The National Catholic Review
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When you inhabit an alternative reality—let’s call it the Metro North Zone (like the Twilight Zone but with better landscaping)—sometimes it is hard to understand that we are living in deeply troubled economic times. Like the war in Afghanistan, I read about it in the paper, but I don’t really see the Great Recession, at least beyond what I am aware of in my own poor efforts to deal with a fractured family budget.

On some morning commutes I can be forgiven for thinking that everyone in New York is gainfully employed at a Wall Street bank, so crowded is my Hudson Line rail car with pinstripes and oversized valises. There are shabbier shmoes, too, on the train, we of the business casual and frayed-khaki brigade. But when we stumble sleepily onto the morning train, we leave our class differences behind and proceed with as much grace as possible into Manhattan with our fellows from the financial sector. Hardly anyone will be caught thumbing through Das Kapital on the ride in, and class warfare is mostly limited to the occasional overextended elbow while passing down the aisle.

We don’t often speak beyond pleasantries. What perhaps most unites this little commuting community, beyond our bleary eyes and morning coffees, is the simple fact that we have jobs, a reason to get up in the morning and head into Manhattan. The ones who are not on the train, the ones wearing their khakis or pinstripes during shorter commutes to the local library to search the job listings, are the invisible suburban casualties of the Great Recession.

They are now perhaps less invisible. After poring over recent data from the Census Bureau, the Brookings Institution reported in September that many of the nation’s poor have moved to the suburbs. There are now 15.4 million people living below the poverty line in the ’burbs—a 53 percent increase in just 10 years—surpassing the 12.7 million in the cities, where most of us think the poor live.

In recent years, working class families followed jobs and the American dream into the suburbs. Now beaten down by two recessions that first obliterated manufacturing jobs, then took out construction and retail work, the new poor find themselves living the current national nightmare, unemployed and stranded in the suburbs with little access to the social service infrastructure that has long been established in U.S. cities.

Granted, the folks Brookings is tracking are not the commuters who have fallen off my train—yet. These latest, middle-class victims of the Great Recession have farther to fall before they pass any poverty thresholds. I doubt that fact gives much comfort to the guys gathering at the library.

During a recent Mass, the assistant pastor pointedly asked us to remember the nation’s economic casualties wherever they are. He was perhaps responding to a request from New York’s Arch-bishop Timothy Dolan, who has noted with alarm the nation’s record numbers in poverty. More than 15 percent of all Americans now live below the poverty line—46 million people. In a recent letter to bishops in his capacity as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Dolan urged priests around the country to preach on the crisis.

“These numbers bring home to us the human costs and moral consequences of a broken economy that cannot fully utilize the talents, energy and work of all our people,” Archbishop Dolan wrote.

It is hard to know how to respond as an individual to this ongoing economic disaster except to write a check if you can and perhaps remind your local Congressmember to make poverty-reduction a priority. I know at the very least I will not take my seat on the train for granted anymore.

Kevin Clarke is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Richard Salvucci | 10/5/2011 - 4:20pm
If you read this publication, you presumably believe in some form of Divine Justice. Like Jack Nicholson said in The Departed, "Plan Accordingly."
Richard Salvucci | 10/5/2011 - 4:19pm
If you read this publication, you presumably believe in some form of Divine Justice. Like Jack Nicholson said in The Departed, "Plan Accordingly."
HARRY REYNOLDS | 10/2/2011 - 1:17am

Having flippantly written a comment on Sepbemer 30, I revisited the site out of curiousity and was made even more repentant by the comment of Mike Evans that followed my comment on October 1st. I was profoundly moved by his description of the widespread suffering caused by the near collapse of our economy. Rare it is that I read in the ordinary course writing having the power of Mr Eans's gift. After reading his comment to my wife, she was left speechless, particularly when I read Mr Evans's words "our own children's lives ruined". I do not know what Mr Evans does for a living, but I hope that it in some way involves writing for a just cause.

Mike Evans | 10/1/2011 - 9:50am
The unemployed and tragically suffering are NOT below the radar, they are evident all around us in the numerous closed stores, shops, offices, industries, and in the drastic cuts being made to all state and local budgets. People are now suffering homelessness, foreclosures,  long-term unemployment with many running out of benefits, hunger, distress and illness as a result of our economic recession/depression. Yet we seem to tolerate the tea baggers and such who wish to blame the victims as if all of this misery was self-inflicted. Until there is a huge surge of demand for a major FDR-like intervention at the federal level, we will sink further into the morass, see even more of our own children's lives ruined, and maybe even suffer greatly ourselves with a huge further meltdown of our equities and assets. We are on the cusp of total world-wide economic disaster and we seem to just be whistling in the dark while our neighbors cry out in pain. The time for urgent action is long past - the entire church itself needs to become a voice for those who bear the brunt of this morally bankrupt situation.
HARRY REYNOLDS | 9/30/2011 - 4:18pm

Take heart, Kevin. The treasurer at America may read your article and, moved by Archbishop Dolan's preaching, put a little more in your salary.

ROBERT O'CONNELL | 9/30/2011 - 2:45pm

I have been a lawyer specializing in "labor & employment law" for over 40 years now.  Never have I seen so many professionals, executives, financial service providers, realtors, teachers and other white-collar workers bereft of work.  Likewise, more construction workers and other tradesmen are out of work, and more unemployed are unemployed longer.  

We can keep in touch with our unemployed neighbors, socialize and include them in our networks of friends and potential employers.  We can pray with and for them.  We can explain what we know about finding a job and job openings. 

And we can coach all of our employed friends and acquaintances on how to manager their careers and stay employed.  

Sure, there is more.  But most of all, we cannot ignore or overlook the unemployed.  They are the neighbors who need our love and who deserve it now more than ever.     

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