As the go-go 1990s fizzled into the no-go economy of the 2000s, Joe Clever suffered more than many. Already disadvantaged by a congenital eye problem, the electrical engineer watched through fuzzy vision as his employer of almost 25 years, Ford Motor Co., spun off its electronics division, and then as his new boss, Visteon Corp., downsized him out of a job in 2001.
He had been a saver by nature, but his sizable nest egg took a whack in the market slide, losing as much as $150,000 in value. He finally went legally blind. His marriage disintegrated and, at the age of 47, he has moved in with his mother in the tiny central Pennsylvania hamlet of St. Thomas, just over the Maryland line from Hagerstown.
For nearly four years, Clever has subsisted on Social Security disability payments, about $1,800 a month, tapping into savings when needed. He is seriously considering a move to Mexico, where life is slower, medical care is cheaper and public transportation ensures that people still can do without the cars he can no longer drive. "In some ways, my life has improved," he said, reflecting on his very early retirement. "In some ways, it's gotten worse."
But as he looks forward to a new administration in Washington, he is not thinking of what the government can do for him, as a man living hand-to-mouth, dependent on federal entitlement programs that are under severe fiscal strain.
Instead, he is looking to the government as a member of the disabled community, not trying to get ahead in the economy, just trying to participate.
For one thing, Clever feels as if he has no choice but to move to the heart of a large city, where he can walk to shops or take public transportation. He does not like large cities, mind you, but the inner cores of the small towns around him have rotted, as life drifts to the strip malls and Wal-Marts on the outskirts. Without sight, he simply cannot get to the shops, the restaurants and cafes, and the jobs that lie a car-ride away.
Most states have rehabilitation, education and vocational training programs for the blind and otherwise disabled, he said. But they are generally geared to young people just starting out in the work world, not older workers trying to navigate second careers through the trials of a new disability. Besides, he said, tight federal aid to the states has cut back what programs there were. President Bush's tax cuts were skewed inordinately to the wealthy, Clever said. It's time some of that money is returned.
"I don't know at this point what the government can do for me, if anything," he said, "but there are policies in general that can affect how people like me survive."
-- Jonathan Weisman