.

CONAN: It's interesting, you talk about people being frustrated with Washington. Now, Richard Gonzales heard a lot of anxiety and complaints about that, too. You spoke with - he spoke with Anthony Moscherelli(ph), who's a retired machinist from California who said politics are just corrupt.

ANTHONY MOSCHERELLI: Everybody knows the politicians will lie to get into office, and as soon as they get into office, they become either a Democrat or a Republican and go the party way and not the way of the people. And people have seen this more and more and more. And they're getting tired of it.

CONAN: And, Richard, as you listen to that, I'm sure it was a fairly common complaint in some variations.

GONZALES: You know, absolutely, Neal. You know, and it went beyond this debate about whether the United States needs a smaller government or a bigger government. There's this echo everywhere I went where people just felt like, you know, as Debbie just said, nobody is looking out for little people, and that the politicians are corrupt, the system doesn't work for everyone, and that people are just getting tired of it, and they recognize it, and they're fed up with it.

CONAN: Debbie Elliott...

ELLIOTT: They feel a bit powerless. They're just - sorry, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead.

ELLIOTT: They feel a bit powerless as to what to do about it. I mean, everybody comes to the conclusion, well, I can vote, but I've been voting all along and we're still in this situation.

CONAN: We wanna get stories from our callers. We've asked them to be our reporters to tell us a story about how a friend, a colleague, a neighborhood, a town has adapted to hard times. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Dan. Dan is with us from Jacksonville. Dan, are you there? And Dan may have left us. So let's see if we can go next to - this is Wayne. Wayne with us from Trenton in Missouri.

WAYNE: Yes. I'm a social worker, and I actually specialize in home-bound vets and people in assisted living. And last year, I mean, I have to go bury four veterans because they basically have to choose between food, medication or paying their heating bill. And unfortunately, they didn't get the medical attention they needed, and they're now passed away. I have a grandmother that's in her upper 90s that every - I mean, every time I go to her house, it just makes me sad because she has no food hardly in her coverage anymore because the little bit she gets from Social Security she can't use to buy food because there's - she has to buy her medication to keep her heart working.

So, I mean, my families having to give money at that, we can't afford to help keep her afloat. And, I mean, I had four vets die last year because, like I said, they're just not getting the help, and there's a lot of frustration because they see the pay cuts in their kids and their grandkids are having to take it work. But, you know, Washington given themselves a pay raise.

CONAN: I hear the frustration. And, Richard Gonzales, I'm sure this is a theme you hear in California, that in this place that is blessed, so blessed in so many ways, people are so hard against it.

GONZALES: You know, we've got our own set of problems here in California, blessed with climate and great natural resources and yet the state, in many respects, is on its back. And you hear, time and again, people not quite understanding why things don't work the way they use to. I met a young couple in Solano County who are getting foreclosed upon. He's a former sheet metal worker who got hurt on the job, fell behind his payments, is - has no plans to walk away from the house, but he simply can't get any help. And he's just trying to figure out, how can I make my house payment stay on this small bit property I have and do what I wanna do, which is work and pay my taxes.

CONAN: We're talking about hard times with NPR's Debbie Elliott and Richard Gonzales, lead reporters for the series you've been listening to over the past month on NPR News. They'll be finishing it up, I think, later this week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email from Deborah(ph) in Chamita, New Mexico: Roadside sales have always been around in northern New Mexico. Lately, it seems there are more of them. And the items for sale seem to be more personal, as if people are taking their houses apart room by room and putting them up for sale. A few that come to mind - a man selling his horses, a family selling children's bed sets, another man selling tires, tools and windows. Also, while selling truckloads of wood, logs, is common, it seems there are more people selling wood, sometimes small amounts. Debbie Elliott, I wonder, in your travels, have you seen things like that?

ELLIOTT: Yes, a lot. And, you know, in the region I cover - I cover the Gulf South or the Deep South - you do see certain places where people have almost like permanent yard sale set up in their front yard. And those are usually in more rural, poverty-stricken areas, areas that have struggled with poverty for decades. But you are seeing more and more of that now as you drive through the region, and not just in the rural areas. Sometimes you see it in suburbs now, where people are just sort of unloading anything they can to piece together a few pennies to get that next meal or make that next payment or whatever it might be. You also see a lot of folks, you know, the old-fashioned truck farmer, you know, out with a pickup truck load of turnip greens or sweet potatoes for sale. And you - I'm seeing a little more of that than I think I have in the past.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get to Virginia. Virginia with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

VIRGINIA: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

VIRGINIA: I teach kindergarten, and we definitely feel the crunch with the economics and the way they are. We've had 46 percent of our supplies are down now in the classrooms. We're not able to order some of the books that we usually would order. And the teachers haven't had a raise in five years, so, you know, I started gardening last summer and learned to do my own repair to cut back a little bit.

