Brooke and Solomon are too young to remember a recession as bad as this one's likely to get. But, over the last year, the Cobb County couple has gotten an up-close preview.
"We always talk about how we never thought we'd be in this predicament," says Brooke, who lives with her husband and two babies in a $945-a-month apartment in Marietta.
Last year, the couple moved from Texas. For a time, they rented out the house they owned back in Beaumont. But the tenants moved out and the house sat empty. With gas prices rising, the second baby on the way and rent to pay in Atlanta, Solomon's job on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig didn't provide enough to also carry the mortgage. They fell behind.
Then, in January, just after the birth of their second son, Solomon's rig shut down, and he had to go to work for another oil-services company. His pay dropped from $18 to $13 an hour. The bank foreclosed on the house in Texas. Bills began to pile up.
"It's just been crazy," says Brooke, 24, who didn't want her last name used. "You wouldn't think it'd affect you so much. The gas is high, the milk is high and the Pampers are high."
They had to seek assistance. The Center for Family Resources in Marietta provided food, as well as help with utilities and rent. Brooke started looking for a job. "Nobody wants to hire you," she says, "and if they do want to hire you, it's not enough."
Brooke and Solomon are going through something that a lot more people are likely to experience over the next few months. Except, at least, Solomon has a job.
The 1991 and 2001 recessions were mild dips with relatively small rises in unemployment. But the recession that's almost certainly coming this year (if it hasn't arrived already) is likely to be different.
"I think it's going to be deeper and longer from a jobs standpoint than the last two recessions," says Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond.
"We know it's going to be bad," says Emin Hajiyev, assistant director of Georgia State University's Economic Forecasting Center. "How long and how bad is still a question."
Unlike previous downturns, this one appears to be hitting Georgia harder than the rest of the nation. For decades, the metro area's pulled Georgia along with some of the nation's lowest jobless rates. In 1982, when the national rate topped off at 10.8 percent, Georgia's was only 8 percent.
But the last eight years have been rough on Georgia's economy. First, the dot-com bust hit the high-tech sector. Then, the 2001 terrorist attacks bludgeoned the airline and convention industries.
"All of those things were mainstays of Atlanta's economy," Thurmond says. "And what propped it up was ready capital, which fueled construction."
With Atlanta's dependence on construction, it's not surprising that the mortgage crisis has hit the metro area particularly hard. While home values haven't dropped as far as in other parts of the country, construction jobs have been washing away like Georgia red clay. From August 2007 to last July, the industry lost 11,700 jobs. The finance sector lost another 5,500, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Now, both the metro area and the state suffer unemployment rates of 6.3 percent, surpassing the nation's. "Things will be getting better," Thurmond says, "but it will be later rather than sooner."
Hajiyev says this recession is looking more like the deep ditch in which the economy got stuck in the early 1980s. The Federal Reserve was fighting inflation at that time by tightening up on money supply, but that slowed things down too much. By late 1982, unemployment hit 10.8 percent, budget deficits soared and consumer debt skyrocketed. Sound familiar?
In 2008, the nation's unemployment rolls have jumped by more than 600,000 people, jacking up the jobless rate to 6.1 percent. And unemployment rates tend to be higher toward the tail end of a recession.
Though a recession hasn't been declared (they're defined by two straight quarters of negative economic growth) few economists doubt it's coming. Hajiyev says it would be "very optimistic" to say a recession will end by 2009. He says it could last into 2011.
Aid agencies already are feeling the pinch. Susie Ivy at the Center for Family Services (the Cobb nonprofit helping Brooke and Solomon) says the center expects to serve 1,450 families this fall, compared to last year's 1,100. The Atlanta Community Food Bank, which provides dozens of metro groups with food for needy families, issued an alarm last month that its cupboards were nearly running bare.
"We have never seen what we're seeing now," says Bill Bolling, the food bank's executive director. "I'm having people call me who are saying, 'I have donated to the food bank for a number of years, and I'm embarrassed to say that I need help now.'"
At the risk of committing political heresy, Thurmond suggests that Georgians take a deep breath and try to control something they may not realize they can control: They should ask themselves if they really need everything they think they need.
"Some would say [a downturn's] not necessarily a bad thing," he says. "That Americans have been addicted to materialism."
It's actually an idea that Lisa Wise has been preaching for a long time. Wise, executive director of the Center for the American Dream in Washington, argues that economic downturns offer an opportunity for people to take stock in their lifestyles.
"It's a time for us to really re-evaluate what really matters," Wise says. "We've been sold down the river for a long time, as if [consumer goods were] really going to bring us happiness."
Her group offers tips on downsizing comfortably by doing such things as buying products that last and seeking enjoyment from less-expensive activities.
Brooke and Solomon have taken steps along that path. They're looking for a smaller apartment, but it's hard to find one.
"We are making changes," Brooke says, "because that's the only way it's going to work out."
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