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Photo by Kyoko Takenaka, Investigative Reporting Workshop

One month before the 2010 midterm elections, activists rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

'Dropping out' of the middle class

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011 

Thousands of people took to the National Mall last October in the name of jobs, justice and education at the “One Nation Working Together” rally in Washington, D.C. The event brought together union members, activists and students from around the country, all asking Washington to focus on the needs of working-class Americans before the November 2010 midterm elections.

Melanie Collins, who provides child care in her home, took a union-sponsored bus from Falmouth, Maine, to attend the event.

In her 11 years caring for children, she said in an interview at the rally last year, she had not seen a parent pull a child out because of job loss. That changed when the economy began its downward spiral in 2007.

“It’s really hard when … you’ve been taking care of a kid, and you know they’re going to really struggle now because dad’s lost his job,” she said in a video interview.

Fast forward to 2011. The midterm elections have come and gone. Jobs are no more visible on the political agenda than they were last fall. One Nation’s campaign seems to have died down. Its website is dormant, and calls to the organization were not returned. And Collins said not much has changed in Maine.

“I haven’t, unfortunately, seen a lot of improvement,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “Things are definitely tighter all the time.”

Maine's unemployment rate has only gone down by about half a percent in the past year, according to the Maine Department of Labor. That leaves nearly 54,000 of the 700,000 people in Maine without jobs, just 2,000 fewer than last year. The nationwide unemployment rate still sits a little above 9 percent, with 13.9 million people officially unemployed. Another 6 million people have given up looking for a job but would like to be working.

Collins said in Maine she is seeing fewer people being laid off. But the squeeze continues, with rising prices for gas, utilities and other necessities.

“People are realizing everything's gone up, but not their wages,” Collins said. While she and many others are lucky to still have jobs, she said, they’re pinching pennies to afford the Falmouth neighborhood they live in.

“My family, my friends, my acquaintances say, ‘Well I used to go get my nails done’ … ‘We were going to re-do the kitchen’ … ‘I used to go out to eat a couple times a week.’ That kind of thing.”

The number of kids in her child care program over the past two years has gone up, Collins said, but her profits have not.

“I cannot, in this economy, have the conscience to increase how much the parents are paying me,” said the divorced mother of two. “If I did, I think I would lose as much in customers.”

Other child care programs in her area have closed, she said, forcing parents to find creative ways to offset costs, including staggering work shifts or calling on grandparents to babysit.

Collins, a politically active Democrat and member of the Main Street Alliance and Maine Small Business Coalition, mostly blames state government, rather than Washington, for the struggles she and her fellow Mainers are facing.

Maine’s governor, Tea Party favorite Paul LePage (who was voted into office shortly after the One Nation rally last fall), has proposed major cuts to environmental regulations, general assistance programs and child care subsidies and collective bargaining rights as part of his plans to spur development and create jobs.

Collins said she thinks these cuts would do more harm than good to small business owners and residents.

“Every single time you cut those budgets, you're not just taking away the services to those people, you're cutting jobs,” she said.

As Collins prepares to send her own daughter to college with the help of federal financial aid, she said she can’t afford to waste anything.

“I don't have cable. I don't get my hair cut. I don't go out to eat, like ever,” Collins said. “That's a big change in a couple years.”

She said seeing people’s financial stability weaken so quickly has been startling. That includes her own family.

“I mean, I'm a nurse. My ex-husband's a lawyer. We're supposed to be middle class,” she said. “It's incredible to see all those people drop right out of the middle class and go to low income.”

The One Nation campaign — a self-proclaimed progressive alliance of human and civil rights organizations, union and trade associations, and environmental, peace, education, religious, nonprofit and student groups across the U.S. — was sponsored by the NAACP, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Council of La Raza, among others.

See the box, above, where you will find links to more video interviews with people from across the country who attended the One Nation rally. You can also share your own story here.

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Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.

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Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.