The Recession That Always Was

Nona Willis Aronowitz

Young fast-food and retail workers demonstrate on the streets of Milwaukee

This is the second installment of a four-part series on Millennials and the new economy, based on the author’s monthlong road trip with stops in the Rust Belt, Omaha, and Texas. Read the first.

This past May, I visited Milwaukee and spent the day with a few young startup founders. You know the types: college-educated twenty-somethings who, upon graduating into a terrible job market, decided to create their own jobs instead. Bright, organized, and creative, they are the kind of Millennials often held up as the scrappy saviors of our brave new economic world. They told me how affordable Milwaukee was, especially compared to the city’s pricier neighbor, Chicago. Angela Damiani, director of NEWaukee, a networking organization for young professionals, and a homeowner at 27, observed that “if you want to start a business or follow a pipe dream, Milwaukee is the type of place you can do that, because it’s so small and cheap and so interconnected.” 

But after leaving NEWaukee’s cozy basement space—complete with a basketball hoop, a PBR longboard, and afternoon mimosas—and stepping out into the street, I encountered a strikingly different scene. A large group of workers, most young and of color, were protesting outside the Grand Avenue mall. The demonstration was the latest in a series of strikes by fast-food and retail workers demanding $15 an hour and the right to form a union. I asked everyone I met the same questions I’d asked the startup kids earlier: Is Milwaukee chock full of opportunities? Is Milwaukee cheap? 

“Haha, that’s cute. No,” said 18-year-old Amir Graham, who works at McDonald’s to help out his mother, a bartender and single parent. It’s not hard to imagine Graham at a small liberal-arts school—“I put my head in the books and do a lot of studies on my own time on economics, sociology, stuff like that”—but with his schedule, going to school full-time would be a struggle. 

I chatted with Jevon Walker, who is 20 and works at Old Country Buffet, a national chain restaurant. He goes to community college for audio engineering and hopes to start a local studio, but he’s not sure that’s realistic. “I’ve never been anywhere else besides Milwaukee, and opportunities are not available here in this city,” he said. No matter how “affordable” Milwaukee is, “you can’t support a family on $7.25 an hour.” He’s right, of course: Workers clocking 40 hours a week at that wage only earn $15,080 a year—just below the poverty line in Wisconsin for a family of two.

Most of the striking workers greeted my questions with a laugh. They described abandoned playgrounds and pregnant middle-schoolers and unpaid bills after 60-hour weeks at Domino’s. That PBR longboard rolling on the startup floor seemed a million miles away.

Reporters and pundits are always worrying about Millennials, but other than a racially tinged mention of poor, “ghetto-fabulous” young people, stories like Time magazine’s May 20 cover piece on the “me me me generation” rarely acknowledge people like Walker and Graham. “Millennials” usually describes boomerang kids staring at fading Obama posters or optimistic entrepreneurs-by-necessity. Walker and Graham, on the other hand, are just “poor.” There’s a major disconnect, in the media and in life, between recession-addled twenty-somethings whose bright futures have been bruised, and the ones who always assumed their futures would be that way.

The latter Millennials didn’t need Occupy or an economic downturn to inject them with class consciousness. A couple of weeks before the Milwaukee protest, I had coffee with Josie Kenol, a 28-year-old CVS pharmacist and a single mom of three living in West Homestead, Pennsylvania. She told me the recession “really didn’t bother me none … nothing’s changing around me. I think the whole economy thing was for people who actually had it, then lost it. But if you don’t have it, you can’t miss something you never had.” Of course, it’s not technically true that the recession didn’t impact the poor—it’s just that the fall from the last rung to rock bottom isn’t as dramatic.

Still, for some, witnessing and experiencing “rock bottom” can be radicalizing. “That period really shaped me and shaped my politics,” said Siwatu Salama-Ra, a 21-year-old peer educator from a low-income family in Detroit. She agrees with Kenol that the recession “wasn’t this big surprise, especially in Detroit” but it profoundly affected her family. Her mother lost the house she’d owned for 35 years to foreclosure in 2009 because the property taxes were too high. Neither she nor her neighbors knew anything about the foreclosure process. “We had no resources, no information about what could we do to keep it,” she says. “[People down the block] … didn’t know legal actions or legal things to fight back. I’ve watched my neighborhood deteriorate.” Salama-Ra says her own experiences led her to want to be a political force in her community. “It’s for myself. For us,” she says.

For poor Millennials joining fast-food and retail strikes across the country, or becoming more active at the community level like Salama-Ra, it’s less that they’re finally getting a taste of poverty and more that they can’t take it anymore. And this is fueling a general sense, at least in some crowds, that something needs to change. Even if young, low-income people don’t experience the indignation—some would say entitlement—of disillusioned college kids, many can’t help but notice a change in the national climate. It’s not a coincidence that this slowly shifting mood comes at the heels of the very manifestation of young, (mostly) middle class outrage: the Occupy movement. Regardless of its tactical failures, it started a conversation that seeped beyond the confines of people who grew up financially comfortable.

“This stuff is in the air and it’s more common than four years ago,” says Sarah Jaffe, a labor journalist who reported on Occupy. “Out of the parks, [we] found ways to be involved in other things. This is a circle of people who have class consciousness,” either because they “read the right books in college” or because the bad economy was affecting them directly. These organizers approached not the downwardly mobile workers of Whole Foods or Starbucks, but workers at McDonald’s and Domino’s—people who have always known the traps of poverty, but didn’t necessarily know they had any other options. People like Josie Kenol in West Hempstead or Jevon Walker in Milwaukee.

Yet this tenuous alliance is just that: tenuous. Jaffe admits that “we’re all screwed by this economy, but we’re not equally screwed.” There’s a whole chunk of Millennials who have barely noticed this upheaval, who instead have responded to the bad economy by using their networks and resources to start businesses of their own in cheaper cities like Milwaukee. The ironic thing is, entrepreneurial college grads would benefit from the same changes low-income workers are demanding: a better minimum wage, access to health care, and stronger social-safety net. No matter who you are, a basic standard of living encourages risk-taking. Sure, one group is more screwed than the other. But it only hurts everyone if they keep talking past each other.

This is the second installment of a four-part series on Millennials and the new economy, based on the author’s monthlong road trip with stops in the Rust Belt, Omaha, and Texas. Read the first.

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