A 21st Century Journalism Project

Struggling, With Hope

In People on May 10, 2012 at 1:15 pm

By: Sean Maiolo

It seems that whenever economic experts and other talking heads drone endlessly about the weak and gloomy state of the American economy, the individuals and families struggling the most never garner much attention.

When talking about economic hardships, the role of those people is almost more to impress a substantial lasting effect upon viewers, listeners and readers. The sheer quantity of people struggling from day to day possesses at least some degree of shock-value even if those numbers have hardly changed over the continuing life of this recession.

There is no one person or one family barely getting by. Instead there are millions upon millions of people. But those statistics, although eye-catching, reflect only a long series of numerals strung together to form one large number.

Therefore, as the old adage goes, the numbers never tell the whole story. Nevertheless, the high number of working poor families in one borough in northwest Pennsylvania strongly reflects just how extensive the issue remains.

Over 8,000 people live in Girard, a quaint town with a long history of success in high school sports, most notably women’s basketball, although the last few years have yielded less heralded teams. Located about 15 minutes west of Erie, Girard only 10 years ago boasted a population north of 8,500 people. Along with the drop in population came a dramatic increase in the median age of the community, a sign of how both the number and quality of jobs in and around the area declined.

Of the 3,354 households in Girard, over 60 percent make less than $50,000 a year, a figure well above the state and national averages of roughly 46 and 45 percent, respectively. Even with the average family size sitting just below three people, an annual income below $50,000, when factoring in all the bills that need paid, leaves little if any money for even the smallest luxuries, and in some cases it cannot cover all the basic necessities.

One particular family of five wrestles with that challenge every day and has for quite some time. That family, who chose the pseudonyms Paul and Monica Anderson to remain anonymous, know in advance that nearly every dollar they make must be set aside for their bills and their mortgage, creating a stressful and sometimes contentious situation at home.

On a few occasions bills proved too tight for them to handle on their combined $55,000 a year income and forced the parents to ask their oldest daughter for several hundred dollars, money that she saved up by working every chance she got when on break from school. Even though she needed what little money she had left for things like groceries and the electric bill for her apartment, she knew keeping the lights on at her parents’ house and keeping food in their fridge took precedence and reluctantly gave them what they needed, not knowing if she would ever see it again.

Walking away happy from a situation like that is simply not an option. But when two working parents, one who travels extensively while the other works overtime during the night shift, struggle just to have the financial means to raise their three kids as best as they can, the clichéd picture of happiness and the American dream often take a backseat.

“Just to make sure everything is paid every month, just the day-to-day struggling is stressful,” Monica Anderson said.

“By the time you pay your bills, there’s really not a lot left over for, not even so much luxuries, even just the other necessities that you don’t need all the time but you still have to have. It’s just something you get used to. You don’t have a choice. You just keep going. You just do what you have to do.”

As discouraging as their circumstances appear, the Anderson family refuses to let it consume their lives. Even though finances loom heavy over the family, they find plenty of outlets to live as happy a life as they can. Girard High School boasts plenty of athletic success throughout its history, and sports have a long reputation of keeping people’s spirits up through even the lowest points of their lives, a theory Mr. Anderson buys into but only to a small degree.

“I don’t know if that’s actually the case or not. I don’t know if that really has anything to do with it,” he said. “(But) I always think it’s good to take your mind off your problems, whether it be activities or spending time with your family or whatever. It’s just anything to keep your mind off things.”

Many others in the community do the same because while not discussed, everyone knows how much their neighbors are struggling and they also recognize how much a strong community atmosphere can help.

“It’s not something a lot of people talk about,” said Paul Anderson. “But yet everybody knows because it’s published in the paper. That’s the key right there. But for the most part, people are supportive.”

“People are understanding if somebody says they don’t have the money to do something or like there’s a school activity that requires money and there’s kids that can’t do it,” added Mrs. Anderson. “Everybody understands that everybody is struggling and everybody’s having trouble coming up with money for the extras.”

The Andersons believe that Girard’s strong sense of community and understanding set it apart from other less wealthy neighborhoods in the area especially those in Erie’s inner city. They noted the general blue-collar upbringing and attitudes of the borough’s residents as critical to Girard enduring through tough economic times. Those ideals and others they said help keep hope alive in the community that a turnaround could be just on the horizon.

“There’s always hope,” Mrs. Anderson said.

Though the idea may seem more fantasy then reality, combined with hard work and an optimistic and determined vision for the future, blue collar towns and cities like Girard can rebound and actually emerge much stronger.

The city of Pittsburgh illustrates a perfect example of this, albeit on a much larger scale. A notoriously blue-collar region, Pittsburgh earned its Steel City moniker thanks to the tens of thousands employed at steel mills in and around the city. Employees of the mills always put in a respectable hard day’s labor and took great pride in their jobs and their communities.

When the steel industry collapsed in the early 1980s, tens of thousands of those blue collar workers lost their jobs, leaving the city and region searching for a new economic identity to carry them through the manufacturing they relied upon so heavily. That shift took far too long for many families who left in droves to find new employment. But eventually hope, resiliency and some prospering new enterprises propelled the Steel City’s evolution into an area now flush with diverse economic interests and good-paying jobs.

Though not involved in the steel industry herself, Linda Mitchell, born and raised in the Pittsburgh area, experienced firsthand the working poor struggles of that ominous time but maintained both her confidence and hope that things would get better. At various times she relied on food stamps and welfare to keep herself and her daughter afloat. Eventually she took advantage of an education program offered by the government to earn her an advanced diploma in accounting. That led to her hiring at Mellon Bank (now Bank of New York Mellon) where she still works and now brings home about $60,000 a year, plenty to support a modest but active and fruitful lifestyle.

“I did not go looking for it, it was just offered. When it was offered, I was like ‘yeah, this is a good chance to do something’ because at that point I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. “I went down as a temp at Mellon in the fall of ’86 and didn’t get hired until ’88. I was just a regular low-level employee.

“I got dragged into doing some extra things because once I got a grasp on what I was doing there, then they gave me more stuff to do…Then when we were merging with the other company, the lady that was above me doing this tax stuff, she decided to take a job somewhere else in the company. So they came to me and the boss at that time said, ‘Would you consider taking on being a supervisor?’ and I figured…if I don’t take the job I’m going to be training someone else to do it because there’s nobody else here that knows anything. So I took it and that’s how I ended up moving up like that.”

Thanks to her experience, she believes that even though the eras differ tremendously that being among the working poor, be it an individual, a family or even an entire community, is far from being a permanent situation that cannot be reversed.

“I think anybody can work their way up,” she said. “It wasn’t that I was extremely motivated, although I will say having a child motivates you more because you want to give for your kids.”

It took a quarter of a century, but Pittsburgh managed to overcome the steel industry’s collapse and today the sun rises on a prosperous city with a diverse and stable economy.

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