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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.

After we walk past workers stuffing inflated plastic air pockets in boxes and a guy continuously taping shut the bottoms of just-made cartons, we go to Susie's office. "Hold on, I gotta fire somebody real quick," she says, picking up the phone. She calls a man who's been working for her for two months. She's sorry, she tells him, but she has to let him go because one of the supervisors caught him talking on the floor. The man, who she thinks is in his late 40s or early 50s, protests that he only asked a new guy where he was from. That's just not the culture, Susie tells him. You know the rules. The logistics company sets them, and she has no choice but to enforce them.

In The Bottoms, just west of downtown Columbus, neighbors paint a mural.In The Bottoms, just west of downtown Columbus, neighbors paint a mural.It does say in the new-employee handout that there are no personal conversations allowed on the warehouse floor. Also, no cell phones are permitted. Like a high school teacher, Susie has a pile of phones she's confiscated in a plastic bowl on her desk. Two sick days are allotted per year, and workers must be excused to take them without penalty; after that, the temp is terminated, doctor's note or no. Every temp is allowed one 30-minute break per day, and it must be taken on company premises. Every temp is required to have an ID badge. The cost of this badge, more than an hour's worth of wages, is deducted from the temp's first paycheck.

I haven't finished the orientation packet when Susie picks up the phone to hear instructions from another supervisor that I can tell are bad news for a worker. "You're not really about to fire somebody else, are you?" I ask.

"Yeah."

"You just fired somebody less than 10 minutes ago."

"Yeah, but he's been taking too many breaks."

"Are you kidding? Is anybody going to ask him why he's taking breaks? Maybe he's sick."

"No, they said he's been doing it all week. He's a bigger dude, so they think he's doing it"—the break room and the bathroom are in the air-conditioned part of the warehouse where the suits have offices—"because it's too hot for him on the floor."

"You know, you used to be able to survive blue collar," my father says. "Now, the blue-collar guy, they just crush the life out of him. It's very depressing."

Later, when I tell my father about this, he groans. Coincidentally, he works with the CEOs of logistics companies sometimes. "Somebody did studies and spreadsheets and crunched those numbers," he says, "and figured out that the cheapest way to get that job done is to treat people like that." Which is important, because "the profit margins on those contracts are razor thin." Naturally. A lot of the internet retailers' merchandise is nearly worthless—Ice Princess Star-Shaped Ice Cube Tray with Straws, anthropomorphic stuffed bacon toys—and is sold for nearly nothing, often with free or reduced-price shipping.

"When I was a kid working in a warehouse, I made $10 an hour," my father says.

That can't be right, I tell him. As proof that he's mistaken, I point out that that's the same wage warehouses pay now.

"Exactly," he says. "That's the problem. The cost of living has gone way up, but wages have just been"—and here he makes sort of a Tupperware-closing sound—"locked in." In 1980, he got his first professional job with a high school diploma in Cleveland for $28,000 a year. In 2007, I got my first professional job with a master's degree in San Francisco for $27,000. A hundred dollars in my pocket today was the equivalent of $274 in his then. "And wages are exactly the same." It's not always true, of course, that the actual wages for the same job are actually the same. But it is true that in 2010 the average full-time male worker earned $47,715. In 1980, after adjusting for inflation, he earned $46,889.

"When you were six, I was driving a brand new Chevy station wagon and paying $125 a month," he says. "I remember seeing Cadillac commercials on TV saying, 'Drive away today with little money down and $450 a month,' and I remember thinking, 'I'll never be able to afford that.' And today that's a totally common car payment. We lived in a three-bedroom condo with two full baths for $280 a month. Nothing"—except the kind of crap boxed up in Susie's warehouse—"is cheaper now than it was then."

My father did ultimately lease a string of Cadillacs when I was older. Now he drives a Lexus SUV. Now he works at a firm that companies hire to headhunt the managers and VPs and CEOs they need, generally people in the $130,000 range but often much more. At the moment, my father has been tapped by a company to find the right candidate for a position that pays $600,000. Last year he placed someone who made $1.4 million annually, and another who made $1.5 mil. He bills enough that at the office, where I've had occasion to use the nap room, his is one of the faces etched in bronze on the plaques for people who've earned the firm a million or more.

"You know, you used to be able to survive blue collar," he says. "Now, the blue-collar guy, they just crush the life out of him. It's very depressing." Unemployment has doubled since the beginning of the recession, and home equity has fallen by more than a third, but Wall Street profits are up more than 700 percent. Profits at his firm, which is part of a global group with more than 4,000 employees, have remained steady. "Recessions," as my father sometimes puts it, "don't affect people like me."

It's June 16, the day after Erin's birthday, and even from inside my pink room, I can hear the stress in her voice as she says into the phone, "Why are you yelling at me?"

When she slumps to the floor in the hallway outside my door, she tells me Anthony lost his job. The budget is still being reconciled in committee, but even the best-case version slashes OCC funding by more than 30 percent. And the cut looks mostly like a favor to utility companies, rather than a money-saving measure; the OCC isn't funded out of the state's general revenue fund but rather via a surcharge on utility companies. It's one of several exciting bits of a non-cost-cutting agenda slipped into the cost-cutting budget, which also, for example, makes it extremely difficult to get an abortion. Anthony has been given two weeks' notice. After that, their income will be cut in half.

Erin and I frown quietly at each other for a while. "How are you doing?" I ask.

"I don't know."

Jocelyn crawls across her knees.

"What are we gonna do, monkey?" Erin asks her, then, with effort, puts on a goo-goo voice. "I'm going to have to start entering you in pageants."

When Anthony comes home, there's a save-the-date card on the dining room table. Erin calls his attention to it, says Kristi and Scott are getting married. The Rodriguezes wouldn't have to travel. But they'd have to bring a present, and Anthony begins to sigh heavily, and Erin says quickly, "We don't have to go; we don't have to talk about it now," at the same time that he says, "Now's not the time." Tonight, while he works on his portfolio, to use in interviews "if I ever get one," he dips into the bottle of Johnnie Walker Green Label someone bought them for their wedding.

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