The Rosens: hard work, order, thrift

In Cincinnati, it is said, there is no leisure class: Everybody works all the time.

George and Clara Rosen are right at home here.

Coming across the tiny lot and through the back door of their 100-year-old house in the city's Hyde Park area, one sees why. The new kitchen floor is spotless. The woodwork in the small living room has been freshly painted. On the mantle are the baton-twirling trophies of their two children, Sandra (age 15 ) and Linda (age 11). The furniture is carefully placed for the visitor.

These are people who place a high value on hard work - part of the great body of middle Americans whose lives revolve around their homes and who are surviving the ravages of a troubled economy through a combination of thrift, ingenuity, and steady diligence.

A burly 17-year veteran of the city's police department, George earns about $ 22,000 a year - a bit below the 1980 median income of $24,332 for a family of four in the United States - working the swing shift at the department's auto-impoundment lot. He picks up some more on his own time as an insurance investigator. With Clara's income from a part-time job, the family reported around $30,000 on their 1981 tax forms.

And when George is not working? ''I spend all my spare time here at home,'' he says.

And he means it. He and his wife and two daughters eat out with relatives and friends at a nice restaurant perhaps two or three times a year. They see few movies, but watch some television -- which they keep not in the living room but in the ''TV room'' upstairs. George tries to get around to the newspaper each day. But most of his spare time, he admits, goes into working on his house.

He is obviously no stranger to work. ''When he wrings out a sponge,'' a neighborhood child reports in admiration, ''he really wrings it out.'' His two cars - of 1973 and 1978 vintage -- are well kept: When he cleans them, say the neighbors, he even vacuums out the trunks.

It is a sense of order and thrift that George traces to his upbringing on a small Kentucky dairy. Clara, born of German ancestors in Brazil, maintains the same standards. ''I don't throw things away that easily,'' she says, recounting how she remakes clothes that other families might throw out or give away.

As we sit together in their simply but comfortably furnished living room, George listens to Clara, smiles, then adds, ''She even washes everything on a washboard before she puts it in the washing machine.'' She takes this as he means it: as a compliment.

For she is still as proud of her habits of economy as she was when, 22 years ago, she came to the US knowing no English and went to work as a housemaid for a well-to-do Cincinnati family. Even then, she says, many of the other women were unwilling to do the kind of heavy cleaning which she took right in stride.

With the work came the habit of saving -- and the habit of waiting patiently for things she could not yet afford. ''We were married five years before we had a TV,'' she recalls. The result: a commitment to paying with cash whenever possible.

''We don't usually buy anything on time,'' says George, who admits that he ''hates to see bills.''

''We save up enough ahead of days,'' he explains, to buy all but major items -- like the new kitchen, bathroom, and sundeck, for which they recently spent $ 13,500.

That money, however, did not come from a bank -- where a 16.5 percent interest rate sent them packing - but from his credit union and a life insurance policy. Their next project: a new front porch. Even that, however, is a kind of investment. The four-bedroom house, which they bought seven years ago for $31, 000, carries a loan at 9.5 percent for which they pay $264 a month. They estimate that they have put $20,000 into it since -- along with a great deal of labor -- and that it is now worth $75,000 to $80,000.

Like all houses, however, it has its ongoing costs. Although they live only a few miles from the ''Southern'' state of Kentucky, they are still in the frost belt -- and winter heating is expensive. Using a gas furnace, the Rosens find their fuel bills running some $250 a month -- with the January bill more than $ 300. To help cut costs, Clara has installed insulated curtains in the upstairs windows.

Clara's sense of thrift is evident in other day-to-day matters, too. She works 15 hours a week at a local clothing shop - bringing home, she says, about

That seems little enough pay for so much time -- until Clara explains the fringe benefits. With an employees' discount of up to 30 percent, she outfits herself and her children at a significant savings. Besides, she says, she knows just when the sales are coming -- and knows just what to snatch off the rack the moment the doors open.

She applies the same qualities to her food shopping. Not counting the half side of beef in her freezer, she figures on spending about $150 on food every two weeks. Even that she finds alarming. Recalling the not-so-distant days when the same grocery basket cost her $30 to $40 a week, she notes that ''food is one thing that is awfully out of control.'' George, who has just finished the hot meal she prepared him before he leaves for work at mid-afternoon, says, ''We don't eat the most expensive foods, either.''

It is, in fact, the discussion of food costs that sets this couple off on what is apparently a familiar topic of conversation: their thorough dislike of the nation's welfare system. The image that troubles George centers on a grocery-store checkout line. When you see people ''filling their basket with steaks,'' he says, you can bet they're paying with food stamps. ''The average person can't afford it, but the people on welfare do,'' he says.

Once tapped, this vein of welfare-abuse stories flows as freely as the Ohio River past nearby Riverfront Stadium. Clara knows of clerks in clothing stores who quit because welfare payments are higher than their take-home pay, or who illegally draw welfare checks while working and then take vacations in Florida. For the Rosens, the whole welfare system seems a blatant mockery of the values they most respect.

One thing the Rosens have little of, in fact, is vacationing. Their vacations tend to coincide with the annual convention of the Fraternal Order of Police. George is a member of the FOP's local board, in which capacity he takes the family along to the convention each year.

Even the holidays, however, have their sense of thrift and ingenuity. Clara recalls telling her daughter Sandra, then 10, that she had to earn for herself whatever spending money she would have for the trip to Florida that year. So her daughter organized a neighborhood work force called ''Kid-Power'' -- mowing lawns, washing cars, cleaning under bushes, and doing other odd jobs. When the family finally got to Florida, she had $30 of her own to spend.

Now the girls are older and attending a parochial school nearby. This year, one has a scholarship; next year, however, the cost for tuition could be a full providing a well-disciplined atmosphere. And Clara likes the fact that the girls wear uniforms - which, she says, saves greatly on the clothing bill. They want their girls to go on to higher education, and are saving for that goal. They try to put aside several hundred dollars each year, says George, and some years manage to put away $1,000.

Where, then, is the country headed? Clara, her eye on home economics, is worried. ''People have not learned to manage things,'' she says, noting that many people ''don't cook right and waste food and clothing.'' Comparing the US to her native Brazil, she notes that here ''people have so much of things, but they are not happy.'' In Brazil, she says, there is less wealth but a stronger sense of community. ''American women,'' she says, ''are the most unhappy people I've met.''

George, for his part, is bothered by the political economy. He worries that a depression may be coming -- a frequent concern in his part of the American industrial heartland. But ''what is ruining this country is interest rates,'' he says. ''If they'd bring that down, things would start rallying again.''

And he is worried that the nation's defense spending is out of line. He frowns on B-1 bombers and MX missiles. ''We don't need advanced things,'' he says, adding, ''We need to do more with what we have.''

Even that comment, ostensibly about defense spending, is in fact a statement about the need for thrift.

Working man, union man, municipal employee: Does that make George Rosen (as it certainly would his British counterpart) lean to the left? Not at all. He gives President Reagan high marks for doing ''a good job.'' And he feels he can ''do a lot more.''

What more should he do? Bring down the interest rates, says George. And reform the welfare system to get rid of what he sees as ''the reward for not working.''

Clara agrees. She has not been, during our several hours together, a quick hand with praise. Her remarks have been direct, sometimes even tart. But she has no criticism of the President. She is not concerned, apparently, at his image as a wealthy man -- perhaps because she has spent her life working for others who have had more wealth than she has ever had. So she respects the relation of worker to supervisor. ''I like (President Reagan) because he has discipline,'' she says. ''He means what he says.''

And, she adds, ''There has to be a boss.''

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