Correction: Earlier versions of this article did not include a credit for four of the staff writers who reported the story: Robert Samuels, Michael S. Rosenwald, Annys Shin and Kafia A. Hosh. This version has been corrected.
Melissa Gilley, a stay-at-home mother, figures she doesn’t get a single benefit from the government and she doesn’t want any, but she’s worried about whether her 11-month-old daughter will be able to count on Social Security in her old age. Anna Lostritto depends on the government for disability checks and food stamps; from what she’s been hearing on the radio, those lifelines could vanish, and that threat is keeping her up at night. Russ Setareh is moving mountains to save his flooring store, the last remaining piece of what was once a four-store business, but he can’t get any bank to lend him money, which has him wondering how his country will survive if it can’t borrow, either.
They and many other Americans watching their government sink into a frightening paralysis are disgusted with the politicians, but that’s nothing new. What is different in this debt crisis is that as taxpayers compare their own lives with the mess in Washington, they are increasingly concluding that the great American engines of success and growth may be winding down.
Twenty-seven miles from the Capitol building, at King Farm — a sprawling planned community in Rockville surrounded by shopping centers that some real estate agents compare to Pleasantville, Hollywood’s version of the too-perfect suburb — Americans affluent and struggling, young and old, Democrat and Republican look at the struggle over the debt ceiling with a sickened feeling, like gawking at a crash on the highway.
They’re appalled by politicians who seem to view compromise as defeat, amazed that the people they elected to lead do not seem to be up to the task and frustrated that the powers in Washington don’t understand that Americans want one thing above all else from their government: security.
“I’ve always believed in less government, but I want there to be choices for my family, like if my daughter wants to apply for a grant one day or something,” said Gilley, 28, who was raised Republican and still leans that way. A former massage therapist who rents an apartment at King Farm, she thinks unrestrained spending by politicians endangers the security of her daughter Emberlyn’s future.
“You think about these things a lot when you are a parent,” she said. Only by controlling excessive spending now can the government provide benefits to the sick and the elderly decades down the road, she said. Why can’t the politicians see that?
King Farm is a lot like the rest of Montgomery County and the Washington area — more Democratic than Republican, more affluent than much of the nation. Yet, like the rest of the region, it is also more dependent than most American metropolises on federal dollars. The biotech industry that led the boom of the I-270 corridor depends heavily on federal contracts. And many of the retirees in King Farm’s senior housing can afford their homes there because of federal pensions.
In the dining hall of the seven-story Ingleside retirement complex, a few blocks from the Safeway where Gilley and daughter were shopping, residents also debated the future — theirs and their grandchildren’s.
“The people here have a lot of stake in what’s going on in the next few days,” said Rosslyn Kleeman, 89. “We’re all worried. No one has ever seen anything like this before.”
Like many at the complex, Kleeman used to work for the federal government, in the General Accounting Office, now known as the Government Accountability Office.
“When I used to be up there, there was much more of a feeling of collegiality,’’ Kleeman said. “I used to work for Republicans and Democrats, and people were friends. But I don’t know about the future. The world is working in a way where we are not taking care of other people, respecting people. And it all seemed to happen so suddenly.”
She worries about her retirement, but more so about what her country will be like for her seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“I think if we had another election, maybe people would choose different leaders, friendlier people,” she said.
She paused. “Actually,” she added, “I don’t know if that’s true.”
At Ingleside, many residents are news junkies, getting their morning fix from print newspapers and keeping up all day listening to public radio on their iPods. Then they gather at dinner to hash out what they’ve heard, though they admit the dinner tables are often ideologically segregated.
“You tend to eat with people who have your same point of view,” said Kleeman, a Democrat. “But I had dinner with a Republican the other night. It was nice. It can happen.”
So why doesn’t that sort of thing happen in official Washington anymore, many wonder.
“Something’s changed,” said new resident Murray Feshbach, 81, who spent a quarter-century at the Census Bureau as an expert on Russia and is still a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “I used to be a cautious optimist, but now I’m a confused pessimist.”
Feshbach depends on Social Security and his civil service pension. If the government were to default, he said he “could ride for a few months, but not much longer than that.”
