The Sharp, Sudden Decline of America's Middle Class

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"Shit, I might have to stop and get some gas," she says. "The cheapest gas I can find is down the road. I try not to drive anywhere past this area if I don't have to. Yesterday I had to go downtown, and it took a lot of gas."

We pull into a gas station. At the moment, regular gasoline is $4.35 a gallon. Adkins gets out her wallet and looks at the few bills in it and then looks at a mini­calendar on the center console. She has $23. "Ten dollars in the tank, and $10 for me for cash," she says. I stand with her while she pumps. "I'm getting a whopping 2.29 gallons. That's supposed to get me 40 miles. That should last me until Tuesday." She grins. "I live near where I park."

As we turn into the Whole Foods lot, she says, "In my mind right now, I know I'm going to use the bathroom to wash myself, wash my face. And I park far away from the store because I hate having people look in my car. I don't think anyone's going to steal anything in the Whole Foods lot, but... it's embarrassing. I'd rather people not know."

We walk into the illuminated, multihued splendor of Whole Foods, briskly passing everything that stands between us and the breakfast bar. Adkins looks a little more careworn than the other customers, but in her sheepskin boots and Patagonia fleece, she doesn't look out of the ordinary. She could be the successful nursery owner she once was, stopping for a healthy breakfast on her way to work.

"It's all by weight, so you get the lightest thing," Adkins says. "Stuff without water. They have this really nice burrito that's really light. I get bacon, and it's less than $4." For her that's not cheap, but it's workable; she can go without another full meal the rest of the day if necessary.

At the register, Adkins pays with a fistful of coins. The cashier patiently counts pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Adkins asks for a cup of hot water. We stop at the condiments stand, where she gets utensils and puts honey in the water in advance of the tea bag she has in the van.

As we climb in, I realize the van smells faintly of slept-on sheets. Adkins is a clean person – she showers and does laundry regularly – but vehicle dwellers live in spaces too small to easily dissipate quotidian odors.

Driving back up to the church lot would burn gas unnecessarily, but the view there is restorative. "Keeping my spirits up is important," she says, almost to herself. "And I can also finish the chores in my car, like packing up the trash, without being looked at."

The lot is empty when we arrive. "Do you want a sea view or a mountain view?" Adkins asks. I choose the mountain view because of the rare snow. She drops a bag of Yogi Vanilla Spice tea into her cup of hot water and eats her breakfast quietly, using the plastic fork she'd picked up at Whole Foods.

As she finishes up, she tells me she'd recently applied for a sales position at REI and had been turned down. She'd gotten to the second round, a group interview, and had gone in thinking it would be ridiculous if she didn't get the job, given her qualifications. "But I was cocky in the group interview," she says. "I should have left my ego outside. Ego is good for getting some things done, but not when it leads to arrogance. And I was probably more nervous than I realized." It must be psychically wrenching, I think, to be at once so impeccably qualified and so helplessly destitute. In any event, more than 200 people had applied for the position.

She pauses, then says, "It's weird. When people find out I'm homeless, it changes how they feel about me. I get declined for jobs. As soon as they learn I live in a van, I'm a thief."

Responding to a job listing online, she had spoken with a woman who wanted to exchange pet care for rent on a trailer she owned. But during the interview, the woman asked where she lived, and Adkins could only evade the question for so long.

"What?" the woman responded. "How old are you? And you have no money?" Adkins tried to caution her against judging homeless people, but she knows that as soon as she has to make that kind of appeal, she's already lost.

Another time, she got an interview for a job as a dog walker. The potential employer was a young woman in her twenties, and Adkins thought she'd be open-minded, so she didn't hide her situation. The woman's face changed instantly. Adkins looked at her and took hold of her hand and gave it a squeeze. "It doesn't change who I am," she told the woman. "I'm still the same person. I'm honest, I've always worked hard and I'll work hard for you." But the woman had already withdrawn, and the next day she reposted the ad.

Curtis Cates, looking back on the time he spent living in his pickup, recognized the impossibility of convincing people that he was still "just the person I was." Sean Kennan recognized that the demands of homelessness create a "complete disconnection" between those living on the streets and the rest of society. Janis Adkins, unable for the moment to see a way out of her homelessness, doesn't have the benefit of hindsight. She would rather not give up on the possibility of being treated normally. "I try to not have the van factor into anything I do," she says. "It's where I live – it's just smaller."

The Great Recession cost 8 million Americans their jobs. Three years after the economy technically entered recovery, there are positions available for fewer than one out of every three job seekers. In this labor market, formerly middle-class workers like Curtis and Concita Cates and Janis Adkins and Sean Kennan cannot reliably secure even entry-level full-time work, and many will never again find jobs as lucrative and stable as those they lost. Long-term unemployment tarnishes résumés and erodes basic skills, making it harder for workers to regain high-paying jobs, and the average length of unemployment is currently at a 60-year high. Many formerly middle-class people will never be middle-class again. Self­identities derived from five or 10 or 40 years of middle-class options and expectations will capsize.

I last see Janis Adkins in the off-leash area of Tucker's Grove Park, near the lot where she parks her van. She takes her dog, Jojo, here several times a week. Jojo is a shaggy, shambolic border collie, 16 years old and blind and deaf and nearly toothless. Life in the van recently became too hard for him, and a woman Adkins met at the Wildlife Care Network found someone willing to take him in.

The day is mild, and Adkins is wearing the sandals that she's worn almost exclusively in nice weather for two years. We sit on a bench as Jojo snuffles around gimpily. The off-leash area, an ample lawn perforated by gopher holes, forms part of a meadow that ends in green hillsides, with low mountaintops behind – surplus gorgeousness typical of Santa Barbara.

When she returned to the city, Adkins tells me, she went to a plant nursery where she'd worked as a teenager and asked her old boss if he needed help. He said he was letting people go, not hiring them, but she'd gone back three more times; the last time, a few weeks earlier, he'd said, "You still haven't found a job? Come on," and gave her two eight-hour shifts a week at $10 an hour. Later, she'd added two more shifts, but the day before, her manager had warned her that unless business picked up, he would have to let her go.

"I wonder whether that was just an out, in case they want to fire me," Adkins says. She pauses. "I've lost a ton of confidence in the last year and a half," she concedes. "It just takes a wedge out of you."

The staff at the plant nursery treat her like an entry-level salesperson. Not so long ago, they might have been her employees. "You learn to let go of the concept of identity, of what 'I' means," she says. "That's a concept people really have trouble with. But it's been important for me. I've let go of my ego – or I'm trying to let go: I could be the dishwasher, I could be the janitor. I'm trying to re-form, trying to allow the job to become me. And I keep referring back to the fact that a lot of people would not allow it. They would hold on to their identity – hard."

Adkins has just gotten her first paycheck from the nursery, but expenses and debts have evaporated it right away. She went to the YMCA to take care of her outstanding balance of $80, but she could only afford to pay it down by $20. The young woman behind the desk balked, indignant. Not long afterward, the manager of the Y called her to talk about the balance. He appreciated her payment, he told Adkins. "Why don't we just make it a clean slate?" he proposed.

Adkins stops talking. I look over at her. She has her head in her hands; her shoulders are shaking. Finally, she looks up and wipes her eyes.

"I don't know what happened there," she says. "I think what got me was the recognition that I'm trying. He saw I was trying. He saw I was a responsible person." She pauses. "Because," she says, her voice breaking, "I always have been."

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