Every Sunday afternoon, Lance Wentz walks out of his house in Troutdale, tosses a suitcase in his 1989 Buick LeSabre, says goodbye to his wife, Kay, and his two boys, Aaron and Max, and drives to Interstate 5.
Wentz heads south, passing within a few miles of the insurance company that downsized him and his $75,000 salary in August 2002. He cruises by Wilsonville and its brick office buildings, once lush with tech workers and now papered with "for lease" signs. He motors through Salem, the state capital, where politicians watched helplessly as Oregon plunged into recession. At Eugene, he hooks onto Highway 58 East, passing villages like Pleasant Hill and Westfir on his way to Highway 97. At around 9 pm, he pulls into the town of Klamath Falls, population 19,462.
It may be 300 miles from home, but this is where Lance Wentz has found a job.
Welcome to the economic recovery.
Last week, three members of President George W. Bush's economic team--Treasury Secretary John Snow, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans--visited Portland Community College. It was essentially a campaign stop, designed to showcase the president's retraining programs at places like PCC and to put a sunny face on the Bush recovery.
Last week also saw the president issue an unrealistically optimistic prediction about job growth and then immediately back off of the numbers (claiming that he wasn't a "statistician"). Still, it seems clear that Oregon, like the rest of the country, is slowly crawling out of an economic canyon. The state's unemployment rate of 7.2 percent is the lowest it has been in 18 months--forgetting for a moment that it's still No. 2 in the nation. We've managed to halt the erosion of 50,000 jobs since the slide began, and have even gained a few back.
But there is another side to the story of our economic recovery. Many formerly well-to-do workers are getting back to work, just under different circumstances.
"A lot of people aren't going to find their place in the new economy," says Jeff Thompson, an economist with the Oregon Center for Public Policy. "Some folks' prosperity was based on--to borrow a phrase from Alan Greenspan--the irrational exuberance of the economy in that era."
In other words, the recovery could leave many not exactly in the cold, but far from warm--a place where they aren't technically unemployed but have little hope for the future. People like Lance Wentz, Brenda Kinoshita and Mitch Freifeld have been dealt a strange hand. They aren't homeless, nor are they on the dole; they all have work of some sort. Viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of Bush's economic policy team, each is a player in the economic recovery. Then again, statistics don't always tell the full story.
Lance Wentz hates being away from his family from Sunday afternoon until Friday night. He hates that his salary of $50,000 is two-thirds of the income he enjoyed two years ago, and he hates the one-bedroom apartment he rents in Klamath Falls. But when he lost his job at ING, he found that a technological skill set that was in high demand five years ago was suddenly in overabundant supply.
Distant but good-natured, with slightly round features, Wentz, 34, perfectly fits the profile of the lifelong computer geek who cares more for 1's and 0's than the rest of the world. He learned the BASIC computer language in fifth grade, and as a software engineer, he spends his days navigating the intricate codes and widgets that make websites and computer systems work. Naturally, he refused to consider changing fields.
"I've been doing software engineering for 10 years, so I didn't even want to think about it," he says. "I didn't want to start over on the lowest rung."
Wentz, an Oregon Institute of Technology graduate, sent out stacks of résumés. Months went by. His unemployment benefits were running out. With two small kids and a homemaker wife counting on him, Wentz was beginning to worry that he would run out of money entirely when he got a break--sort of.
"I had a friend who knew of a contract position in Klamath Falls," he says. "So I thought, 'At least this will pay the bills temporarily.'"
In March 2003, Wentz took a temporary job as an Internet programmer with Jeld Wen, a window manufacturer. Wentz was soon granted a permanent position, and almost a year (and 30,000 miles) later, it's the same trek across the state twice a week.
As hard as the commute is on Lance, it is equally difficult for Kay, who now feels as though she's raising the boys alone. Every time a parent-teacher conference or school event comes up, it takes hours of planning and driving so Lance can attend. And then there's the impact on the kids of not seeing their father.
"I think they're used to it now," Kay says, "but they don't like it. They miss having their dad around."
The family can't just pick up and move, she explains, because her eldest son Max, 9, is slightly autistic and a dependable routine is what gets him through the day.
"Max can't do big changes real quick," Kay says. "I'm trying to keep us here for as long as I can."
In Klamath Falls, Wentz's apartment contains four things: a dining-room table, a chair, a computer and a futon. He is familiar with the town and its entertainment limitations.
"I work until 7 or 8 every day," Wentz says. "When I get back to the apartment, I play computer games or work on my jigsaw puzzle. It's boring, big time."
While the drive doesn't bother Lance anymore--"I wish he would care more," laughs Kay--the family is still spending more money than they're making. Paying for $200 in gas every month, plus rent in Klamath Falls and expenses at home, isn't easy on his substantially reduced salary. The family compensates by scrimping on groceries and other expenses--Kay even drove down to Eugene late one night with a new water pump for the broken-down Buick to avoid paying for towing and a mechanic--but they're still exhausting their savings.
Lance continues to look for jobs in Portland, hoping a metropolitan area of almost two million will hold more software opportunities than a rural town. If he can't find one, the family will have to move to Klamath Falls as soon as the school year is over. Lance isn't optimistic, but even with the wear his absence creates on his family, he remains characteristically unperturbed.
