It's 7:30 in the morning when I drive up to the sprawling brick building that was once a chronic care hospital. Today, it still houses the business of chronic care. This is where new poor come to apply for welfare.
The lobby this morning is relatively quiet. Only a couple of hundred people are seated, filling out the 23-page forms, waiting their turn. On other days a standing-room-only crowd spills out and down the long driveways. People line up here as early as 6 a.m. to be among the lucky first 200 who will spend eight hours being processed.
There are 50,000 people in Genesee County on aid. It's estimated that two- thirds of these people have been unemployed by the economy. In this company town, with the highest unemployment rate in the country, where 16,000 auto workers alone have been laid off, the new poor outnumber the old poor.
The social services building is by no means the only stop that the unemployed make on their skid down from the middle class. The first is the unemployment office, where the branch manager, Thomas Tomarkovich, who has been there since 1945, can give a rundown on most of what's available: "telephone soliciting on commission, domestic work, baby-sitting, minimum wage."
By the time you arrive at this building, after the job is gone, after benefits have run out, after the savings are down, and you've sold what you can, there is no doubt that you've joined the have-nots. Even the woman sitting composed in the lobby in a dress-for- success suit, as if she were coming to a job interview, must know that.
The people in Flint, like middle- class people in any town, have had a long way to fall. In 1980, this town had the second-highest average annual pay in the country, more than $18,000. Even today, the paychecks are high. There are just too few of them.
These are people who have bought homes and cars, maybe two of them. They are people who have bought washing machines and maybe dishwashers. Some have snowmobiles or lawn tractors and cabins up north. What they have not is work. As Mayor James Rutherford put it, "In today's world, to be a have is to have a job."
Fran Hiteshew at the Unemployment Crisis Center sees the unemployed as they begin the slow descent. She is a handmaiden of the downwardly mobile, the chronicler of gaps in their reality.
A day ago, she had a call from a woman who had a $5,000 car and a $61,000 house and couldn't pay a $91 utility bill. The day before, she tried to help some people budget for unemployment. She had trouble making them understand that a new washing machine was not a priority item, nor was call-forwarding on the phone, nor a rented TV.
Every day, she tries to help, even make, people face hard choices, plan for a future that may not include their favorite scenario: getting called back to the plant. "There's a reality gap," she says again and again. "The reality is just not there."
Those who slide further down, down to the welfare office, face a different kind of reality. Ruth Pemberton, the supervisor of volunteer services, sees it all the time. "Most people who work have the idea that welfare is a drive-in window. When they hit the agencies for the first time and see the regulations and find out how it is, it's a shock."
They find out that you cannot own two cars. They find out that they cannot have more than $1,500 in equity. They find out that they have to answer personal questions. They find out that a family of four in a state where welfare is relatively generous gets about $450 a month.
"UAW (United Auto Workers) salaries have been so high," says Pemberton, "that our ADC (Aid to Dependent Children) grants are like pocket money to them. Most of these people brought that home in a week." Many of those she sees never learned how to cook the cheap way, from scratch, or live the old way: "They're a generation of mothers who don't know anything but Pampers."
Do the new poor in Flint sound spoiled? They aren't really. They are just middle-class people who expected to stay that way. If we think more about the new poor than the old, it's for the same reason: the new poor are us without a job.
Now they live in a city where much of the downtown is boarded up. The beautification project painted murals on the boards. They live in a city that has as caring and as energetic a structure set into motion to help as I've ever seen. But, as the sign in the welfare office reads, "Employment is our best service."
Half-a-country away, at the Digital plant a mile from my Boston office, Ronald Reagan declared that he had seen America's future and "the future looks good." But here is a piece of the present. As people would say to me repeatedly, "Flint isn't any worse off than the rest of the country. We're just first."