Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Real Economy is People

Note: This entry first appeared as a column in the Somerville Journal.

They say the economy is improving. But you can’t tell it by Anne.

Anne is a graphic designer in her mid-50s. She has made her own living all her life, either in her chosen field or in general office work. She hasn’t been able to find a steady job for the past year. Anne came to the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS), the anti-poverty agency where I work, to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or what most of us still call “food stamps.” She was denied. Having a little bit of savings for her retirement meant Anne was poor, but not poor enough for benefits.

They say the economy is improving. But you can’t tell it by Matt.

Matt is one year out of college with a degree in mathematics. He is working in a corporate mailroom, as a temp. Matt has the skills to do a lot more. His first temp job had him troubleshooting a web site designed to let middle school students study math at their own pace. He had hoped a few months’ temp work would put him in line to use his skills in a permanent entry-level job. No one was hiring. For now, he is sorting the mail.

They say the economy is improving. But you can’t tell it by the Blanco family.
Antonio and Maria Blanco have lived in Somerville since 1988. They have gone to church here and raised their three children here. They both commute into Boston where he works as a janitor and she as a nurse’s aide. Two full-time jobs are not enough to support a family in Somerville. So, four nights a week, Antonio comes home for dinner and a quick hello to his children. Then he heads out again to his second job as a night watchman in an office building. With two-and-a-half full-time jobs, the Blancos are still living at the poverty level.

For whom is the economy improving? Not for tenants living in buildings where the owner can’t pay his mortgage and the bank is taking over and evicting the tenants. Not for disabled people, who have a harder time finding work than average even when the economy is sound. Not for most of the people we call our neighbors. A few are fortunate to work in high-income jobs. Most are struggling to get by.

At CAAS, we are on the side of the struggling. We can help people narrow the gap between what they have and what they need, with services like job readiness training, housing and benefits advocacy, and early childhood education and daycare through our Head Start program. But human service agencies cannot do it alone. If life is really going to improve, all of us, in Somerville and across the country, have to change the way we think about “the economy.”

The real economy is not corporations, nor the stock market, nor the price of real estate. The real economy is people. How many people have jobs that pay a living wage? How many families can pay for the necessities of food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, transportation and childcare without working all day and all night? Who has a sense that they really belong, as a respected member of this community? Who can look forward to a better future?

These are the questions we must ask ourselves. These are the goals we should set for our city and our country. We will know we live in a better economy when the answer to each question is, “We are all doing better, together.”

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