Friday, February 13, 2009

Portrait: Ontario, Canada

I have lived in the same small town for as long as I can remember. I always considered it to be too rural, too old fashioned, too far removed from the rest of the world. When I began to hear news of economic hard times I really didn't care. Such things were far away from me and my family, and besides people were surely overreacting. I mean, it was a rich person's problem, right? The stock market might be important to people who had tons of money but surely it didn't affect me, right? Maybe some folks would have to down-size their mansions and sell off a few luxury cars but it served them right for being rich in the first place, right?

When I was a kid a factory opened up at the edge of town and started turning out metal car-parts. Soon the town was growing. People were driving in for work. Housing developments sprang up. The population inched higher. Then another plant went up on the other side of town, this one made plastic car parts. The school was full and new stores opened up down-town. Half of the kids in my high school got weekend and after school jobs at the factories when they were 16 and a lot of them never left. I know several families in which mothers and fathers both work at the same plant, usually on opposite shifts to cut down on child-care costs. They said it was a good job with benefits and over-time and vacations. After the last Christmas vacation employees were told not to come back, the plant didn't need to be opened at all in January. Then they started laying people off. At the other plant my aunt's crew went from more than ninety people down to less than fifteen. My aunt was not one of those fifteen. All those kids I went to high school with who started working full time the day after graduation now have spouses and children and mortgages on the nice new houses that were built so recently, but they do not have degrees or skills or experience with anything else in the world. Those families suddenly went from dual income to none at all.

It still didn't personally affect me. I was sad to see my friends struggling but I still felt secure enough. I left work when I had my second child and we lived as frugally as possible on my husbands salary as a furniture salesman. We were used to living paycheck to paycheck and doing without the finer things in life and surely we'd be fine until I went back to work. We had no investments to lose.

These days there are more and more houses up for sale as people head for the cities to look for work. Half of the stores on Main street stand empty. But not everything is declining; the use of crystal meth is skyrocketing, same with prostitution and teen pregnancy. It's a long drive to anywhere and gas is expensive.

Now it affects me. People aren't buying as much furniture anymore. My husband's paychecks have shrunk and his job is in jeopardy. I have been looking for work for 7 months, ever since my maternity leave ran out for a job that I can't go back to. We have two kids, two broken down vehicles and no savings, but at least we have a place to live, enough to eat and resources to take care of our kids. My aunt found a part-time job and is supporting herself and my cousin on about 10 hours of work a week. My disabled mother asks for extra shifts at her job at a retail chain store and hobbles home from work in agony, pushing a walker and dragging her leg in a brace. She's barely able to move until her next shift but she's terrified that she will be fired for being too slow or having too many doctors appointments. She can't pay her bills and support my 84 year old grandfather if she has to go on disability.

Last week I was standing in line at the grocery store telling my five year old that we couldn't afford a chocolate bar today, when two women got in line behind me and I over-heard this: "...It's just disgusting. Every day I have kids showing up at school who haven't been fed. They don't have hats or mitts or even coats sometimes, it's ridiculous! The government should track down these parents and give them a good kick in the rear!..." Really? really? I was pissed. Do you think people want to send their kids to school cold and hungry? Do you think the parents are lounging by their pools being served cocktails by their butlers while their kids stomachs grumble? Because maybe, just maybe, the parents are doing the best they can with what little they have. If you're so high and mighty why don't you lend a hand instead of complaining? Don't you realize it's not just someone else's problem?

Times are hard and everyone is affected.

Ontario, Canada