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The Sharp, Sudden Decline of America's Middle Class

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Adkins couldn't bring herself to look dirty. Then she remembered that after the stock market imploded, guys in business suits had walked through New York's financial district wearing sandwich boards with their résumés on them. "People read them because it's so ridiculous, it's effective," she says. So she picked a strategic thoroughfare in Santa Barbara, dressed for a job interview, and spent her last money making copies of her résumé, laminating one so that drivers could handle it without getting it dirty. She found a four-foot-tall piece of cardboard at a grocery store and wrote on it:

I'D RATHER BE WORKING
HIRE ME IF YOU HAVE A JOB

Then she stood alongside the road and held up the sign. The day was so windy it was hard to hold on to. "I was like, 'Please hire me,' and everybody's flying by, trying to ignore you, but this one guy drives up, looks at my résumé, looks at me and goes, 'Very effective. I'll take one of those.' I said, 'Thank you, I really appreciate that,' but I never heard from him. And then a homeless guy came up to me and goes, 'Wow. That ain't gonna work.' I didn't want to talk to him about it. I just wanted to stick my sign out there – I didn't have any more cardboard. And about halfway into it, I just started crying and I couldn't stop. I was so embarrassed. It was incredibly humiliating. You know how a lot of women hold their hand over their mouth when they cry? I started doing that, and that's when I raked in the money. I was sort of scared because there were so many cars that I was boxed in, and I was holding this gigantic sign and I was saying, 'I'd rather work, I'd rather you take my résumé, please help,' and I'm crying and the dollars just started coming out of the windows." But finally she cried herself out, and people stopped giving. She made $12 in three hours, all of it drawn by tears.

"And then I went out the next day and didn't get squat," she says. "I was trying to figure out, 'Should I start crying on purpose?' But how do you cry on purpose?"

Curtis and Concita cates spent the better part of a year sleeping in their Nissan Titan pickup with their 13-year-old son, Canaan, in the parking lot of the Santa Barbara Community Church. The pickup was one of five authorized vehicles in the lot, which is three miles east of the church where Adkins parks. To the north rise the low peaks flanking San Marcos Pass, and an overflow lot across the street offers a view of the outspread city and the ocean beyond it. The Cateses had met Nancy Kapp by chance at the Salvation Army, where they'd gone in search of food. She'd given them a white permit for the front window of their pickup. When they arrived at the church, they found a Safe Parking porta-potty at the corner of the lot.

The Cateses ended up in the Safe Parking program after losing their jobs almost simultaneously. Curtis installed and repaired fire sprinklers in Phoenix; Concita worked as a pharmacy technician. Their combined income averaged $60,000 a year. Before the Great Recession, they had never been jobless. They lost their home after exhausting their available cash and the money in Curtis' medical savings account. Their oldest child was in college, and they were able to send their next oldest to live with his aunt. With Canaan, they drove to California to stay with relatives. When they arrived, however, they found that another family, also recently homeless, had already moved in. There were now 11 people, all but one of them unemployed, sharing a single small house.

"A bunch of us slept all piled up in a room," Curtis recalls.

"Everyone had their own sleeping habits," Concita says.

"And in the kitchen, you're trying to figure out, 'OK, this is my food. Do I share it?'" Curtis says. "It gets down to little things like that. You would buy milk and have it there for the kids and someone else would take it. It got to the point where people would take our cooler and hide it in their room and save it for their own people."

The situation became unbearable, and the Cateses left without knowing exactly where they were going. "We had some friends, and we'd park in their driveways," Concita says. "Or the side of the road by their house, in case we had to go to the bathroom."

When I visit Concita and Curtis, they have just moved into an apartment subsidized by a federal program known as Section 8. The unit is in a stucco apartment building about a block from Highway 101 and the Union Pacific line that parallels it, on a street marked by modest dilapidation: a listing wooden fence broken by tree roots, a few anarchic yards, a beat-up Chevy Aveo mirroring a beat-up Dodge Stratus. The apartment is clean and relatively spacious, but still mostly empty.

