He awoke to his alarm on Monday morning at 6, just like always, even though his handwritten schedule for the day read only: “Find something to do!” Steven Murdock, 39, poured himself a cup of coffee and rummaged through the defrosted Thanksgiving leftovers in an otherwise barren refrigerator. He grabbed the phone that bill collectors were threatening to turn off and made his first call of the day.
“I need some kind of odd job to help me get by,” he told a neighbor. “Know of anything?”
It was the beginning of another workweek in a town with too little work, and all around Murdock, the South Carolina economy of 2012 stirred to life. Forty people formed a line outside the downtown food bank, carrying empty plastic bags they hoped would be filled. Dozens more waited for sunrise at the unemployment office. A sign at the Department of Social Services directed all comers to an overflow parking lot, built to accommodate the 25 percent of Conway’s population that now survived primarily on government support.
Murdock was no longer among them. In the 14 months since he lost his $11-an-hour construction job, his options had been whittled down to this morning routine of cold calls to friends and neighbors. His weekly unemployment benefits had expired. His food stamps had been trimmed to less than $50 a week. His bank account was in the red, his hot water was turned off, and he no longer had health insurance to treat a pinched nerve or bouts of depression. Lately, his only medication was the pep talks he gave himself between phone calls.
“Nobody else is going to turn this around for you,” he said as he readied to dial again. “Get off your ass. Make something happen. Sink or swim.”
As South Carolina prepares to hold its Republican primary Saturday, the economically depressed state already has revealed a definitive issue of the 2012 presidential campaign: How can government best serve a record number of jobless and poor? What should happen to the Steven Murdocks?
There is President Obama’s vision, which Republican opponents call “a European welfare state”: People like Murdock are entitled to government help during a time of extreme hardship, no matter the cost.
And there is the Republican vision, which Obama calls “you’re-on-your-own economics”: A government burdened by debt must encourage self-sufficiency, even when it seems harsh.
Does cutting government support programs leave people to fail or free them to succeed?
Sink or swim?
Murdock believed he could swim. He had worked six days a week ever since he dropped out of high school at 16, moving out of his parents’ house to take a job in construction. In the years since, he had made his living as a plumber, a manager at a Pizza Hut, a beer distributor, a tobacco picker, a truck driver, a mover, a framer and a landscaper. He had never been married; his friends had been work friends, and his free time had gone to overtime.
He picked up the phone and tried another neighbor. “Need some yardwork done? Some raking? Maybe a power wash?”
Another: “I’m not looking for a handout. I don’t want a free ride.”
He took out a cigarette and turned on the TV. Mitt Romney was making a stump speech across the state, reciting what had become one of his trademark lines: “Are we going to have an entitlement society or an opportunity society?”
Murdock switched over to the Weather Channel. He had always hated politics and did not plan to vote, but he did love the United States and believed in the concept of opportunity — “in taking only what’s yours and finding a way to make it yourself,” he said. To that end, he had already applied for more than 60 jobs in the past year. He had already sold his lawn mower, his car, his guns and his tools. He had already become a regular at all three of Conway’s day-labor centers, where the contractors charged him to rent back those same tools on the rare occasions they offered him work. He had already painted a neighbor’s laundry room for $30 and washed a friend’s car for $10.
And on this day, he had already called everyone who he thought might be able to hire him for an odd job.
“Looks like it’s the last resort,” he said.
During the previous month, he had taken to picking up cans and scrap metal along the road. It made him feel like a bum, he said, but he had managed to fill seven bags with aluminum cans and other recyclables. Now he loaded them into a friend’s pickup truck and drove a few miles south, toward Myrtle Beach. They pulled up to a warehouse where the owner purchased scrap metal. Murdock grabbed his bags and set them onto an industrial scale, stale beer spilling onto his hands and his jeans.
“Twenty-seven pounds at 35 cents per pound,” an employee said. He punched the numbers into a calculator, rounded up and handed Murdock $9.50.
This was today’s opportunity.
“Thanks,” Murdock said. He crumpled the bills into his pocket and walked back to the truck.
The crumpled bills bought more cans, and Murdock came back to his house a few hours later with a six-pack of Bud Ice and sat down on the porch. He had gained 22 pounds in the past several months, all of it in his stomach, trading the chiseled physique of his years as a beer-warehouse manager for the soft features of a beer drinker. He wore jeans, a baseball cap and a T-shirt, no matter the temperature. He shuffled when he walked on account of a bad back, and his beard was just starting to gray.
“Funny how fast you can start to feel old,” he said.
His father had died of a heart attack at 60, and Murdock had spent the past decade trying to fill the role of caretaker for a family that needed plenty of help. He had earned as much as $700 a week in the last job he had, and instead of saving for himself he had spent on everyone else. He took his mother out to lunch once a week in Conway. He gave his sister, a single mother, a few twenties every month to help her support twin daughters. He hosted barbecues for his friends and started dating a woman 11 years his junior. Every time she came over to his house, he would pretend to run an errand but sneak out to fill her gas tank instead.