CONAN: A lot of places laying teachers off. Is that happening there too?

VIRGINIA: Yes, it is, unfortunately. I mean, they're trying the best not to, of course, but (unintelligible) can't come up with specifics and how much they're going to retain people. Unfortunately, it happens too often. But we definitely feel it in the classroom a lot. And a lot of the parents that are upset with their own lives and then it kind of comes up to us, unfortunately, sometimes, like we're kind of the scapegoats for the economy (unintelligible). But I appreciate you taking my comments and the time. Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks for the call, Virginia. This email from Richard in Hereford, Arizona: The area was hit with the Monument fire earlier in the year. At this time, some folks are still recovering from that fire. In general, the various charities here are nearly inundated by demand for services. Most still have their head above water, but it's a constant struggle, not just difficult economic times, but people challenged in all sorts of circumstances.

We're talking with NPR's Richard Gonzales and Debbie Elliott about some of the reports they did on "Hard Times," which you heard on NPR News in the past month. Be our reporter. Give us a call. What's happened with your friends, your colleagues, your neighborhood, your town? Adaptation to hard times. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: Right now we continue talking about "Hard Times." In recent weeks, NPR reporters traveled the country and told us stories about how people in places are changing in the face of a challenging economy. The lead reporters, NPR's Debbie Elliott and Richard Gonzales, are with us. And it was not all gloomy news. They also found the occasional bright spot. Richard Gonzales talked with Mike Wilson, president and co-owner of Whitewood Transport, a business doing very well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MIKE WILSON: I don't want to be penalized for being successful. I don't want to be penalized for making a profit. I'll pay my share. I'll help my community. I'll help my neighbors. I'll pay my taxes. I will do what I'm supposed to do. But don't make me feel bad about it, and that's what I feel.

CONAN: And, Richard, sometimes we hear complaints that Occupy Wall Street and movements like that have demonized the 1 percent. I guess he's the 1 percent.

GONZALES: Well, I think that's what Mike Wilson was getting at. While we were in Billings, you know, the Occupy movement was very big in the headlines. All these encampments were still alive and thriving. And at the end of our interview with Mike, who's, as I recall, a native of Billings, we asked him, you know, is there anything else you want to talk about, Bill, while we have the microphone on? And that's when he just volunteered his views on Occupy, and he basically wanted to say, you know, I feel like I'm in this, too, but don't make me out to be a villain.

CONAN: Don't make me out to be a villain. Obviously some people continue to do very well. We forget in these hard times that the majority of Americans are still working and have jobs and are doing OK. It's just that so many more people in these hard times falling out of the middle class, struggling with any number of changes. And, Debbie Elliott, struggling to change, to find if their previous lives weren't working out, let's find something else.

ELLIOTT: Right. And that was something that was sort of the theme when I visited Huntsville, Alabama - Huntsville, the place where they developed the rockets that put man on the moon. And when that program ended, the Apollo program ended, Huntsville found itself saying, what now, what next?

Well, Huntsville is now in a very similar situation with the space shuttle program ending, and very uncertain times in the defense industry, which - it's a huge town for contractors, government contractors in the Army and whatnot. So the question is what now? And there are a lot of 50- and 60-year-old rocket scientists out of work, wondering what they're going to do and very concerned. But the mayor there seemed to have a little hope.

He said, you know, we figured things out last time and we can do it again. When you - you know, we had all these rocket scientists unemployed back in the '70s, and they developed, you know, all kinds of companies that are the foundation of our economy today. So even in these uncertain times, they felt like, you know, maybe something good could come of it.

CONAN: Let's go next to Chris, and Chris is on the line with us from Paducah, Kentucky.

CHRIS: Yes. I am - I enjoy hearing the comments from your reporters. The perspective that I guess I've had is from almost into the middle class, and then I've been seeing it kind of slip away. Got myself back into school when I was dried up at a job and it wasn't paying the bills. Went and found new work during the day. Went and found new work during the night. Burning the candle from both ends, but still I have a smile on my face.

The thing that has always been for me is I've had to expand my vocabulary and expand what I read, authors that, you know, I wouldn't have known otherwise. I'm reading James Howard Kunstler, Wimberley folks that have an idea of, to me, what the root of the problems really are.

