"We have hope but at the same time we feel weak." These words are spoken by Eliseo Orasco, a disabled 51-year-old father whose struggles are detailed in HuffPost senior financial reporter Ben Hallman's story about Florida's changing demographics and uncertain future in this week's issue of Huffington. The worry that underlies Orasco's words is specific: he is staring down foreclosure on his small house on Florida's Gulf Coast -- "ground zero of the foreclosure crisis" -- where he lives with his wife and teenage daughter.
His words also capture something larger: the fact that the American Dream has turned into a nightmare for millions of middle-class families. Ben Hallman's reporting, which takes him to the foreclosure-ravaged Lehigh Acres neighborhood, captures not only the weakness and resulting fear, but also the hope -- the hope that the Italian journalist Luigi Barzini must have been thinking of when he once described America as "alarmingly optimistic."
In his report, Ben captures the lives and hopes of several Floridians whose quests for the American Dream have started and ended in vastly different places. Outside Orlando, two hours by car from Eliseo Orasco's yellow house with white trim, lies the world's largest retirement community, the Villages, with 88,000 residents. Here, in stark contrast to the blight of foreclosure, bulldozers clear land for yet more housing construction and residents navigate the pristine grounds in golf carts. The telling statistics are not boom-and-bust home sale prices but amenities: 95 restaurants, 63 swimming pools, 513 holes of golf.
It's a story about much more than some people doing better than others. In the course of his interviews, Ben examines the economic gulf that increasingly separates the old from the young, putting flesh and blood on what one economist calls a coming "demographic train wreck." As the number of elderly Floridians increases, with those over 85 emerging as the fastest-growing group, state leaders are slashing billions from the public education budget, and opportunities for young people -- like Dennis Hebert, an unemployed 26-year-old who for a time had to move his wife and young son into their car -- are dwindling. Forty percent of Florida's recent college graduates are unable to find work in the state -- a dilemma that's affecting young people in all parts of the country. As William Collon, a 75-year-old Villages resident, puts it: "The retired folks around here have done just fine. It's the young people who got in trouble."
When I wrote Third World America in 2010, my goal was to help "sound the alarm" so we'd able to course-correct while there was still time. Two years later, it is now more urgent than ever to continue sounding the alarm the way Ben Hallman has so powerfully done.
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