pickup (well, it’s really a minivan), sees a woman in passing and can’t
get her out of his mind. There’s no gun rack, no dog and the radio is
set to National Public Radio, but otherwise the scenario is right out
of a Toby Keith video.Last week as I drove east down Adams Street
toward the Interstate 81 underpass, I saw a woman on the sidewalk with
a sign begging for food. Around her neck was a baby harness, and in it
was a child who couldn’t have been more than 6 months old. “Homeless
and trying to get by,” read the sign. “Please help.”It was one of those
November days that were warmer than we’re used to, but it still wasn’t
warm enough to drive with the window open. It wasn’t a day to be
outside unless you were doing something physical, and it certainly was
no day for a baby to spend out in the elements. The mother was rocking
the child up and down, apparently trying to get her to stop crying.
Like most of the people sitting in traffic, I was too startled to do
anything of use, and when the light changed, I moved on, looking back
at her from across three lanes and wondering what her story was, and
what the coming winter would be like for the two of them.
Usually I see men at that corner, not every day, but most days, holding
the same type of hand-lettered sign on cardboard. Once in a while you
see a woman panhandling in Syracuse, but this was the first time I can
recall seeing a woman with a child on the side of the road, appearing
so forlorn. I didn’t get her name, didn’t learn her story, but I can’t
get her out of my mind.
The next day the Labor Department announced what we all knew—that
unemployment nationally was up again, this time to 6.5 percent, the
highest rate since 1994. I thought about how differently we view poor
people in hard times. When we look at photos from the Depression, we
see those people as hungry because the economy failed; when we see poor
people today we are more likely to view it as their personal failing.
In the month that ended with Halloween, 240,000 Americans lost their
jobs. That’s truly scary. Let’s try to put that in perspective: 240,000
people lost their source of income. If those people all lived in one
town, it would be a mid-sized city. It would be home to 1½ times the
number of people who live in the city of Syracuse. Think about how many
people depend on those jobs: If each job holder has just one dependent,
that means that, this month, nearly a half-million people are looking
for a new way to get by compared to last month.
Central New York has been relatively fortunate in this economic
downturn, partially because we haven’t been particularly blessed by
recent bouts of prosperity. The labor force and the number of jobs
available in our area have actually grown quite a bit in the past five
years. But the unemployment rate in greater Syracuse is heading back up
toward the 6 percent mark, after a number of years in the range that
economists refer to as “full employment.” If our economy continues
along this path, it might not be long before we are sharing the fate of
the rest of the country. The foreclosures we see today in national news
stories will start cropping up in the local news.
Think about it. Cities half again the size of Syracuse are disappearing
from the job rolls each month. How long do you think it will be before
we feel the pinch?
Most people I know are just catching their breath now that the price of
gas has come down a bit. They’re grateful that they still have a job.
But the drop in gas prices, if it only works to keep us happy in our
gas-guzzling ways, will defeat us in the end. Low gas prices put this
country to sleep for 30 years. Low gas prices kept us from dealing with
what even President George W. Bush, who knows the trouble getting
hooked on cheap liquids can breed, has said—that we have to kick our
addiction to oil. We’ve lost an entire generation’s worth of progress
on alternative fuel sources, and now it’s time to catch up.
It wasn’t lost on me that most of the cars waiting at the stop light
watching that poor mother were big, big, like the kind of cars no one
wants to buy right now. They were mostly big like the kind of cars that
include transmission parts made at New Venture Gear. Just a short ride
away, near Carrier Circle, in a plant now owned by the Canadian Magna
Corporation, the remnants of Syracuse’s once-proud auto industry is in
the midst of the early 21st-century version of the steel cage death
match, in which engineers race against time to find products that have
some relevance in the new energy economy. The clock is ticking, the
light is about to change, and we’ll see if we have what it takes to
change with them.
That moment on the street corner helped me, and maybe you if you were
among the dozens who sat with me until the light changed, get a feel
for the real challenges Syracuse and the nation will be facing as the
new president and a new Congress get ready to take over. It made me
wonder and hope that this startling sight was an anomaly rather than a
sign of things to come. I wonder who will become the symbol of our
future: the homeless mom or the successful engineer. And I hope that
our new leadership will come up with a better response than I did on
I hope I never see her again. But like the guy in the country song, I hope I never forget her.
Ed Griffin-Nolan’s commentary appears every week in the Syracuse New Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.