"I'm not angry," he says. "It's just the way things are."
Lance is withholding judgment about the upcoming election for now. He says he doesn't know for sure if Bush was the one who screwed up the economy, so he'll vote his conscience in November.
"I don't care for our two-party system," he says. "I'll vote for whoever I think is better."
Brenda Kinoshita's daily schedule looks something like this: Wake up at 4 am; walk from home in Southeast Portland to nearby call center for cell-phone company at 5 am; leave call center at 4 pm, run home, throw on makeup; arrive at part-time retail job at Restoration Hardware on Northwest 23rd Avenue at 6 pm; arrive home at 11 pm; sleep as necessary. Repeat.
It hasn't always been this way.
"I know I don't look like I earn eight dollars an hour," says Kinoshita, 43. "I've got the trendy glasses, the nice earrings, the expensive clogs. People have no idea."
She's right. Kinoshita, observant and articulate, with sharp facial features and an agile wit, seems more like a successful professional than a living-wage worker--because, until just over a year ago, that's exactly what she was.
In the closing months of 2002, Kinoshita's Los Angeles life and career fell apart. The job she loved--raising money for nonprofits through her for-profit employer, Pallotta Teamworks--disappeared when the company went under, as did her $60,000 salary. A romantic relationship of two years came to a crashing halt.
Shortly after losing her job, Kinoshita came up to Portland to visit a friend. When she spied the towering pines and smelled the clean air, she fell in love with the city. In January 2003, she packed her belongings into her Toyota Camry and moved to Portland.
Which maybe wasn't the greatest decision.
"It's like falling in love with a person," says Kinoshita. "You don't pay attention to any of the red flags. I didn't exercise any common sense about it."
After taking a couple of months off to get to know the city, Kinoshita's job search began in April, with the target being a position similar to the one she held in L.A. She sent out hundreds of résumés.
"I was convinced that when I was ready for work a great job would just appear, as had happened many times in my life," she says. "I'm embarrassed to say that now because it's so naive."
Kinoshita soon lowered her sights to those jobs she could build on, then to anything paying more than minimum wage. Her California unemployment benefits--$330 per week--ran out in August. She burned through $10,000 in savings.
Kinoshita spreads a layer of sarcasm over most statements, but when she talks about having to borrow money from her little sister, Elaine, there's no trace of a joke present.
"It's my baby sister, for God's sake," she says. "It's humbling. Fortunately, she offered it, because I would have opened a vein before I would have asked her or anyone for help."
In November, she landed the call-center job. She now lives in the attic of a house in Southeast Portland, works for a smaller wage than she ever has, clocks as many as 65 hours in a week, and still struggles to make ends meet. When she has a spare moment, she's happy to get some quality time with the television; forget about dating--it's so expensive. But in the grand economic tally, Kinoshita too counts as one job gained.
Kinoshita throws the word "pragmatic" around a lot because that's what she believes is her defining characteristic: She deals with what comes up. She doesn't pretend her job is spectacular, but she also doesn't whine about how the work is beneath her.
"I'm surrounded by people who think they're better than this job," she says. "I need the dignity of working. I need the discipline of it, the routine of it. There's a sense of self-worth that comes from paying the bills."
As she prides herself on her pragmatism, Kinoshita only blames herself and her naiveté about Portland's job climate for her current situation--which isn't to say she holds the president blameless.
"Oh, great, so it's a jobless recovery," she says. "That's right. Of course, I'm not at all bitter."
Her anyone-but-Bush attitude aside, Kinoshita is still rediscovering the frugal reality of sub-living-wage life. She hadn't been to a public library since she was a child, but she goes now. When she wants something extravagant like a massage, she arranges to pay in trade by cooking a meal for someone instead of giving cash (Kinoshita was once a personal chef in L.A.). She no longer treats herself to six-dollar coffee drinks or tiny five-dollar bags of "citrus-infused" ice.
But some costs can't be negotiated, like the $253 she pays Kaiser Permanente for health insurance each month.
"Getting sick is a luxury I can't afford," she says. "I splurged on a flu shot because I thought I couldn't afford to take time off work." The flu shot cost $15.
The only luxury she can't bear to part with is her car, mostly because she still clings to the idea that it will soon be ferrying her to her next great job--something she looks for on Monster.com whenever she gets a chance. But she's also attached to the Camry because, when push comes to shove, a gal needs a home. And once again, she isn't kidding.
"I like a little backup plan," she says. "If this doesn't work, then it's my car. I've got a big trunk. It holds a lot of stuff."
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines being "employed" as follows: "Employed persons are all civilians who, during the reference week, did any work at all as paid employees, in their own business, profession, or on their own farm."
Technically, Mitch Freifeld, 53, is employed right now as a painter, since he spends upwards of six hours a day in his studio at his Southwest Portland home putting oil on canvas. He sells a painting once every three or four weeks through gallery showings in Portland and around the valley, for anywhere from $250 to $2,300--which is then split 50-50 with the gallery owner. It isn't nearly enough to get by on.
