The Geeks of Wrath

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Idealist Lloyd Dobler, a character in the 1989 movie "Say Anything," played by dewy-eyed John Cusack, had a now-famous creed against a market society:

"I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed; or buy anything sold or processed; or process anything sold, bought, or processed; or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that."

Well, it's 2005 and a lot of those processors and repairers are still making house payments while we 40-year-old Lloyd Doblers and anti-Doblers, people who did make and process and repair things but lost our jobs anyway, are flipping burgers shoulder to shoulder with teenagers and buying our sandwich bread with food stamps.

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The Bush administration's new budget proposes to cut millions of dollars in funding to the three largest federal food programs: school lunches, food stamps, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC. Meanwhile, there are 36.3 million people living below the poverty line in America, and nearly 3.5 million are homeless. Those aren't just the guys on the corner with a shoebox tied to their heads, or the single moms in the inner city. Those people scraping to get by and failing are your neighbors, and your sister-in-law, and me.

After three years of patching together sales jobs, food-service jobs, yard sales, and temp job, temp job, and temp job, I am surrendering to the Great Technology Dustbowl. I reluctantly sold my Boston area home because I could no longer afford the mortgage payments. The money, what's left, is enough to finance my family's journey across the country - modern day Joads looking for something better in California: The Geeks of Wrath.

Why the West? California has long been a beacon of hope for the weary, the cold, the seasonally affected, folks who are up to the challenges of the "loony Left Coast."

Will it be better for us there? I know the climate is warmer, but what about the economy? Silicon Valley's engine is starting to hum again, slowly but surely, or so we've been told. Californians just voted to support stem-cell research to the tune of $3 billion. Nothing is certain. Staying warm is good; being near family during hard times is important.

As parents of young children, our focus should be on good schools and safe streets. But as adults living in poverty, with children in poverty, the real-life focus is on employment opportunities and low-cost housing. Not everyone is as fortunate as we are. We gave up the endless struggle to stay afloat financially, sold our home to fend off the creditors, and ran home to Mom and Dad.

And even with that, with the grace of an equity cash-in and the ability to start over, it's a struggle.

While Bush - the first president since Herbert Hoover to see a net job loss during his first term as president - requests an additional $82 billion to support the ongoing debacle that is Iraq, and starts casting an eagle eye on Syria, some 8.1 million of us who are unemployed continue to look for gainful employment, affordable healthcare, and shelter - making do, or not, as the "working poor."

The average minimum wage in the US is now $5.15 an hour. But according to a survey by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, nowhere in this country can one afford a simple two-bedroom apartment on even as much as $9.17 an hour, the wage earned by a quarter of the employed in our country.

In Japan they call my new governor "Schwa-chan," which means "My dear little Schwarzenegger." I think I prefer "Governator," but I have to hand it to him, the man is working his "gov thing." He's making me hopeful, a little, about a state that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics has a 5.9 percent unemployment rate. The unemployment rate in Massachusetts is 4.6 percent, so our move West is not all simple math, nor is it a guarantee that our lives will improve.

California schools have some serious issues, currently spending $400 less per pupil than the national average, while state healthcare and transportation budgets are being drastically scaled back.

Looking for the place to start over is tricky when resources are so scarce and we are all scrambling for that last thin slice. Hope, these days, is precious, and we're following it as it weaves, gossamer-thin, into our future.

Barbara Card Atkinson is a writer based in northern California.

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