Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
--inscription on the Statue of Liberty, from a poem by Emma Lazarus
Yesterday morning, as I walked past my neighbor Sue's home, I was greeted by a disturbing sign of the times. Sue's home is quite modest in size, but until recently it had always been beautifully kept with an immaculate lawn and garden, a grove of aspen trees to provide privacy from her neighbors, and an incredible array of flowers and shrubs artfully decorating her suburban lot. On this particular morning the lawn was overgrown and unkempt, small aspen seedlings were sprouting haphazardly in the middle of her flowers and lawn, and two mattresses lay stacked against the side of the garage where they had been soaked from the prior evening's downpour. Her next door neighbor filled me in on the fact that Sue was losing her house to the bank.
When our children were growing up , Sue's home had been a happy one. Her husband Ted was a teacher at the local high school, and painted houses in the summer to help make ends meet. In the mid '90s, Ted spent much of one summer digging up his front yard, hauling in soil, installing a sprinkler system and planting the gardens, lawn, and aspens that made this home such a joy to experience. A year later Ted's health failed, and the diagnosis was colon cancer. After six months of treatment Ted lost his battle with cancer leaving behind a wife with two teenage children. Today his 60 year old widow has lost her battle with the banks to keep their home of more than twenty years, and this once happy home provides a graphic testament to sadness, desperation, and the new "American Way" that is shrinking the ranks of our middle class as legions join the ranks of the destitute and homeless . I AM SO DAMN UPSET! HOW CAN THIS BE HAPPENING TO THE HONEST HARDWORKING MIDDLE CLASS PEOPLE OF AMERICA?
A month ago, when Sue's daughter told me they were having a "garage sale", I gave it little thought and passed it by. Even though we lived around the corner from each other, it had been some time since Sue and I last spoke and I did not know anything about her situation until another neighbor filled me in. Like many others I am quite busy with my own life, and now that my kids are grown the circle of friends that I stay in touch with has shrunk considerably. I feel terrible that I did not make the time to attend their garage sale and reconnect face-to-face. Had I known of her plight, perhaps I could have helped in some small way?
Tragically, our ex-neighbor Sue has plenty of local company. Our friend Donna, a hard working single mother and former neighbor from our cul-de-sac recently lost her home of 15 years to foreclosure. Tommy is another friend and widowed mother who lost her home to the banks this past year. And there is my friend Ralph the plumber, who was telling me what a humbling experience this economic downturn has been for him. He used to chide others for their laziness when they could not pay their bills. After trying as hard as he could to dig up work that simply was not there, Ralph said he had to suck in his pride, go delinquent on numerous bills, and let his investment properties (he was counting on those for his retirement) slide into foreclosure. The last time I saw Ralph, he was concerned that he and his 85 year old widowed mother may lose the roof over their head if the economy does not turn around soon. And there is the carpenter's wife living around the corner who confided that their stress level has come back down to a manageable level now that they let go of their struggle to keep their home and moved into a rental with a monthly payment that was much more affordable than their mortgage had been. And there is my friend Patrick, a musician who married a highly successful Realtor with a beautiful large home and several income properties. With the change in the economy, they too have lost everything and now live in a tiny rental. Patrick says that just making rent money in today's economy is struggle and that he can't remember the last time they ate out at a restaurant. Given my small circle of friends, the sheer number of these who have lost their homes to the banks is both disgusting and shocking!
Why do we allow this to happen in America? How could the country known for opening its doors to the world's "huddled masses" fail to take care of its own middle class? Why are there trillions of dollars to bail out the rich bankers and investors of Wall Street, wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but only crumbs for the people in the lower half of the economic food chain, most of whom have never had enough discretionary money to invest in the stock market or save for retirement? Where is America's heart and soul when aging widows are put out of their homes and onto the streets? Who can trust a congress that refuses to pay for health care benefits for 9/11 workers by closing loopholes on rich corporations who try to shelter income from taxes by using offshore accounts? Where are the protests? What happened to our government leaders who were supposed to be "of the people, by the people and for the people"? Where is our collective shock and shame that this is happening to good, honest, hard working folks all across America?
Matthew Stein is the author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency from Chelsea Green. For more information, visit chelseagreen.com and whentechfails.com.