CONAN: I have to say I was a little concerned on a family radio program, when you say you had to expand your vocabulary.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHRIS: No. I'm also had to get into some work that has expanded my vocabulary in other ways. But I try and constrain myself for the sake of my kids and my wife. But, to me, the issue - I see the Tea Party. I see the Occupy Wall Street. And when I hear them discuss on the radio or television or whatever it might be, they're spoken of as being two different poles. When - I see them actually founded in really the same point. To me, my government is too big to really be able to address my concerns and my needs as a father and as a husband, and as someone who's trying to live life the way that I should.

On the other hand, I see corporations that, you know, the revolution that founded this country wasn't just against the big king, but also against the East India Company. Now, the Tea Party was fighting a business as well. But I see businesses getting big enough that the same way, it's more than likely going to chew me up and spit me out if I let it.

CONAN: Well, Chris, keep the smile on, OK?

CHRIS: Trying to.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we go next to - this is Dan. Dan with us from Jacksonville.

DAN: Hi, Neal. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead.

DAN: Hi. My name is Dan from - originally from Detroit, Michigan. I'm in the military, a naval aviator, down in Jacksonville, Florida. And nobody that I grew up with is left in the town that I grew up in. Anybody who's there is unemployed and living at home. It's even depressing going home for Christmas. Friends that I went to high school with whose parents had, you know, very well-paying jobs as auto executives are now unemployed, moving out of the city themselves, of if not, their houses are going into foreclosure.

And it's just - it's depressing. My brother and I both put ourselves through the University of Michigan on academic scholarships, and I did well there. And wouldn't be able to get a job out of college, so I, you know, joined the military and went through flight school. My brother stayed and put himself through law school in a private school in Detroit and tried to work, and could barely ends meet, so he also joined the military. He's now a National Guard JAG. I spent the last 10 months overseas in the Middle East, and my brother is getting ready to probably spend a year over there. And it's kind of tough when the only way to earn a paycheck is to go fight in a war.

CONAN: What do you fly, Dan?

DAN: I'm a P-3 pilot, a P-3 Charlie Orion.

CONAN: A reconnaissance plane that spends a lot time over water.

DAN: Yes, sir. We actually spend a lot of time over land too. But yeah, several hundred combat hours over Iraq. And it's tough. You know, I was about to move back to Michigan and start a family and stay there and help build the area back to what it was, like when my grandparents were there. And, you know, both my grandfathers - my own grandfather works for General Motors. And his health care has been cut to almost nothing.

And it's a depressing seeing these proud men there, having everything pulled away. And it's a microcosm of the city of the whole, you know, the proud city's heart has been ripped out of it.

CONAN: So do you plan to move back?

DAN: If I could find a job there - back there. You know, I still have about five years left on my commitment from flight school. So my goal will be to, you know, get a graduate degree and move back and be part of the recovery. But to be honest, you know, I don't really see that happening any time soon.

CONAN: Well, Dan, we hope you're wrong about that, but thanks very much for the call.

DAN: Me too. I appreciate your taking it. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: So long. Here's an email from Ashley in Charlotte, North Carolina: I have really seen a change at my daughter's school. Children need assistance with snacks, lunches and clothing. This year's angel tree had over 200 gifts given to help those families. Debbie Elliott, I know you were talking - you mentioned your trip to Huntsville. You were talking to some people there who were coming up on Christmas.

ELLIOTT: Right. And there was a question of, you know, how am I going to get through this. In fact, one woman said she was very frustrated watching the debate in Washington over - the supercommittee was working at the time and deciding, you know, what - failing to do its job. And this woman said, you know, they can't fail, because I have, you know, I'm making decisions of whether or not to go buy my groceries this week or buy a Christmas gift for someone. And it makes me mad to watch this happen from afar, you know, the sense that they didn't understand - that people in Washington didn't understand what just average Americans were going through.

I wanted to pick up on something that that Jacksonville flier was talking about. And some of our colleagues have been doing reports, as well, and (unintelligible) did a story out of Maine from a paper mill. And a paper mill had just reopened, but the jobs were starting at, like, $11 an hour. And the comment was, this is not your grandfather's job. And I think that line is very telling. The job - the factory jobs that were once the promise for the middle class, are no longer so.

CONAN: This was in Millinocket, Maine, where, in years passed, if you went to get a job at the mill after you graduated high school, you were there for life, and it was a ticket to the middle class.

ELLIOTT: Right.

CONAN: And no longer true. One her reports was about the young people of that town. And I guess, like the town in Detroit or near Detroit, that our caller was mentioning, many having very little future in the place they grew up where their families have been for generations and facing the prospect of, well, moving elsewhere if they're going to find work.

ELLIOTT: Right.

