06/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tumbling Down the Incline

After a year of crisis nothing is certain: A society loses its footing

Stephanie Burkek has put a light gray plastic chair in front of the door to her room, number 112, and made herself comfortable in it. She sits there and watches what is going on in the parking lot directly in front of her. It is summery and warm on this Friday. Her three-year-old son Andrew whizzes around between the cars that are parking on a Bobby-Car; her cousin Jessica keeps coming over to sit on the other plastic chair and then they talk to each other for a minute or they just watch the parking lot and their children.

But this life is not at all pleasant and laid-back. Stephanie and Jessica live in a motel, a Budget Inn, in the town of Luray, Virginia -- Stephanie, her husband Arthur and the two kids Andrew and Sean since December; Jessica, Larry and son McKayle have been there for a few weeks. Each family is wedged into a sparse motel room of the lowest category with two beds, a mini-bar as refrigerator, an electric stove top, a microwave, a TV. For this they pay 600 dollars a month. This is still a lot if you do not have a job, but it is less than what they had to pay for their apartments in the neighboring town of Stanley. They were kicked out of their apartments because they were no longer able to pay their electricity, gas and water bills. "All the utilities are included here", says Stephanie. As a matter of fact, the owners of the Budget Inn do not care how much electricity or water is used -- as long as they get their 600 dollars at the end of the month.

Living in a run down motel -- Stephanie and Jessica's families have slid down the social incline. And at the end of the first full year of crisis in the USA, this is the rule and not the exception. Those who used to be fairly low in the social hierarchy are now quickly landing in the basement. And those who belonged to the middle class up to now are suddenly finding themselves in the lower class. With no job, no financial reserves and no social safety net worth mentioning, one is often just a step away from tumbling down the social incline in the USA.

The decline is still hiding behind motel doors, in the barracks of job centers and on the counters of food and clothing stations of charitable organizations. But if you simply scratch on the façade, you can see the distress in a nice little town like Luray. Unemployment is at 17 percent in Page County, where Luray is located. 17 percent in a place at the foot of the Shenandoah Mountains, which could always count on tourists as an economic factor if all else failed. But now they only come sparsely and neither want to visit the stalactite caves nor spend money in the restaurants. "This here is the worst I've ever seen", says Mayor Barry Presgraves. The 66-year-old knows what he is talking about because he has spent his whole life in Page County. "It has never gone so downhill in the USA".

Not only are the tourists staying away, but local companies have also been closing or cutting jobs in the past months. Example Wrangler: The jeans manufacturer laid off 260 employees; example Wallace: The computer and printing company sent 350 employees into unemployment; example Pilgrim's Pride: Over 200 employees of the poultry farm lost their jobs. The region, which is around two hours west of the nation's capital, has had to cope with restructuring for the past years. But until now people could at least find work if they were willing to accept having to drive far distances such as to the greater Washington or Richmond areas. This model no longer works. There is too little work everywhere. This is hardly surprising in a country in which 5.7 million jobs have been cut since December 2007.

One of the people managing the shortage in Luray is Florhline Painter. She is head of the "Work Force Job Center." If you are looking for a job you go to her and her placement service. Florhline resides in a converted drive-thru -- an old fast food restaurant where you used to get your hamburger through your car window. Now you can go there and browse for job offers on computers. The 62-year-old with dark blonde hair tries to be optimistic, even if there is no reason to be. "This time the crisis is different than before", she says. "It's hitting every industry, whether you're a plumber, electrician or pilot; whether you're 58 or 28 years old". So she offers refinancing, talks about the future of "green jobs" and encourages those looking for a job to continue their education. But she also knows that a lot of this is just a dream. "It's my job to give people hope", says Florhline -- so that unemployed people do not get frustrated and unmotivated.

Depression is the poison that can make a life and identity crisis out of even short-term unemployment. "You have to pull yourself together every day", says Russel McConniel. "You have to do something". The 36-year-old policeman goes to Florhline every morning, checks job offers and sends applications. Then he tries to structure his day -- he cleans the house, works in the garden at his parents' place or at his neighbors' houses. There he earns tips -- sometimes ten, sometimes 20 dollars.

When Russ, as he is called for short, still had his job as deputy sheriff in Richmond, he belonged to the American middle class. He earned about 45,000 dollars a year and his job seemed secure. The police force was his turf - he had been a military policeman for eight years in the U.S. Army and before he found his job as sheriff, he had worked at various security companies. Since then, the 36-year-old has been applying for everything that he thinks he is even halfway capable of doing, even for jobs as a bartender, receptionist or cleaner in a hotel. Russel plans on doing everything in his power to make sure that he does not slide farther and farther down the social incline. He would even go back to the army in order to do this. "They would take me back", he has already sounded out on his old classmate. Would he have to go to Iraq? "With 95 percent certainty", says Russ. But this does not bother him -- not after a year and a half of unemployment -- if he could just finally start doing something with his life again.

Unlike Stephanie and Jessica, Russel McConniel has no family to take care of and can at least live at his parents' house in Luray -- even if he does not like it. But there is no other way. Russ has used up all of the social contributions that the American government has made available for its citizens for such existential crises. He received regular unemployment money on the order of 363 dollars a week for around four months, but after an extension of six weeks, that was it. Now in April he even sold a part of his future - Russ liquidated his pension fund. He got a little over 5,000 dollars, but this will be used up in a couple weeks as well, says Russ. He could also apply for food stamps, which you can receive if your income does not exceed a certain amount, but Russ cannot and does not yet want to take this step. "I never thought I would be unemployed", he says. And then he talks about a friend of his from Houston, Texas, who recently killed himself after being laid off. "He shot himself", says Russ. And you feel what thin ice the 36-year-old is walking on.

Many other people in Luray have already made their way to the food bank. There they get something to eat or financial aid. Just in April, 270 citizens visited the food bank "Page One". This is 25 percent more than a year ago. When Lois Shaffer, who runs the office, walks along the shelves, she is proud that she has enough boxes of canned goods, fruit, beans and cereal in spite of the crisis. Anyone who has, for example, a four person family and can prove that he or she earns less than 2,650 dollars a month can file an application. A committee discusses each case individually and decides what kind of aid the person will receive. In addition to this, they also have the operating principle: "Anyone who is hungry gets something to eat". The other day a man was here who did not want to admit that he was hungry, says Lois. "He simply couldn't do it. And then we wrapped up some food and gave it to his wife".

Stephanie's family pays for her room at the Budget Inn a few blocks away with the small pension that her disabled husband receives. She does not know how things will pan out in the future. She is looking for a job so she can finally move back into a real apartment with real furniture, she says. But unlike Russ, you do not see that Stephanie will do everything in her power to reach this goal. On the contrary, you see the traces that a half a year in a hotel room has left on her face. There is no hope there.

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