Down, and sometimes out, in the best economic climate in the country
BY MORRIS EDELSON AND JANE COLLINGS
Tom Sanders, laborer,."The economy in
this town seems better than in a lot
of places. In the whole country there are
little pockets like Houston where there's
still a lot of work. It won't last long,
though. People will flood in and fill it up.
Years ago, people from the South were
moving to the industrial cities in the North to find work.Now, those places are
burning out and a big migration to the
sun belt has begun.
I've been looking for work out of the
labor pools.These plants have work
that needs doing, but they say they don't
have skilled people to man them. Now
why don't they teach the people a skill?
The plants have all the money and they
need people to work. You can't wait on
the government all the time-it's too badly run to be of any help. These labor pools are just a big racket. They've got jobs
paying eight, nine dollars an hour, and
the guy that runs the place pockets five
of that. Anyway, you need a car to get
out to the jobs and I don't have one.
My friend who works at the highway
patrol once told me you got all these
guys hiring wet-backs to work. When it
comes time to pay them, they turn them
over to the border police.
Judy Gechman, director of the Houston
Area Shelter for Battered Women: We
have noticed in the past few months
we never have a vacancy in our women's
shelters that lasts more than a few
hours. They used to last weeks. All
kinds of violence in the home is increasing with stress. It's not just poor
people, it is a philosophy of family
violence—78% of the men who batter
wives or children grew up in homes
that were violent. They are psychologically insecure. The couple is likely to
have both partners psychologically insecure, both with low self esteem. Both
Tom Sanders: "You can't wait on the government; it's too badly run to be of any help/'
of them believe in the traditional 'the
man-is-boss' sex role. The one thing
you are hearing battered women say,
again and again, is "My husband won't
let me work, he won't let me . . ." These
women are insecure because they are
isolated—a lot of them come here with
their families, for jobs, and they have
no place to go outside the home, no roots
here. There's not that much unemployment in Houston, but there is plenty
of psychological insecurity, isolation and
Niami Hansen, community activist: I
use the car a lot less—I use it as little
as possible and seldom ever take it out
of the city. Food, I haven't gone without meals, but I eat a whole lot less
meat and I try to eat a lot cheaper.
Basically, I do things with other people,
so my entertainment is mainly with my
I think the recession is broadbased,
and that we are being pushed into a war.
I've been passing out leaflets against the
draft. I think the government is trying
to get our patriotism hopping so we will
go to war for our oil. I think with unemployment so high, a lot of young people
are feeling, "I have to join the Army to
get a career."
Jesse Alaniz, ACORN member and Allied
Industries employee: The recession has
had a big impact on us, especially low-to-
moderate income people. We are not even
S in the $15-20,000 bracket per year.
= The utility increases are horrendous
u for us. We are taking the brunt of all
c of this. I live with my sister. She's got
Z two kids. Her grocery bills are sky high,
~ her gas and light bill are way up there,
a and we deny ourselves of a lot of odds
and ends to see it through.
I don't want to over-react, but I will
tell you like it is. They can give you a
dollar raise where you work and they
will take it all back from you—if not
on groceries, it will be on medicine, or
anyway you turn. Then your Public Utilities Commission (PUC), they look like
they are working for the utilities and they
are supposed to protect the consumers.
I am going to Austin this month to the
PUC hearings to speak against those big
corporate giants. They are nothing but
bloodsuckers, believe me.
What it really boils down to is the
greedy taking from the needy! All those
gas and oil companies—look at the
millions they are taking in windfall
profits. Do you see them plowing any of
that back into hospitals, or roads, or
upgrading the standards of living in the
community? What they are doing is
buying up chain stores and raising prices,
buying land and kicking the farmers off
the land. That's what it's all about.
Mrs. Hutchins, retired: "Everything's different now than what it used to be. I
don't like it, I can't cope with it because I
am too old I guess.Every time I go to the
store things are a little higher. I draw a
Mrs. Hutchins: "We didn't expect this. We always worked hard and had a good income.
social security check and before the
week's out I'm out of money again. We
didn't expect it to be this way. We always
worked and had a good income."
Beverly Hebert, a public relations specialist: My husband is an engineer and we
have two young children. I went back to
work and that increased our family income. A few years ago, with the same
combined earning we would have had a
lot more things. Today, people in our
income bracket are just not able to
do the same things that people in our
income bracket would be doing a few
years back, like buying furniture, landscaping the yard, taking trips. That's what
it has done to us, but when I think about
what it has done to others, I think that's
pretty lightweight. I don't buy many
clothes. But like Ellen Goodman said,
"There's a big difference between not
having enough clothes and not having
enough food for your children."
One of the secretaries who worked in
my husband's office, was divorced and
was on food stamps. I can identify with
women like her when I think what it
would be like if I had to live on my salary
without my husband's.
Victoria Smith, 60s activist preparing for
convent life in the 80s: This particular
recession has affected me, even though
the economists say that it is not as bad
as the one in 1974. This one is much
worse for me because my income hasn't
changed much since 74 despite the cost
of living increase.