He’s stumped by the apparent inability of the government to find a path forward. “I’m only myself,’’ Feshbach said. “I’m not a power broker or a lawyer. I’m just trying to understand my country because it’s given my family great opportunities. I used to feel strongly that my government understood the art of compromise.” Not anymore.
Somehow, a nation that rose to greatness through the strength of its middle class seems to be devolving inexorably into a country of rich and poor, according to many in King Farm. They fear that whatever happens, their community will suffer: A default could hit local and state governments with a vastly higher cost of borrowing money, and a deal with stiff spending cuts could sharply narrow the flow of dollars to the local economy.
Richard and Helen Josephson, who live in Frederick but work at a small biotech firm near King Farm, said scaling back federal spending could send the local economy into a far deeper funk. Their company’s clients, for example, rely on funding from the National Institutes of Health. Richard, a biologist, said he is frustrated that no one in Washington seems to support deficit spending to stimulate the economy. “Both sides take it as gospel that we have to cut the budget right now,” he said.
The couple worry that the government will hit the middle class even harder by eliminating the tax deduction for home mortgages. “I like being in the middle class,” Richard said. “It seems like in the long term all we are going to have is oligarchs and the poor.”
King Farm looks like a place the recession never hit. The community’s free shuttle bus to the Metro stays on schedule. Every flower and blade of grass appears perfectly manicured. The trees that line the streets are still young, not yet big enough to provide shade.
But looks can be deceiving. At Crown Design Center, Setareh’s carpeting and flooring shop, the fragile economy has hit the Iranian immigrant hard. Because the housing slump depressed sales, he has had to close three of the four stores he’d built in his 30-year climb up the ladder of American success. His friends have closed businesses or lost homes to foreclosure.
To keep the King Farm store open, Setareh recently applied for a small-business loan from Capital One bank. He was rejected. He tried BB&T. Rejected again. The bankers said he wasn’t bringing in enough revenue to justify a loan.
Setarah, 51, said the federal government should follow his lead and raise its debt ceiling. “We need to borrow more money to pay the bills,” he said. He thinks of it as investing, just as he has with his 22-year-old daughter, who is in college at the University of Maryland, thanks to federally guaranteed student loans.
On Friday, the store was empty save for Setareh, shuffling papers at his desk. He can no longer afford to employ salespeople. He’s a one-man show.
Setareh blames the budget deficit on President George W. Bush and the Republicans, and on the expensive wars that have dragged on for nearly a decade.
Money from the government got Michael Chupeco, 34, through his MBA program at Georgetown University. No way could he have come up with $119,000 for tuition on his own. As he gets ready to repay the student loans at about $1,000 a month, he says it’s high time the government was managed like a business, with streamlined services, a simplified tax code and fewer loopholes.
A lifelong Republican, Chupeco broke with his party to vote for Barack Obama in 2008. Now he blames both parties for the debt stalemate, though he considers the president “the rational guy” amid all the partisan bickering. Chupeco, an accountant in Rockville and a single father, is trying to figure out how to pay his 4-year-old son’s preschool tuition even as he pays for his own education. He wonders how the nation will afford student loan programs in the future. “Very few people are going to afford their education,” he said.
Lostritto’s worries go even deeper. She depends on government money for food and medical care and has been tossing and turning at night over the prospect that if no deal is reached, “the mentally ill like me will be one of the first to be cut out. It’s messed up,” she said. “How are they going to decide who gets their checks and who does not?”
The houses behind white picket fences in King Farm can cost upward of $1 million; even the townhouses run $290,000 and up. But the community is strikingly mixed in age, ethnicity and even income. Lostritto, for example, has had to sleep in her blue 1996 Buick Century for the past week, after county shelters said they had no room for her.
She hears politicians railing against overly generous programs and wonders whether they’ve ever been to any of the overcrowded shelters where people go when they run out of options. She went to the county housing commission in search of a housing voucher but was told that the waiting list was 20,000 names long and was closed to newcomers. She spent Friday in a Dunkin’ Donuts in King Farm, trying to stay out of the 107-degree heat.
“I don’t know what’s happened to our country,” she said. “Why is it so hard to cut spending and raise taxes? People are willing to pay for what’s really necessary. If I could just get the politicians to see people on a human-to-human level, they could see that people depend on what they do.”