DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For the past few weeks, we've been having conversations about the economy with people I met back in 2009. At the time I was traveling across the U.S., trying to understand the recession through the eyes of people in their communities. And no one sees more of a community than the mailman.
I met postal worker Mark Sinnen in Bradenton, Florida. He's been delivering the mail for three decades and proudly has the U.S. Postal Service eagle tattooed right on his thigh. As we rode along his route in his mail truck, he told me about the changes he was seeing.
MARK SINNEN: Every now and then you'll see the father of the family that you never used to see, and then he'll be home and he's in a foul mood when he comes up to grab the mail, not been able to find a job.
GREENE: Some of the people without jobs in Bradenton were showing up at a day center for homeless people, one of the stops on Sinnen's mail route. The shelter's coordinator is Martha Childress, and when I met her in 2009, she said she was seeing all kinds of new faces.
MARTHA CHILDRESS: We're seeing a much better class of homeless person now. And I see people that do this to me: Look, I have never had to ask anybody for anything ever before. They're really embarrassed about it. They need me to help them, but they're ashamed to ask me to help them.
GREENE: So that was the picture in 2009. To get a sense for how the economic picture has or hasn't changed in Bradenton, Florida, we asked both Mark Sinnen and Martha Childress to join us again.
It's been two years since meeting you both. It's really good to talk to you again. Thanks for being here.
CHILDRESS: Sure. Hello.
SINNEN: Hi, David.
GREENE: Mark, I wanted to start with you. You and I, as we were driving along your mail route, talked a lot about how you were seeing people who had lost their jobs. And that was back in 2009. I understand that your own job might be at risk now with the U.S. Postal Service feeling the financial strain today.
SINNEN: I've been preparing. My wife and I have invested quite a bit for a long time. I would miss the postal service, but we'd be OK financially. The postal service could either start excessing(ph) folks - the junior folks with less than six or seven years in the postal service would be (unintelligible) first, and then they would work up the food chain until it got to the older folks.
And it could also go the other way. Representative Darrell Issa wants us to get rid of the older folks like myself that have a lot of years in or are close to retirement.
GREENE: Well, you were so kind to let me ride along with you in the truck back in 2009. And I certainly saw a lot of Bradenton. Bring my listeners into your truck if you can and describe what kind of community you see every day.
SINNEN: The last time we spoke, the real estate slump had hit my blue collar customers pretty hard. But now it's trending toward - the middle class folks are getting hit up. Some of them were small business owners or government workers who had pretty good jobs, placing them solidly in the middle class.
But since the recession has dragged on, I'm seeing indicators that these folks, especially folks with children, they're starting to get mail indicating that they're getting assistance from the government through our Department of Children and Families to feed and provide medical services to their kids.
GREENE: And so you actually â you actually see, coming through the mail, I mean, things like food stamps, Medicaid, I mean that kind of literature going to families that you would've a year or two considered middle class, small business owners?
SINNEN: Absolutely. And they're indications that they're really having a rough time. Foreclosure notices, you know, multiple messages from the bank. It gives you an indication that not all is well with their housing situation.
GREENE: And, Martha, let me turn to you. One of the stories that we've been following nationally is the poverty rate. The numbers tell us that more Americans are living in poverty right now than at any time in at least 50 years. Does that surprise you based on what you're seeing every day at the shelter?
CHILDRESS: No. Two or three years ago, I would see 250 visits in a month. At that time I could put all of my new clients onto one sheet of paper and have a lot of paper left over. And now I turn in six to eight absolutely, completely full sheets of paper.
There are people that have done everything that they've ever been told to do to be successful - go to school, don't drink, be on time for your job. They've done all of that. Now not only have they lost their jobs, but they've lost their confidence.
GREENE: Are there jobs in Bradenton right now? Have you seen people, you know, able to leave the center and they come in and say, Martha, I've got a job?
CHILDRESS: Not so much. Well, there's restaurant jobs. There's telemarketing jobs. But most of the really good jobs that are out there the people who's got them are hanging on for dear life.
GREENE: I wanted to just ask both you briefly to step back a little, if you can, and give me a sense of your optimism right now that, you know, things, the economy, are going to get better at some point soon. Mark, I'll start with you.
SINNEN: I'm not too optimistic. For the next three to five years in the United States, I see that the greater middle is not holding up.
GREENE: Martha, what's your level of hope right now?
CHILDRESS: Good grief. I'll tell you what. Some better decisions are going to have to be made and it's going to have to be made right away. People in positions of power who have the ability to make these decisions need to start making them. We can fix it. We're supposed to be smart. We're supposed to be powerful. Aren't we?
GREENE: That's Martha Childress. She's the coordinator of the Open Door Day Shelter for the homeless in Bradenton, Florida. Martha, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today.
CHILDRESS: You're mighty welcome.
GREENE: And Mark Sinnen, who has spent more than 30 years with the U.S. Postal Service, Mark thank you so much for talking to us again.
MARK SINNEN, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE: It was a pleasure, Dave.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.