I am a writer, and I could be a publicist. You know how hard it is to break
into that. I* have rather unmarketable
skills for right now for Houston. If I
don't tend bar, or waitress, I am going to
have to do office work to support myself. It's a hard realization—it really is,
because it's what I have been trying to
get away from.
I think working with non-profit
voluntary agencies can spoil you. I
started out working in voluntary organizations, like SDS, Liberation News
Service, in the 60s and it spoiled me.
You just develop a counterculture mentality and after that it is so hard to fit
into regular society.
I somewhere stepped into a poverty
cycle and never can get out. It infuriates me when I think about people who
are well-to-do talking about those lazy
people on welfare. Because you really do
get down when you are not working.
And you don't know if you're going to
have work. And it is a cycle, you get
worn down by not working and you
don't want to go out and look for a job.
If people are out to make money, if
they want upper middle class housewife
success or career girl success, I can't
get into it. I wish I could, because it is
hard being poor. I have to say, I am
poor, and it's almost a crime to be poor
in Houston. My poverty is not what
other people, really poor people live
in—but it is! There's something kind of
shameful about it. Especially to my
parents, who think I am a complete
This summer I told myself I had to
make some money somehow, so I decided to do temporary work. For some
reason they were just in a slump when
I made my first application. And every
day I wasn't working, I was just sunk.
When I did go on some of these jobs, a
lot of them that were supposed to be upfront office jobs turned out not to be.
The agency told me to be sure to "Dress
spiffy," and I had to laugh because \
only had one "spiffy" outfit. And it
isn't very spiffy.
It was really embarrassing, because
there would be all these other people
around, these other secretaries—young
girls, usually, well-dressed, well made
up—and I couldn't even afford make-up,
I couldn't afford to have my hair
I was bringing hard-boiled eggs and
bread and butter for lunch, and people
would wonder what I was*about and why
I didn't want to go out for lunch. And I
was walking as much as I could. If it was
within a mile, I would walk instead of
taking the bus. And I did feel humiliated in a way. Even though these aren't
my values, in Houston, especially, you do
feel very out of it (a) if you don't have
a car, no one can understand how you
can possibly live, and (b) if you aren't
well-dressed, well turned out.
It's been very distressing to me to see
how weak my faith is. Here I am a
struggling Catholic girl, and all of a
sudden here I am worrying about and
running after all these things that the
"pagans" run after. It's hard to consider the lilies of the field in Houston.
Mary Picketts, domestic worker:I'm out
here , trying to survive. I have five kids,
and I can hardly keep them clothed and
Mary Picketts: "I have five kids and I can hardly
keep them clothed and fed."
fed let alone all the other stuff they need.
I go to work on the bus. I might spend 30
minutes travelling one way, which isn't so
bad. But I might spend another 30 min -
utes waiting on the thing to show up, and
sometimes it might not even do that.
Houston has the worst bus service I've
ever seen, and that's the kind of thing
that wears you out day after day."
Cheryl Robideau, artist-secretary-teacher-
tutor: I think everyone should move
into fantasy. It's the only thing I can
Frank Lopez, safety coordinator for the
Houston Police Department: My wife
is an assistant in the Mayor's office and
we have a young daughter. I can see myself pinching pennies more than a year
and a half ago. More people are looking
for bargains. We are.
This year we were thinking about
going to visit relatives in Atlanta. After
we checked into the cost of gasoline,
we decided to stay around the Gulf
Coast. We took our vacation in Galveston.
Basically, we are careful about all our
expenses—gasoline, food, clothing. With
clothes we are going more with things
that would be lasting; we're more conservative in taste. We do more entertaining at home than going out.
Instead of doing things on impulse,
we think about it. We use'd to say, "let's
go here and let's go there"; now we say,
"that's a good idea but . . ."
Even the little purchases I notice we
do now by Yellow Pages. I found myself
doing that this morning. There were some
sales on, and ordinarily I would jump out
there and buy what I just saw on the
tube. But now I say to myself "I don't
need that, I don't need this," or if I do,
I compare prices by calling around the
Yellow Pages. Often it saves me a trip.
Then there's long distance. I'm more
conscious of calling when the rates are
cheaper. We're not at the hardship stage
yet, just showing a little more concern,
watching our expenses more closely.
Sharon Itaya, medical doctor employed
by Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers
(OCAW) Union: The strike in the refineries here earlier this year was recession-related. About 25,000 people were
off work for several months. The recession made it harder on people when they
were out on strike; it's the ultimate
weapon against worker unrest.
The union has been hurt by the
recession, because the employers have
been laying off our members. Whole
parts of factories have been closed down,
like tetraethyl lead manufacturing at
ARCO where they let 300 people go.
There've been layoffs in the rubber industry as well, because of the decrease in demand for tires from the car industry.
The unions have lost a good deal of
political clout. I see our union locals
downplaying health and safety issues
because they're afraid of offending
employers and of company layoffs.
The younger people don't expect
hard times—they haven't had to worry
so far where their next check is coming
from. They're using this credit thing,
where $50 down gets you a condominium.
