WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Stucknation: A Personal Perspective on Foreclosure Families
Monday, September 20, 2010 - 12:00 AM
Two years after the start of the Great Recession, the collateral damage continues to mount. Formerly middle class families keep falling into the abyss of dispossesion and poverty, with their children in tow.
It often all starts to unravel with foreclosure. The Obama administration's efforts at throwing a lifeline to some of these families with mortgage modifications did not really pan out. Foreclosures continue to mount, and at this point, any additional help from Uncle Sam is a tough sell. The current political climate has objectified foreclosure families as pathetic "losers" who need to vacate their homes and get out of the way of the purifying free market that will sterlize their former homes from the stench of failure.
The numbers are overwhelming. At the end of last year, 44 million Americans - roughly one in seven -- were living below the poverty line. If the most recent foreclosure statistics from the first half of this year are any indication, the downward slide of hundreds of thousands of middle class households will continue. RealtyTrac reports an additional 1.7 million households received a foreclosure notice during the first six months of this year. By year's end, that is expected to produce another million foreclosures.
Lost in the numbers are the consequences for the children caught up in the economic crossfire. Through no fault of their own, they will be handicapped by this economic chaos as they try to take their place in the world. We tend to look at these poverty and foreclosure numbers as points on a trend line, quarter to quarter. But for the actual households, these numbers are familial wounds that can define a generation and will take help from strangers to heal.
I was the oldest of six children born to middle-class parents. They were filled with pride in the early 1960s when they bought their first home on Goodviet Place in Glen Rock, New Jersey. It was a house that, in retrospect, they could not afford.
This became apparent to me when at thirteen I met my first elected official, the late Bergen County Sherriff Joe Job. My parents were out and I was in charge. He handed me the foreclosure papers and assured me my parents would work it out.
I had gotten my first sense that things were sliding in our piece of Camelot when a few months earlier my dad called the police to report our new car had been stolen. It turned out it had been repossessed. He had lost his job in the textile industry when it was exported overseas.
In a matter of months, my dad was out of the house and living in a rental car. We had an ongoing garage sale and strangers came by to haggle. My mother made it fun for us and made us feel like we were not victims even as we priced our toys to move. She was told we could not get welfare until we lost the house. The utilities were turned off, including the water. My younger brother and I figured that we could go to the Esso gas station a few blocks away on Lincoln Avenue and get all the water we needed to make the toilets flush.
We ended up moving into rental housing a few towns away that had great schools. My mother worked doing secretarial work. I got a job at the local five and dime and brought the money home.
For me, a critical breakthrough to getting out of poverty came in my early 20s when I managed to land work through a Carter era federal jobs program called the Comprehensive Employment Training, or CETA for short. I was working in the Bergen County Office of Cultural and Historical Affairs. We produced performances and festivals that we created, certainly meaningless fluff by today's standards.
My supervisor was an ex-banker named Ben Willis. He taught me how to tie a tie, the value of deoderant and how to manage by objective. I learned how to combine stage craft and business. I had my first cool job reference.
In subsequent jobs I acquired more skills because older people trusted me with their expensive tools that included Ford frontend loaders, chainsaws, and typesetting machines. They were Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and Anarchists. But they invested in me.
So my story is one where I think a few thousand dollars in federal money for a jobs program helped me learn how the world worked.
We need now to prepare something now like a 21st century CETA program for the current children of foreclosure. It will be a down payment on getting "unstuck."