CONAN: Debbie Elliott is with us from her office in Alabama. Richard Gonzales with us from KQED, our member station in San Francisco, which is his base. We're talking about Hard Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Jennifer, Jennifer with us from Milford in Pennsylvania.

JENNIFER: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JENNIFER: I'm a director of a food pantry here in Milford, and we've seen a real change in the composition of who's coming to ask for help these days. As you would imagine, you know, our attendance is higher on the last year or two years, because of the economy, but the dynamics are changing the family structure. We're seeing a lot more combined household, consolidated household, like adult siblings that have all moved in together with their children or back in with their parents and, obviously, the grandchildren.

We're seeing a lot of people who've never had to ask for help before in their lives, who - sometimes they are actual volunteers, regular volunteers, who are now in a position where they're having to come to us because they do not see any jobs in sight and they're in a position they've never been in before. These are people - skilled professionals with college degrees, people who, up to a couple of years ago, were - on paper were millionaires in terms of their IRAs, their pensions, their house values. I've talked to people who have liquidated their children's college funds and are basically - there's nothing in sight for them. It's quite devastating and heartbreaking, you know, week after week.

Our pantry was designed, originally, to provide temporary assistance. That, hopefully, after a year, you'd be back on your feet, and we usually drop the number of times you can visit after your first year in the pantry. And now we're at a point were, ethically, I don't feel very good when I have to look at these people, and I know they're looking for jobs, and it's been a year, and there's nothing out there. And what do I do? How do I drop down the amount of food I'm offering to them, you know, after a year? Anyway, that's what it is from my neck of the woods.

CONAN: Well, I'm sorry it's so bleak, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Yeah, it is. It's shocking, and people are, I mean, the good side of it is that it's also taught me very good things about the community I live in. People are incredibly generous, even people who don't have very much to give are pulling together in ways that you would never imagine. And, you know, just when you get to a point where you think, I have nothing I can give this person, someone walks in the door with, you know, 30 turkeys to donate. And it's not an endless, you know, chain of donations, but people around here seem to get that their neighbors are, in fact, really in dire circumstances.

I just wish we could offer them more than, you know, a meal this week, a meal that week. I wish there was a way, locally, we could affect greater change to change the economic situation for these families.

CONAN: Jennifer, thanks very much for the call.

JENNIFER: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Richard, there - she mentioned the loss of wealth. There can be few places – we'll get calls complaining about Florida, and Arizona and Nevada, but there are a few places where housing prices had plummeted as much as California, and that sense that people had of that huge investment in a home that they could always rely on, maybe even retire on, that has really changed.

GONZALES: Oh, absolutely. You know, it's - you get the sense from talking to people, a lot, that they are in shock because, literally and figuratively, the rug has been pulled out from under them, and they're standing, they're going, what just happened? And in some cases, you know, people will say, I kind of get it. I was over extended, but did I really deserve to be out on the street like this where I'm trying to fit, you know, me, my family and three kids in a two-bedroom apartment when we used to have 3,000 square feet? And whose fault is this? Well, there's plenty of blame to go around, but this situation is really tough.

CONAN: Well, we want to read some more emails. I find myself worried that the adaptations my family and friends have had to make in these hard times. This is from Ashley in Reno. In short, we've stopped consuming. We grow our own food when possible. We mend and fix things before we think about buying. When we do buy, we buy used. I worry about the broader economy when so few of us can buy goods. From Nicole: My friends and I are all in their 20s and have seen many of our college ideals flip away. Many were hoping to be journalists, writers and designers. We're all now heading back to school for more steady line of work, like nursing, medical professions, social work. It's not entirely bleak, but it's certainly not what we expected.

Last year for Christmas - this is from Madonna in St. Louis. Last year for Christmas, we sent out a post card to all our family and friends, letting them know we would not be giving gifts because my husband's employer had gone out of business. We also asked no one give us gifts because it wasn't fair. We'd feel even more guilty. Well, thanks to our savings and unemployment, we were able to make it through nine months of unemployment. Now, thanks to the federal stimulus program, my husband is back to work on a large construction project for a new police station in the town next to us. It took 527 resumes and nearly 40 interviews for him to get a new job. This year's Christmas is looking a whole lot brighter.

We should also point out, yes, the housing market is still terrible almost everywhere, but there is an up tick in manufacturing. There was a big up tick in the jobs created last month, so the unemployment rate down to 8.6 percent. Of course, that, in part, because fewer people are out there actually looking for work. And we'd like to thank Richard Gonzales out of KQED and our national correspondent there and our national correspondent Debbie Elliott from her base in Orange Beach in Alabama, for telling us stories of hard times. Guys, get back to sunnier stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLIOTT: Thanks, Neal.

GONZALES: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody.

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