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Ohio's War on the Middle Class

Wherein I go home, watch public servants get axed, visit the warehouse of unbearable sorrow, hang with jobless thirtysomethings living in abandoned homes, and consider whether my generation is flat-out screwed.

The decor of Erin and Anthony Rodriguez's guest room could really only happen in the United States. In fact, a European did lay eyes on it one time, and his superior brow furrowed instantly with disbelief as he said, "What…is THAT?" It isn't just the powder-pinkness of the third bedroom in their Gahanna, Ohio, home. It's more the hot pink stars stenciled along the ceiling border, and that between them alternate the words "Katie" and "an American Girl." Erin, who's 30, Ohio born and raised, Ohio for life, can't decide herself if she should be excited—I mean, it's not not funny—or mildly embarrassed to show it to people. Nobody named Katie lives here. This paint scheme was left by the previous owners. On the early June afternoon when I drop my suitcase by the bed, Erin exclaims, "You can be our Katie!"

We've been roommates before. But that was back when we went to Ohio State, from which we graduated almost 10 years ago. Now Erin has a grown-up job as a public school teacher and a husband who's a public information specialist for the Ohio agency that keeps tabs on local utilities and makes sure they don't go all Enron on consumers. They have a baby, Jocelyn, who is extremely cute and well behaved, as well as a gray cat named Princess Vespa and a black cat named Barack Obama. For a long time, my contact with Erin has been limited mostly to occasional phone check-ins during which we brief each other on, like, how adulthood is going. Now I'm taking up temporary residence here not as a fun former roomie but as a reporter. I write Erin a rent check for a third of the mortgage—$430. She says she's really happy to see me, even though she knows the grown-up reporter reason I'm here is that she and her husband are state employees, so something bad is bound to happen to them in the next month. That $430, she tells me, might make an important difference in their finances soon.

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If the sign at the edge of town is to be believed, Gahanna is one of the Top 100 Places to Live. The Columbus suburb is a lot like the Cleveland suburb I grew up in. Green. Sprawly. Solidly middle-class, chock-full of shopping centers. And Erin and Anthony's house is a lot like a lot of houses around it, a modest split-level with a big front yard and a deck in the back. In the wedding pictures on the walls, Erin's got short blond hair. Currently, her locks are chin length and closer in color to the chocolate corduroy couch on which we sit while, on the floor before us, Jocelyn makes herself the center of a four-foot radius of toys. Erin's beaming in the photos, and that's pretty much what she usually looks like, pretty teeth bared, shiny cheeks. She still feels warm and open even as her face creases with anxiety and she says, "When we bought our house, we basically wiped out our savings." The only reason there's any money left in the bank at all is because of the rebate from President Obama's first-time homebuyer's credit program. Because the house, like most people's houses, isn't paid for, and neither is Anthony's car, like many people's cars, the prospect that Anthony might have only three more paychecks coming is making Erin "not fine," though she's "trying to be fine." When we were in college, we all had these fabulous plans. Or at least plans to be supersecure once we found careers. To make a living and then…live. Erin blames the governor for her doubts now. She calls him some unsavory names.

A lot of people are doing that. A couple of weeks ago, a poll showed the approval ratings of John Kasich, the newly elected Republican governor, at 33 percent. Once upon a time Kasich was a United States congressman, before he left in 2001 to become a managing director at Lehman Brothers, where he worked until it imploded and destroyed a bunch of lives in 2008. On the side, he hosted his own show on Fox News, as well as frequently guest-hosting The O'Reilly Factor and appearing on the Sean Hannity vehicles. He took office in January, and his approval ratings have been abysmal since March, something to do, no doubt, with the release of his proposed budget for fiscal years 2012-13.

Anthony Rodriguez's agency—which counsels Ohio utility consumers—faces devastating cuts.Anthony Rodriguez's agency—which counsels Ohio utility consumers—faces devastating cuts.To Erin's specific dismay, the governor's plan slashes $3.1 billion from an estimated $58.8 billion state budget largely by cutting funding to city governments and services. Anthony's state agency, the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC)—which advocates for customers in complaints, regulatory hearings, and court cases involving utility companies—is slated to lose 51 percent. The Department of Education loses 10.2 percent. A local think tank estimates that 51,000 state jobs are at stake. Local unions are panicking that the public employees who remain will have little control over their own futures, since Kasich effectively killed collective bargaining in a bill called SB 5 shortly after he took office. This is the manifestation of his campaign promise to "shine up the state." In one of his campaign videos, he says that his parents used to say, "Johnny, make sure the place that you were is a little better off because of the fact that you were there." He won the 2010 election, barely, on a job creation platform. His budget is called "The Jobs Budget."

But for the differing accents and college football allegiances, this could be Florida, or Michigan, or Wisconsin. They've all got their own new Republican governors facing protests over public-sector job cuts or voter ID bills or union dismantling or destruction of public transportation projects or unemployment benefits. And those governors all have plummeting approval ratings.

A layoff might knock Erin back an income class or two. But not everyone she knows has a spare income class to fall.

Erin and Jocelyn have been going to these protests in Columbus. Neither one of us was really an activist or even especially politically minded in college, but lately, a phone conversation that starts about these amazing ice cream bars ends with news about what Kasich is doing or some kind of fretting, like she's doing right now. With the news that Anthony will likely lose his job, she's panicked that she missed the open enrollment period for her health insurance plan because she assumed, with the faith that professionals tend to default to when they're employed, that no one in her family was about to be jobless. All three Rodriguezes are currently on Anthony's insurance, because it's much better, and cheaper. Luckily, it's not too late to switch. By the end of the week, she'll drive to the appropriate office to drop off the paperwork. And then she'll cry in the car for an hour while Jocelyn's asleep in the backseat, which she'll confess to me when I tell her she's handling her "freaking out" well.

Erin recognizes that she could do a lot worse; if her nightmare of losing her house ever did come close to a reality, her parents would likely rescue her, she knows, as much as she would hate to have to take their money. But her friend, for example, who had a baby at the same time, has been surviving with her husband on his teaching-assistant salary only because they fell into a situation with free rent. Now they have to move, and they have no idea what they're going to do. And a parent of several of Erin's former students had to choose between sending his kid to college and working, since the only job he could get didn't pay enough to cover tuition—and financial aid would be available only if he were unemployed. Erin acknowledges that having to downgrade to a less-great health insurance plan is the sort of thing the upwardly mobile liberals of our generation like to refer to on the internet as "white people problems." A layoff might knock her back an income class or two. But not everyone she knows has a spare income class to fall.

Now, Erin eyes her 11-month-old when she says, "Thank God I have a job. And a job with insurance. Anthony's applying for jobs like crazy, but he's not getting any bites."

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