Angelo Villanueva, a stone mason, went from making $35 an hour doing brick and stone work on new buildings, to repointing older buildings to occasional work, until he had no income and lost his housing.
He ended up in Tent City in Lakewood about a year ago.
He told me he never expected to be out of work, that he always would be able to rely on his hands to make a living. That, unfortunately, is not the case.
Villanueva's story is not unusual. As Peter S. Goodman points out.
You can easily meet people confronting such circumstances at food banks, homeless shelters, and in welfare offices. It used to be that those who landed in such straits tended to present a complex assortment of problems, from substance abuse to mental illness. More and more, people have been sliding into such states because of one dominant problem: They can't find work.The American economy remains in a funk. Forget the chatter that you're hearing about a nascent recovery. Ignore signs of a housing market rebound. The only number that matters is the jobs number -- or, more accurately, the without a job number. It is an indication that, despite the talk on the campaign trail and among the chattering classes on television, that there is something fundamentally wrong with American capitalism.
The economy is creating jobs, but not nearly enough to keep up with population growth and far from the number needed to put the millions who have lost their jobs back to work in something resembling their previous job.
"The horrendous job market is not a political story," says Peter S. Goodman. "It is a national emergency playing out in slow motion, a catastrophe that has come to dominate life in millions of American homes."
The persistent shortage of paychecks has seeped into our aspirations and made them smaller. It has eroded the basic American understanding about the supposed rewards of trying hard, getting educated and looking for work -- a formula too many people have been following only to wind up destitute, discouraged and dispossessed.More than one in six are out of work or working at jobs well below what they think they should have, and an obscene number -- 5.4 million -- have been out of work for months. And that has forced them to do things they never thought they'd do, like visit the local food pantry, a soup kitchen or something more dire, like sleeping in the woods.
What we appear to be going through is a tectonic shift. Our economy is not sustainable. We value the wrong things, and have put ourselves on a collision course with environmental and economic catastrophe. The economic and political elites either refuse to see what is happening, or they don't care.
In the short term, we need a massive jobs bill -- one far larger than the president even imagines, but we also need to shift away from the unfettered capitalism that has pushed us so close to the precipice. We should be identifying the goods and services that we believe are human rights -- housing, food, health care -- and ensure that they are available to all who want or need them, outside the markets. Access to healthy food or to food in general should not depend upon where you live, nor should access to doctors and a roof and a bed.
We are long past the time for change.
The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.