Freifeld's art depicts the city in summer and late at night. He likes to play with light and strip details off of landscapes to evoke a mood or memory. Painting is a great diversion, he says, but he's still holding out hope that he can reenter his more lucrative former field: high technology.
Thirty months ago, Freifeld was coasting toward early retirement. He had spent more than a quarter-century working as a systems analyst both here and in the Silicon Valley, taking charge of programming projects. Making $115,000 a year with Xerox in Wilsonville, Freifeld was enjoying the fruits of the prescient decision he made to enter the computer-technology field before the PC concept even existed.
"My plan was to retire at 55 and ride off into the sunset," he says.
One week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Xerox laid Freifeld off. Soon after, he learned that his job had been shipped to India and would never be coming back.
"The whole country was in shock, but Xerox was still going ahead with its business plan," Freifeld says.
After helping himself to the office supplies, Freifeld walked out of Xerox feeling optimistic. He had a six-month severance package, he hadn't taken more than a week off in 30 years, and he and his wife, Nancy, had no kids to worry about; he was ready to vacate and recreate.
"It was great," he recalls. "My wife and I didn't worry about a thing. We just got in the car and cruised in one direction for a week."
Judging by Freifeld's disposition, he's still sort of on vacation. Freifeld has an effusive feeling of goodwill about him, something his wife says she's happy to see; though he was financially secure, Freifeld was miserable at Xerox.
When his six months were up, Freifeld began looking for work, but found that his skills were neither in demand nor current. He tried to engage in one of the great clichés of the post-dot-com era--freelance consulting--with limited success.
"Everyone's a consultant, everyone's got a great idea," he says. "I could put the title 'Business Consultant' on my emails, but so what? It didn't mean anything."
After more than two years of unemployment, Freifeld was lucky enough to finally land a job last Christmas: unloading cargo at Pier One Imports. He lasted six days, his body unable to handle the stress of constant heavy lifting.
As time passed and Freifeld began to realize the hopelessness of searching for tech jobs in Portland, he began to feel more and more rejected as a person.
"For a while, whenever I saw a software ad on TV, it would hit a nerve and I would twinge a bit," he says. "I couldn't go near Powell's Technical Books."
The absolute low point, Freifeld says, was when he went to an Oracle conference to try to network and stay on top of technology trends. When he arrived, he ran into a bunch of his old colleagues from Tektronix, where he had worked for eight years before moving over to Xerox in 1999.
"I sat down with these people, and for a minute the déjà vu was so strong that I felt like I still worked there," he recalls. "When I came to, I had such a terrible feeling inside that I had to get up and leave."
The shift in Freifeld's life has been immense since he lost his job. When he was still at Xerox, Freifeld owned a Cessna 172 airplane. He recalls "hundred-dollar hamburger" trips, when he would fly to places like Lincoln City for no reason other than to have lunch, burning up hundreds of dollars worth of airplane fuel in the process.
"It was the height of just turning money into noise," he says.
Today, there is no private plane, and there are no weekly visits from a maid or landscaping service. He remembers writing a $3,500 check for an air conditioner without thinking twice about it, but today he barely runs the furnace. He remembers shopping "the European way," getting fresh food every day from the market.
"We'd never used our freezer in the last 25 years," Freifeld says. "Now, when something goes on sale, we go out and buy a lot of it at once and freeze it."
For now, Freifeld and his wife get by on the money he's managed to sock away and his tiny pension--which is "just about enough to cover the electric bill," he says. But the money will run out someday. Meanwhile, he pays a $700 health-insurance premium for his wife and himself, which he says costs as much as his mortgage.
"You almost hope you break an arm so you can cash in on it," he says. "It's eerie."
Freifeld is trying to learn new programming languages in the hope that he'll find work in computers once again. He knows he'll probably never work within the cozy confines of a tech office again, but he still looks.
Freifeld realizes that the economy has peaks and valleys, but what really angers him is the minimal federal funding for retraining that he says is no help at all.
"I look at it as an insult to those of us who have found our skills offshored or eroded by shifting technologies," he says. "It's not going to retrain anyone. It gets you three steps down a road that's 20 miles long."
As outspoken as he is about Bush's policies, Freifeld is equally uninspired by the Democrats in the race for the presidency.
"I can't say categorically that I won't vote for Bush," he says. "They've all got no ideas. I might vote for one guy if he stands up and says, 'I've got nothing. I admit it. Please send in your ideas.'"
Some economists believe that the downward trend in unemployment actually reflects people dropping out of the labor force, not getting hired.
The average amount of time it takes an unemployed worker to find a new job today is 19.8 weeks.
Oregon's unemployment peaked at 8.5 percent in June 2003, when it led the nation. Alaska has since claimed the title.
The Oregon Employment Department claims the current recession is moderately severe, compared with the six other state recessions since 1949.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a record two million Americans will exhaust their unemployment benefits in the first six months of 2004.
The Bush administration claims the recession ended in November 2001.
Forrester Research estimates that three million American jobs will be outsourced to other countries in the next 15 years, and with them $136 billion in wages.
Despite the economic hardship the recession has brought in Oregon, the state's poverty rate has remained unchanged over the past three years.