Tuesday
Sep042012

"The Cost of Livin'"

The past four years have been particularly tough on working folks. The collapse of the “housing bubble” led to massive layoffs. Everyone stopped spending at the same time. Most of us are trying to pay off credit card debt and handle underwater mortgages or foreclosures. No spending means no shoppers.

Since the early 1970‘s slowly declining wages (when adjusted for inflation) and rising costs of big-ticket items—housing, healthcare and education—meant families had been borrowing more each year to keep up with expenses. Single breadwinner families of the 1960’s had to become two-income families trying to pay steadily-rising bills.  Most families took steps to lower their discretionary spending. The rising cost of essentials like school, health insurance and home prices finally got out of hand. 

Here is one working class experience:

Union City, Tennessee is a manufacturing town 112 miles northeast of Memphis where 2,900 families live and work. Until February 10, 2011, Union City’s biggest employer was Goodyear Tire and Rubber. Almost 2,000 workers lost their jobs when on the night of July 10th the company announced that “their services would no longer be needed.” 

The Goodyear shutdown hurt the three-county economy surrounding Union City. Unemployment rose from 9% in 2009 to 16% today. Tyson foods, Kohler shower doors, and Jiffy Steamer—the remaining major employers in the area—cannot take up the slack. 

Union City made the news recently because one former worker, Phillip Coleman, turned his struggle to recover into a song, “The Cost of Livin’.” Country singer, Ronnie Dunn, revised and recorded Coleman’s song in 2011. It soon reached #19 on the country music charts.

The website, Country Music is Love, tells the story behind the song and the lead-up to Dunn’s recording. Here are some of the lyrics:

Everything to know about me
Is written on this page
The number you can reach me
My social and my age
Yes I served in the army
It’s where I learned to shoot
Eighteen months in the desert
Pourin’ sand out of my boots
No I’ve never been convicted of a crime
I could start this job at any time.

(Chorus)

I got a strong back
Steel toes
I’m handy with a wrench
There’s nothing I can’t drive
Nothing I can’t fix
I work sun-up to sun-down
Ain’t too proud to sweep the floors
Bank has started calling
And the wolves are at my door
Three dollars and change at the pump
Cost of livin’s high and goin’ up.

Initially, producers in the country music industry didn’t expect the recession to last long enough to keep the song relevant, so they rejected it. Dunn believed in the song and was not surprised at the longevity of the downturn, or how many people could relate to its message. After a year he took it in again and this time made it a hit recording. He identifies its story with his own early life growing up in trailer homes across the southwest and south. 

The struggles of Union City workers have been duplicated in manufacturing cities throughout the U.S. for more than two decades. Share your experiences that illustrate the impact of the recession on working class people. How is it similar and how has it differed for you? What stories of recovery have you experienced?

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