Ronald Reagan came into Naomi Alexander's house in living color. He looked hearty and optimistic on the living room console that faced the green velvet sofas. Seated on those sofas were some of the people he was talking about and talking to: the unemployed.
In this, the sinkhole of the national economy, where the unemployment rate is at 23.4 percent and the county numbers 47,450 unemployed, the president was making a speech to six workers with two jobs among them.
The six, all in their twenties, three married couples with a child apiece, were representatives of a growing constituency in this country. Not the homeless, not the hungry, but people who feel themselves skidding down the economic pole. The new scared.
The four who were unemployed had all gone to work in the auto industry in the salad days of the mid-'70s. Now, in this harsh night of 1983, they gave their names, their companies, their layoff dates, the way other people might give their college graduation class. Billy Alexander, AC (Delco) plant, October '82. Darlene Carpenter, Buick, October '81. Stephen Carpenter, AC, September '82. Cleophas Brown, Chevrolet, October '81.
These young families do not count themselves among the poor, not yet. Two of them are still meeting mortgages on homes they bought when there were two incomes in each family, rather than two incomes for three families. The third is living in a home inherited from a grandparent. They have kept their lives together with unemployment benefits and union supplementary benefits and savings. Two families have been buffered, as is often the case, by working wives. Unemployment, when they receive it, brings in as much as $190 a week.
Yet they have slid. One couple is downwardly mobile from a combined income of $38,000 a year to $9,000. Another has survived this year on savings and $225 a week in secretary pay. They have skidded equally far in their expectations of making it.
"We are able to eat and survive," says Billy Alexander, "but not go any further."
"It's not a, well, not a progressive kind of life," says Cleophas Brown. "It's like a downhill thing. We are going behind. There's 50 people for every job out there. What I feel is that things are not going to work out as I planned."
These couples, young by any actuarial table, find themselves in a mid-life squeeze with children and mortgages. They feel trapped already. "It's the middle people," says 27-year-old Brown, counting himself among them, "who are suffering the brunt. The old people here have the jobs; the young people got the Army."
As for their own futures, they echo a warning of Fran Hiteshew, who runs the Unemployment Crisis Center here: "You haven't seen this thing bottom out yet." Says Billy Alexander: "It's going to be different once unemployment runs out. We're liable to lose our homes."
"If I don't get a job," says Brown, "we'll lose the car and the house. If I go out and get a minimum-wage job, there's still no future--no future in that at all. Before I do that, I'd give up everything and rent a room and go back to school." Even that, he knows, is no guarantee.
Nevertheless, from this place and this point of view, the six people who settled in to hear the president's State of the Union address were not as tough an audience as you might imagine. Two of the six had voted for Reagan. Not one would blame the president totally for the economy.
They listened intently as the president tipped his hat in their direction: "For too many of our fellow citizens, this is a painful period. . . . Unemployment is far too high." And they listened while he proposed extending unemployment benefits again and talked about training programs for displaced workers. They heard him talk about a program of "short-term help and long-term hope."
But when it was over, these six unemployed were also unconvinced and untouched. "He's talking about the long-range," said one. "He said all that before," said another. "He's not offering us anything except another pacifier of benefits," said a third.
Naomi Alexander went back to passing around refreshments, and her husband, Billy, summed up their thoughts: "The way I look at it, I'm still going to wake up tomorrow and not have a job."
For a long time, the president has counted on the patience of people like the ones in the Alexanders' living room. He called on it again Tuesday night. There was, is, remarkably little anger among these families. But patience, if that's what it is, may only last as long as second jobs last, as benefits dribble in, as mortgage payments are met, as there is health insurance and food on the table.
The so-called new poor have already lost all this. But for every member of the "new poor" there are a dozen, maybe two dozen, members of the new scared, people like these six who are still hanging on, making do, cutting back. What happens if they begin to sink, as others are all over this city?
Today among the "graduates" of this economy, Buick '81 has four weeks of extended benefits left. So does Chevrolet '81. AC '82 has 1 1/2 more weeks. After that? Mary Brown, who sat quietly all night, had only one thing to say about the president's plans and her own: "We'll see."