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My island is shrinking: Everyone please welcome Tacoma to the Recession

February 12, 2009

Maybe I just don’t know very many people, but very few that I know have actually lost jobs, though many are experiencing reduced hours at their jobs, or reduced business if self-employed. And visible signs of sinister economic rumblings are increasingly hard to miss.

It’s a little like an earthquake. You feel a perturbation, but everything around you stays put. The epicenter is far away. Then another rumble, this time knocking a few things off the shelves. But the epicenter is still far off; the shift is just a bit stronger. At some point, things fly, glass explodes, and destruction lets loose. Who cares where the epicenter is; its devastation area is where you are. It’s everywhere.

You study maps and realize there’s no place to move. Fault lines lace the entire surface of your acceptable world.

I have lived in Tacoma for a long time, and I have always thought the city resilient, resourceful–scrappy, in an in-your-face way. We have Frank Russell, Bank of New York, and commercial fishermen. Uncertain futures are a common bond among people of all walks of life these days.

The City of Tacoma recently announced a job opening for a meter reader: one open position. The job pays $17.76-$23.56/hour, a wage thought to be pretty good these days. The announcement brought 1,400 applicants, of which 1,300 were invited to show up to take a qualifying test. 807 people lined up in Tacoma Dome to take the test. A few will be granted interviews; one will be hired. He or she will think himself or herself the luckiest person in the world.  (TNT)

It beats the 1,200 people who lined up for one retail clerk position at the new Denver Kohl’s store. The lucky winner there got a $7.00/hour, part-time job. Most of the applicants for these jobs had been gainfully employed days, weeks, or months before the huge hiring event.

I couldn’t help wondering how the City of Tacoma, or Kohl’s, or any other employers could conscionably rent the Dome or a hotel ballroom, for the ultimate purpose of hiring one employee. But this is just one more thing to which Americans are growing accustomed.

Pierce County, which is seated in Tacoma, leads Washington state in the rate of home foreclosures. 1 in 393 homes is now in some phase of foreclosure. (TNT) Spiffy Canterwood, an upscale Gig Harbor neighborhood, first came to my attention when a client of my husband’s bought up some foreclosures there. So far, I’ve seen no foreclosure signs in our 1950s subdivision. I suppose we and our neighbors are more cautious than image-conscious. But we ought not to boast in our cautiousness, or in anything else. Like viruses, recessions can mutate. No one has guaranteed immunity.

Local people are not optimistic that the Stimulus Bill will help the local economy: 69% said they thought it would not, while 31% said they thought it would.  (TNT)  This tells me that people are enduring hardship without encouragement.

Tacoma food banks are serving about 1,000 more people each month. (TNT)  By now, camaraderie should have overtaken embarrassment among those who never expected to stand in line in the snow to get in the door of a food bank. But again, encouragement is slow to take hold. Doubt prevails.

And, of course, we see waste: stupid, horrible, unforgivable crimes against the tax base, over and over in the news.  The Senate version of the Stimulus Bill budgeted (can we call it that?) $300 million for a federal fleet of little golf-cart-like objects of the clean, green variety; the House version calls for $600 million. Neither version specifies what the little widget cars will be used for, or who will have the use of them. Only the funding is specified.

The health reform measures buried in the Spend-to-Stimulate  Bill also contain funding for all sorts of unspecified administrative advances. When considering the convenience of digitalized records, be assured that “patient privacy” means that everyone but the patient gets to see the patient’s records. Who knows or cares whether the information on which treatment will be based–if treatment is approved–was correctly entered? That determination is for another stimulus allocation to fund.

I rail to my husband that we are like the Jews in Babylon. For the very most part, Americans pay their taxes faithfully. The head of the Treasury Department, who oversees the Internal Revenue Service, doesn’t quite understand his taxes, or forgot, or something. Americans are expected to underwrite their ruling rich, and our rulers even expect us to sing mirthful songs. But I don’t hear the singing, except a warble here and there from an occasional plant in the crowd.

Tacoma is a quintessentially American city. We’re resilient, resourceful, and cautiously optimistic. We don’t boast math scores above the national average here, but we know that trillions and trillions and trillions is more than we have, or ever will have, or ever should be required to have.

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