Curtis, thickset and goateed, welcomes me at the door dressed in jean shorts and a yellow Arizona State T-shirt. Concita, small and soft-voiced, wears a pink sweatshirt and white sneakers. The living room walls are bare, save for an oversize decorative clock, but it is the one room in the apartment close to being furnished: two couches, two easy chairs, a shaded table lamp on a stand, a coffee table. As I look around, Curtis and Concita tell me where everything came from, seeming a little surprised by how good they've become at acquiring things without money.

"That couch, someone was throwing out," Curtis says, pointing at the one opposite me. "A lady Nancy knows gave us these two chairs and this light."

"We found that little stand over there – someone was throwing it out," Concita says. "And I found that mirror in the dumpster – I was like, 'I'll take that.'"

Curtis points sequentially at items: "Got that from the trash, that from the trash. The TV was given to us by that lady Nancy knew." The TV has a large screen, but its anachronistic bulk is almost jarring. In their place in Phoenix, they'd had a 50-inch LG flatscreen and a Blu-ray player.

When they first arrived in Santa Barbara, both Curtis and Concita were receiving unemployment benefits, but that was the only income they had, and it didn't cover expenses. They had three mouths to feed and no kitchen to cook in; gasoline was more than $4 a gallon; they had to make a truck payment; they had cellphone and auto-insurance bills; they had to do laundry. When they went to apply for social services, they learned that their unemployment benefits made them ineligible­ for additional aid. Curtis, who had worked construction jobs most of his life, started to haunt building sites. Once in a while he would find a few days' work. "But there's the rock and the hard spot," he says. "If you take the job, you lose your unemployment. You have to reapply, and the money doesn't equal the lost benefits." He was better off collecting cans.

Nancy Kapp describes the moment when formerly middle-class people like the Cateses are forced to turn to social welfare systems as "the beginning of the demise. These systems don't just fail people – they degrade and humiliate people. They're not solutions. They're Band-Aids on wounds that are pusing and bleeding out."

Government-aid agencies and private charities demand that applicants show a bundle of identifying documents: Social Security card, birth certificate, driver's license. Many people don't have all of the required documents; homeless people often have none. The Cateses were lucky – Concita has a good organizational mind and quickly put together a packet of the necessary documents. But at the aid agencies where they applied, they saw many people – poor, hungry, sick – denied basic services for lack of paperwork.

The next thing welfare applicants must do is disclose every possession and conceivable source of income they have. "I can't tell you how many people come to my office and say, 'I couldn't get food stamps because my car is worth too much,'" Kapp tells me. "OK, you have a car. But you've lost everything – your house, your job, your pride – and all you have left is that car and all of your belongings in it. And they say, 'You still have too much. Lose it all.' You have to have nothing, when you already have nothing."

Janis Adkins hadn't been back in Santa Barbara long before she needed to apply for government assistance. She had never asked for aid before. At the California Department of Social Services, she filled out the form for emergency food stamps.

"I didn't wear my best clothes, but I wore a light blouse and jeans, and I guess I was just a little too dressed up," she recalls. "Because the woman just looked at me and said, 'Are you in a crisis? Your application says you're in a crisis.' I said, 'I'm living in a van and I don't have a job. I have a little bit of money, but it's going to go fast.' The woman said, 'You have $500. You're not in a crisis if you have $500.' She said anything more than $50 was too much."

If Adkins had filled her tank with gas, done her laundry, eaten a meal, and paid her car insurance and phone bills, it would have used up half of everything she had. But emergency food stamps, she was told, are not for imminent emergencies; they're for emergencies already in progress. You can't get them if you can make it through the next week – you have to be down to the last few meals you can afford.

"The money's for my phone, it's for gas, it's for my bills," Adkins said.

"Why are you in a crisis," the woman asked, "when you have a phone bill?"

"I need the phone so I can get a job. You can't look for a job without a phone."

"Why do you have bills?" the woman asked. "I thought you didn't have a place to live."

"I live in my van," Adkins said. "I have insurance."

"You have a 2007 van," the woman said. "I think you need to sell that."

"Please, I need a break," Adkins said. "I need some help. I need to take a shower."

"Why didn't you have a shower?"

"I live in a van."

The woman told Adkins to come back when she really needed help.

"I was going into shock," Adkins recalls. "I'm crying and I'm shaking my head: 'No, no. I need to talk to somebody else.' They told me no." By then Adkins was screaming and begging. "I'm surprised they didn't call the cops," she tells me.

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