Underemployed: a euphemism for violent lifestyle change

In our house, Bush's child-tax rebate checks went to past-due utility bills, groceries, and a full tank of gas. So much for stimulating the economy.

My husband and I are two of the almost 1 million "underemployed" in this country - a demure label for a violent lifestyle change. We, with our college degrees and previous incarnations as latte-swilling yuppies, are now attempting - and failing badly - to keep our family of four afloat on an average combined income of substantially less than $1,000 a month.

Like those others, we're holding our breath, waiting for the economy to rebound. For us, it's been more than a year. Our personal trajectory in the high-tech flameout happened to so many others that it's now cliché: the faltering of a dotcom job, the bankruptcy of a software company. We had great connections, my husband and I, so finding another job wouldn't be a problem, we thought.

We thought wrong. We're now far below the poverty line, both working entry-level jobs. But we stagger along, aware things could be much worse - they are, currently, much worse for others. There are families living in their cars, single parents holding down two jobs while raising their children, folks on the streets while we own our home and we own our cars. We're paying for a cable modem. We're, for now, solvent, still holding onto some of the vestiges of our old lives - broke with an equity safety net.

We're a legion of misfits, my underemployed brethren and I. We're workers with superfluous skills in need of jobs when there are no jobs to be had; generally too old and too smart to be making so little and doing so little; fighting pride and snobbery while wiping counters, flipping burgers, selling shoes.

I was horrified for a long while that working at a local movie theater was the best I could get, with my college degree and my years of publishing experience. I thought, "These people don't know who I really am, how much better I am than this." Which, of course, meant better than they are.

The other night I stood on a high ladder to change the letters on the theater marquee. The weather and passing traffic made me feel vulnerable, and I threw a little tantrum in my head. I was so ready to walk away. Who did they think they were, asking some 38-year-old mother to risk her neck for $6.75 an hour? If their $2 suction-cup device hadn't fallen off the broomstick, I could have changed the letters from the ground, like a normal person.

This wasn't a corny Hollywood movie about the soccer mom who learned humility by working with the regular folk. This was my life.

I held onto the industrial-orange ladder as cars whizzed by and the wind blew trash. I picked off the titles letter by letter and slapped up new ones and I didn't look down because ... I wasn't better than my high school age co-workers, and why shouldn't I be up on that ladder?

As much as I hated to admit it, we were all equals, and this was the best I could get. And that really threw me.

I walk in the door to my home and my husband walks out, part of our swing-shift parenting. Last year he was a top executive for an international software startup, and now he's trying to sell motorcycles in a market where even the top salesmen are down 25percentto 50 percent from last year's sales. He's not alone - none of my husband's former colleagues are doing much more than trying to keep their homes while waiting for the economy to pick up. We're part of the new demographic: middle-aged professionals losing our credit, our savings, and our homes. The Foreclosure Generation.

Our president just asked for an additional $87 billion to continue his antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other "hot spots" around the globe. I'm not disputing his goals, his claims, or his motivations. Right now I don't have the energy.

I'd like this to be a treatise on how misguided President Bush's "war on terror" is. But in truth, I desperately want us all to feel safe. I'd like to rattle off with conviction that we'd be better served by solid economy-boosting measures and the generation of jobs. But right now, I'm spending all my attention, all my energy taking care of things at home. I wonder when George W., chin out, brashly taking on the world, will look back over his shoulder and do the same.

Barbara Card Atkinson is a writer and the mother of two small children.

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