About a year ago, a man lost his job. I wouldn't ordinarily bother to tell you this. Unemployment is by now familiar to all of us. In fact, this particular man was one of hundreds who lost their jobs on a single day when a single company in Pennsylvania closed its doors. He wasn't the only one who'd worked there a quarter of a century.
What happened next wasn't unusual, either. The man joined the ranks of the new American migrants, people who leave their families in one place to find work in another. Nobody knows how many of these new migrant workers there are in the country, but you can see them, meet them, everywhere.
Some of them, the Okies of the '80s, pack up everything in the back of the car and go. Others, like this man, are the "heroes" of Reaganomics, people who "vote with their feet." Vote for Dallas over Detroit, Anchorage over Oregon, mobility over unemployment, work over home.
So I wouldn't ordinarily tell you this story. But the letter I got in the daily mail from his wife (I'll call her Anne) says more about the deep disruption of a single family by this economy than all the statistics that flow out of Washington.
In careful prose, Anne describes her husband's departure: "After wearing out a pair of shoes while beating the pavement in the area for months, (my husband) gave up looking around here and began sending r,esum,es out of town. He was lucky, I guess. He found a job in a field that paid just about the same salary he got from the company that went under. But it's 1,000 miles away from here."
This was not a decision made lightly or handled easily. "This is a man, understand me, to whom his family--wife and three kids--is the core of his life. This is a man who actually reads report cards before signing them and who isn't ever too busy to pick up his 17-year-old daughter and pals from a late movie. This is a man who still gathers his two teen-age sons into his arms and kisses them. He went because he had no choice."
And Anne stayed, because she had no choice, either.
In another era, these two might have been described in trendy terms as a commuting marriage, their separation buffered by airline tickets and long-distance credit cards . . . money. But this is a two- job family with a house, three kids, college tuitions and, now, loneliness.
"Our house is up for sale, but so far, no one is interested. The plan is that I will join my husband when I can find a job in the city where he works. I have a job here and I love it. Will I be able to find another good job, what with all the cutbacks and economizing everywhere? Should I stay here until I find another job? Until the house is sold? Does one get used to being without one's husband after a while? Or does the loneliness just turn into depression? I never used to mix myself gin and tonics as soon as I got home after work when he was here."
The effects of this one decision ripple out beyond their own personal relationship. There are the kids who have lived in this house-for-sale so they could commute to college. And there is Anne's mother, "who depends on me to be here when she needs someone to talk to about a Social Security check that didn't come or a pipe that's leaking. Who will she call when I'm gone? Who will get her the 20-pound bag of birdseed from the supermarket or get her the books from the library when she's sick?"
No, this isn't a sob story. It isn't even a tragedy as tragedies go in this economy. There are real horror stories from the Midwest about the rising rates of child abuse among the unemployed. There are real horror stories about people who can't find work at all. For the moment, Anne and her husband are both employed. Nobody is going hungry.
But stories about people like these-- the new uprooted--say something about the state of the country. They say something about times when, once again, men and women can only support families in the "old country" by leaving them behind and moving to a "new country."
They say something about the ultimate "pro-family" policy of Reaganomics when security, community, family relationships are wiped out by unemployment. And the stories say something about why thousands of the new American migrants have to choose between those two halves of a healthy human being: work and love.
As Anne wrote, "The economy has become, to me, much more than a word that one finds sprinkled about on the pages. . . . It's a force that has disrupted my career, torn up my family, put my kids' college plans in jeopardy and taken away my home. What's happening to people because of what's happening in Washington is very real. And the hardest part, I think, is that no one really knows who to blame."