The New Normal

Being a tour director plugs me into the wall of the economy in an interesting way. People who are feeling confident about their financial lives are willing to splurge on travel, which means that it’s rather quiet on the open road and I’m a witness to it.

I remember when tour busses lined the Kancamangus Highway in New Hampshire in the fall like an endless parade. Listed as one of the most scenic roads in America, every October the leaf peepers would flock to the road to catch glimpses of trees and valleys saturated with the oranges and reds of the maple trees, and the tour busses would bob along together, up and down the winding roads.

While the media heralds the signs of a steady economic recovery, the little towns that dot New England – the ones that count on you to fill hotel rooms and buy maple syrup-resound with an eerie silence.

Welcome to the new normal.

Car sales for the American auto industry are up, investors are pleased with spikes in their portfolios, and companies say they are hiring more, but it’s not enough. This lingering recession is taking its toll on those who say they have yet to recover.

The Associated Press notes that unemployment for those who make under $20,000 a year has now exceeded 21 percent – a statistic that is reminiscent of the Great Depression. And here are a few numbers that put it all into perspective: The Census Bureau reports 6.6 million more people as poor, totaling a record 46 million Americans-or roughly one out of every six people living in the United States.

If you have 21 million households on food stamps, how can you call this a recovery?

President Obama has added $6.5 trillion to the national debt, and has nothing to show for it. His willingness to shift his attention to a showdown with Syria rather than focus on our nation’s festering wounds is both troubling and telling.

It’s down here on the ground that we live it. Away from the spread sheets and the statistics, it is the people on the street who tell the story: College graduates are living in their parent’s spare rooms while the US has some of the highest levels of long-term unemployment it has ever recorded. The gap between the rich and poor continues to widen and several years into recovery poverty continues to creep upward. More and more people are dependent on the government to get by.

The new normal appears to become more “abnormal” as the days go by.

For the middle class, one of the lingering questions is how to frame the future for their children. In a society where downward mobility is a statistical reality, it’s easy to embrace the possibility that the future doesn’t look as bright for our children.

My youngest daughter graduated from college last May and she was able to find a good job with within months of graduating. But “good” really meant good experience and a good opportunity to advance to a better paying job in the future: She’s barely being paid enough to afford the gas it takes to get to work, much less her own apartment or cable TV. Perhaps that’s the country that newly graduated students inhabit, but factor in the 20-30 hours she works overtime without compensation each week and you begin to see how current economics can straddle those who are working hard just to hang in there. She’s not looking to buy a new car or a new wardrobe; she just wants to live closer to her job to avoid the two-hour daily commute.

When I moved into my first apartment, all I had to do was plug an old TV with rabbit ears into the wall and I had free entertainment. Television costs money now-and a lot of it. I could hook up a phone and if I didn’t use long distance, I could manage the bill. I could eat on $30 a week-and eat well.

With student loans looming, the high cost of gas an impossible reality, and the cost of healthy food, electricity and health care sky rocketing, my daughter is looking a long way down the road until she can afford to be on her own.

And the thing is, she’s not complaining. She doesn’t know what the world was like when I was her age.

She considers herself one of the lucky ones.

These days, it’s just good to have a job.