Being dependable had made him feel good.
Being dependent was keeping him awake at nights with insomnia and in bed some days with depression. The more that people took care of him after he lost his job, the more despondent he had become. His girlfriend had earned a steady salary as a mail carrier, and she started to pay for them both when they went out to bowl or shoot pool. He loathed himself for it and started to resent her, so they had broken up after seven years.
His mother had paid a $200 electric bill for him even though she had recently lost her job, too, so now he kept the thermostat in his house at 58 degrees. His sister was slipping him a few dollars when she could, even though she had not been able to find full-time work. The friends he still had were tired of giving him rides to drop off job applications or buying him cigarettes. “I’m a grown man, and I’m relying on everybody else,” Murdock said.
So many other Americans were also reliant, and their collective burden had become the main topic in South Carolina during the past few weeks. Ten percent of adults in Conway, population 18,000, receive unemployment insurance. More than 46 million Americans receive food stamps, nearly double the number in 2006. Almost one-quarter of the federal budget in 2010 was spent on programs to keep people out of poverty or to help those already facing it.
Under the leadership of its conservative governor, Nikki Haley, South Carolina had pioneered cutbacks that some Republicans wanted to institute across the country, reducing basic unemployment insurance from 26 weeks to 20 and eliminating it for seasonal employees. Haley also had become a tea party hero by suggesting mandatory drug tests for everyone who received government support.
“Government dependency can only foster passivity and sloth,” Romney said on the campaign trail.
“Our success has never been about survival of the fittest,” Obama said.
An entitlement culture is a “fundamental corruption of the American spirit,” Romney said.
“We pitch in. We do our part. We have a stake in each other’s success,” Obama said.
None of the politicians involved in the debate had as much at stake as Murdock, but he had numbed himself to the election and everything else that reminded him of his dependency. Lately, his favorite part of each day was evenings like this one, when he could sit on his porch at the end of a dark road, look up at the stars, drink a beer, listen to geese land on the pond across the street and throw a tennis ball to the two dogs that continued to rely on him.
Another morning, another round of phone calls, and this time the only person who offered work was his mother. She needed her yard raked and cleaned, she said. Murdock agreed to take care of it, even though raking aggravated his back more than anything else. He took two pain pills and rode 25 minutes with a friend to her house in Myrtle Beach.
Kitty Murdock had spent the past year grappling with one of the toughest parenting challenges of her life. How could she care for a proud, adult son without crushing his self-esteem? She had decided to help him only in ways that seemed motherly, she said, calling him every night and dropping by now and then with a jacket she found on sale at Wal-Mart or an inexpensive pair of shoes. This morning, she greeted her son in her kitchen with hot coffee, fresh banana bread, an extra bag of chicken legs from the freezer and laundry soap so he could wash his clothes.
“You doing okay?” she asked.
“I’m good,” he said.
She could afford to help him only so much, since she had spent the past year relying on help herself. She had worked for 20 years as a retail buyer for local amusement parks until the company downsized in 2010. “I’m retired,” she had told friends then, smiling. But now she had blown through the modest savings intended to send her grandchildren to college and started searching for red stickers at the grocery store’s meat counter. She had two weeks left of her unemployment insurance and no job prospects in Myrtle Beach, a tourism town with diminished tourism in the summer and none now in January.
“Real retirement will never be an option now,” she said. She sat at a table in her sunroom and watched her son work, his gray shirt darkening with sweat as he stuffed leaves into 20 bags, 30, 40. This was Murdock’s favorite kind of task, one that would take all day and end with the visual satisfaction of a clean yard, a job well done, some tangible sense of accomplishment.
But it was also hard labor, and now his mother wondered: Should she pay him? She had agreed to give his friend $40 for the day, but she and Murdock had not discussed money.
“He looks like his old self when he helps somebody,” she said now, still watching him. She had never seen him happier in the past year than at Christmastime, when he spent a week tearing up a neighbor’s carpet and then surprised her with two tickets for a Christmas show at one of the resort hotels in Myrtle Beach. She was overwhelmed by the gift, but it was the memory of Murdock watching her open it — leaning in over her shoulder, beaming with pride, “Oh, no, it was nothing, Mom” — that had stuck with her long after the show.
Maybe it would be best to let this yardwork be another gift, another boost for his self-worth.
But a friend in Conway had mentioned seeing Murdock at the soup kitchen. His work boots looked ratty, and his clothes needed to be washed. He had told her that it had been a slow week, only $9.50 earned so far, by collecting and selling aluminum cans.
Maybe it would be best to pay him.
Murdock and his friend came inside and grabbed glasses of water. “Seventy bags,” he said, nodding with satisfaction. Kitty patted him on the shoulder. “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” she said. She paid his friend $40 and then reached back into her purse and found another $10. She thought the amount was big enough to sustain her son but small enough to preserve the fact that his work had been a favor. She held out the money for him.
Here it was, the latest transaction in the ongoing debate over dependency.
Murdock shook his head. Kitty continued to hold out the bill.
“Please,” she said. “You need it.”