Some of the older folks in the union
have stand-by money. They seem to
know what to anticipate and they seem
to have a little left over; and the people
with big notes borrow from the older
folks so they won't lose their house
and their car. And the unions get together to help people pay for their
houses and their car notes, but it is a
little harder to go around and collect
to pay people's boat notes. So people
lose some of their luxury items like
On the average we're still living relatively comfortably; it's not as bad as
Detroit, but it may be coming.
I was just talking to a woman, a
grandmother, who is a real fighter out
at one of the ARCO refineries. She went
out to work there six or seven years ago,
because she was single and needed
money. That seemed the best kind of
job, rather than working 100 hours a
week to make an adequate salary when
she could work 40 or 50. So she went out
there—they gave her all the toughest jobs.
What happened to her was she got lung
problems from doing her job. The other
people would kind of fake it; they
wouldn't get in there and clean things.
She would just get in it and do it, and
now she has bad bronchitis and emphysema. Whenever she gets close to those
chemicals she can hardly breathe. Now
she is faced with the company trying
to lay her off. She sold her home already, then sold a smaller place and
now is living in a small apartment. She
is faced with the need to go on welfare-
she has nothing to fall back on.
Thelma Meltzer, artist, community activist and grandmother-to-be: My husband
Saul is 61 and I'm 59. He's getting close
to retiring from an oil company job. He
has an herb business on the side—purely
a weekend thing—that's just blossomed
in the last few years. As the recession rate
went up, so did our income. Money's
never been anything that we worried
about. We own our home and for the first
time in our life, we are actually reaching
comfort. It's nothing to do with the
But we have a daughter and her
husband in Austin who are expecting
a baby soon. That's where I think about
the recession—young people like our
children. I don't know how they manage
just to buy the necessary things they need
to manage a household, much less have
any hopes of ever owning a home. We
have tried to help them with all the extra
things connected with the baby. To
help them through this period, Saul
got Melinda started on an herb business
in Austin, which she, hopefully, will be
able to resume in the fall. That will
help, but they will feel the recession
The young and the old are most affected by this recession. I have noticed
old people in the grocery store taking
things out of their baskets just before
they come to check out; they have just
a tiny bit of money. When I hear someone talking about cutting out subsistence
programs, I could just froth at the
workers, Professor Smith says. Tight
money has not slowed consumer purchasing, nor does it stabilize business
"High interest rates," says Smith,
"don't really increase costs to business much. You can't even call an 18%«
interest rate that high, when inflation is running 20%. It's like loaning!
someone $100. A year later you get
$118. But it's worth only $98." So
businesses can handle the high rate,
given the high inflation, and can pass
some of the costs along to consumers
and even, if there is a squeeze, transfer
money back and forth between divisions,
in effect loaning themselves money and
staying out of the money market.
"The high prime doesn't stop a consumer from spending all he or she earns,"
says Smith, "because the average consumer doesn't even face the high prime
directly. We grab everything we can
off the shelves, color TVs, small items,
food and clothes. The upward pressure
on prices exerted by the interest rates
make us buy now, since things will be
more expensive later. Of course, you
can't get loans to buy autos or houses,
but everything else you buy."
Since the only purchases that are
slowed down are houses and cars, which
formerly involved bank help, people quit
buying these items and the recession hits
home builders, auto makers and steel
workers. The problems in Detroit and
Pittsburgh are worsened by the need to
re-tool industry in those cities, but when
the prime rate comes down, they will
"It"s a blue collar recession," Smith
concluded, "much more so than in '74—
a small segment of the population is
used as a battering ram to overcome inflation. The worst hurt people are the
laid-off laborers, the people who had
been depending on overtime or
jobs to make ends meet. But, since most
of our workforce is still employed, the
average American is more worried
about price rises than unemployment."
So the prime rate jump accomplished
little except some rollercoastering on
The Joys of Poverty
The economic downturn has been limited geographically to auto and steel
and to the small contractor who builds
houses independently. The rich haven't
been hurt, nor have the very poor, says
Smith. "If you were unemployed going
into this recession, you can't complain.
Your economic well-being is no longer
associated with your employment. People
receiving Aid to Families with Dependent
Children, unemployment compensation,
disability and pensions are, more or less,
where they were—in fact it may be in
their interest to remain unemployed. It
would cost them more relatively to have
a job than not."
Chandler Davidson, professor of sociology at Rice University, disagreeed
with Smith about the situation and
number of the poor.
"There has been a great deal more
poverty in Houston through the 70s
than the city's publicists are willing
to admit," he claimed. The recession
is geographically general. Using the
official government measure of poverty
of an income of less than $8,500 for
a family of four, and working with
data from scientific surveys, Davidson
estimated that at least one-fifth of
Houston is poor. "About 20% of local
households do not even have a checking
account, let alone a savings fund," he
"It is a widely held misconcept-
ion,"Davidson said, "that these poor
are all welfare recipients. Less than
half of them are beneficiaries of government cash transfers such as AFDC or
food stamps. The great majority of
heads of poor households work, many of