When we moved into our house almost 9 months ago, it didn’t take me too long to meet the neighbors. To the west live a tile layer (the husband) and a financial secretary at a construction company (the wife). To the east live a granite countertop installer (the husband) and a school counselor (the wife). Both have two kids, but the couple to the west are a bit older and their kids are grown (one is at the local community college the other is a senior in high school). The one’s to the east have two younger kids, one is 4, one is 10.

I wouldn’t say I’m the type of neighbor who goes out of his way to talk to his neighbors, but I have taken both of them cookies and other desserts and we’ve chatted quite a bit whenever I’m out in the yard mowing or raking leaves, etc.

As both of the husbands were living off the housing market, the sudden reversal hit them both very hard. My tile laying neighbor saw his business drop by almost 70%. Luckily, his wife, who also works in the construction industry, is fairly insulated from the downturn because she works for a solid company that makes a lot of its money from financing the homes (the division she works in). So, they have her steady income and their hoping to ride this out until things pick back up. Plus, they seem like the type of people who have a little bit saved up for a rainy day. Additionally, one of their daughters had leukemia several years back, but the wife’s very good health insurance minimized the cost for them and they pulled through it without any debt. Finally, they have lived in the same house for almost 30 years and will finally pay off the mortgage this coming November. So, they’ve been hit by the housing industry collapse, but they are surviving.

My neighbors to the east haven’t been so lucky. The husband lost his job installing granite countertops about 3 or 4 months after we moved in. At its peak, he was making almost $2,000 per week installing countertops. The wife’s job is pretty secure, but I doubt it brings in more than $35,000 a year, which is pretty tight if you are supporting a partner and two kids. Additionally, they aren’t the type of couple that had money tucked away. They pretty clearly live paycheck to paycheck and spend the excess on all sorts of things (they have an above ground pool outback that is neglected; they have a huge playset that is also neglected; they have a trampoline that I’ve never seen them use, etc.) They, too, had a son with leukemia (before they moved in to their current house, or I’d be freaking out about where I live). But their insurance wasn’t nearly as good at the time and they ended up with several thousand dollars debt (I think it was about $8,000 by the time it was over). The child recovered and seems fine, but that’s tough to pay for. Finally, these neighbors are both immigrants – she’s from Argentina and he’s from Cuba. They are both bi-lingual, which is probably an asset here (all of the bank tellers I’ve met have been bi-lingual), but maybe not.

About a month after my neighbor to the east lost his job, their cars were repossessed. She was driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee (about 3 or 4 years old) and he was driving a relatively nice truck. They got a loaner van for a few days from a friend, then bought a couple older vehicles – a mini-van and an older truck. The husband didn’t immediately go out to look for work and ended up hanging around the house for about a month before taking a temporary job (I’m not sure what exactly he was doing). It seemed to be a filler and didn’t pay much. He also mentioned in December that they were having marital difficulties and that she had kicked him out of the house a couple of times. He finally landed a job with Verizon, installing fiber optic internet connections in homes. The training took about a month. He spent about two weeks in the field, installing the connections, before he was laid off. I’m not sure if he wasn’t very good at it or if they just didn’t need as many installers, but that was the last straw for them. Two days ago they came over to tell us they were moving… They were five months behind on rent (though they paid two of those with their tax returns) and the landlord finally decided he had to evict them. She is using this to end the marriage. She’s moving to an apartment near the older boy’s school. He doesn’t know where he’s going yet. He’s going to be homeless for about a week, then he figures he’ll find something. As we talked to her, alone, she said she liked her husband but she felt obligated to do something to motivate him to get a job and keep it (I didn’t feel that the time was opportune to tell her that it probably isn’t entirely his fault). The financial burden of him not having a job just wasn’t acceptable.

I’m not writing this because I’m a busy-body, nosy neighbor. I’m writing this because this is my social stratification class playing out in front of my eyes. I make no bones about the fact that I live in a working class neighborhood (though there are some middle-class types too, like the dual-income professionals across the street – both Asian). There are a number of things that stand out about the lower social classes in this scenario. First, incomes are more volatile – when the economy gets hit, so do lower class incomes. Second, financial management isn’t a strong point. This isn’t because lower income individuals don’t want to save money; it’s mostly because they’ve never learned how. Third, couples in lower social classes are more likely to divorce. This is probably due to a combination of things, but one big one is the stress that results from financial problems, like losing one’s job. Fourth, healthcare costs hit lower-income couples substantially harder than higher-income couples – usually because the insurance pays less. And, fifth, immigrants often come to the USA believing this is the land of the “rags to riches” story. Well, we do like telling that story, but it’s more of a legend than anything else. The actual chance of someone growing up in the lowest tenth of income earners moving to the highest tenth of income earners is about 1%. Sure, it happens, but it happens so rarely that it’s more of a myth than even a dream.

There was an article the other day in the NYTimes talking about how the housing crisis was affecting the presidents of the banks that are now paying for it. It mentioned that many of them were not getting bonuses now. Some had even lost their jobs, but it’s not like they had to pay back the millions of dollars they made in the run up to the bust. Many had stock in their companies, and it was losing value (they’re now only worth $500 million instead of a billion). And some of them were losing the additional stock options they had. How many of them lost their homes and their marriages as a result? If they lost a home, they could probably afford to lose it (as they have extras).

I had one of my students the other day say in class that sociology is depressing. He’s right, to a degree. Sociology, itself, isn’t depressing – sociology is just the perspective that helps us understand what is happening in society. What’s depressing is what sociology discovers: inequality and stratification. I guess what we need to do better as sociologists is inspire our students to do something about the inequality and give them hope. Then, maybe, sociology won’t seem so depressing…

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6 Replies to “economic downturn and social stratification hit close to home”

  1. Indeed, very sad. We spent a wonderful evening with this little family after I fixed their computer for them. I don’t know if you’ve ever had Argentinian style pizza, but it’s awesome. She whipped them out of the oven, one after another and we sat around eating and chatting; it was loads of fun. Their kids are cool (if a little spoiled) and we’ve always gotten along with them really well. We’re sad to see them go and sad to see what’s happening.

    The protective effects of wealth is a good point, Dave. Having a little saved up can really save you. Having a lot saved up makes life pretty easy. I illustrated this to my class just the other day… Using, of all things, the Taft Fund. $1 million per year – that doesn’t just magically appear; it takes money to make lots of money, and that’s the perquisite of having wealthy ancestors.

  2. Dean, thanks for the reference. I almost feel bad for the guy… seriously, I’m right on the border here. It must suck to lose over $900 million. Of course, he still has $15 million…

    I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for jumpers. For some reason I’m just not thinking it’s going to get that bad.

  3. Another thing for your list at the end: the importance of the protective effects of wealth. It sounds like the first couple might be a bit better off in this regard. Sad story, sorry to hear it hit so close to home.

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