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This is where I live.

I don't want to show the rest of the city right now, because I want your first visual impression to be how I want to see the area. Natural white sand beaches stretching for hundreds of miles. Lake effect snow in the winter, blanketing 150 foot tall sand dunes with feet of sledding powder. Fried lake perch. Fishermen. People whose recreation revolves around nature. I love this place and the eccentric people who live here.

You wouldn't know it from this picture, but Muskegon was recently cited by the United States Census Bureau as the city with the highest unemployment in America from 2005 to 2007, with unemployment at 22.1%. The US Department of Labor puts the number closer to 10%, placing Muskegon at 347th out of 369 metropolitan areas. The bottom line is...unemployment here is high. It's been fairly high, hovering around 7%, more or less, since 2001. The median household income here is $38,000, compared to the national median of $48,000.

Want to know what things are probably going to be like in America for the next couple years? I welcome you to Muskegon.

This place seems normal to me. I grew up here. I moved away to college in Iowa for almost 9 years, and moved back six years ago.

When I planned to move back my father warned me "Don't move back here. There are no jobs here."

"We don't need good jobs right off." I said "We'll take anything for now and get better jobs later."

Somehow my time in Iowa had made me forget what was meant by "No Jobs." It doesn't mean "No DECENT WAGE Jobs." It means no jobs at all. None. They're all taken and people who have them cling to them for dear life. Grocery bagger, stock clerk, waitress, even newspaper delivery...all taken. And forget about programming jobs or marketing jobs. There are No Jobs. No high pay jobs, no low pay jobs. When a job opens, the company receives hundreds of applications, and if you don't come referred by somebody who works there just forget it. Once the unemployment rate hits 8%, this is what you start to see.

We all read the news and whisper rumors of companies coming into town: a casino, a factory, a retail outlet..we're like farmers in a drought scanning the skies for even a hint of rain. The rumors hit front page news: some company is eyeing up Muskegon to open a [something]! A jolt of excitement runs through the community for a short time and then we never hear about the project again. It just fades away and is forgotten. Nobody is going to come save us, bring jobs or opportunity.

So what do we do? We start our own damn businesses. Mom and pop shops constantly fade in and out. In time lapsed photography you'd see an endless pulse of signs going up and coming down as people, unable to find a job, start their own. They put everything into their ventures and then watch them crumble a year or two later. Sometimes they don't even make it more than a few months. There's a large population of shoppers who circle failing businesses like birds of prey, waiting for them to go under so they can buy merchandise at wholesale prices.

Those of us still in the workforce are constantly on the edge. One more hard wind and we'll collapse, lose everything. Every dollar is already allocated to something...food, shelter, health insurance, car insurance, over a thousand dollars a month in daycare costs if you intend to go to work at all. You drive an old beater, and you're constantly working on it. Our family owns only one small car and we have to keep it going. On the bright side there are no car payments. On the down side, it's always in need of repair.

There's no more money, and you've streamlined to the bone. And then one of the kids needs glasses, or the doctor orders a test that's NEVER covered by health insurance. And then the frickin' roof starts to leak. And even if you fix it yourself to save money your time is constantly spent putting out little fires as they spring up, and they keep popping up faster and faster. And daycare costs rise, and health insurance costs rise. And you want to spend some time and back up to get a look at the big picture, come up for air for a minute and come up with a plan, but you're too preoccupied with everything that needs to be done or fixed or paid or who needs to be picked up because you only have the one car. Somebody in the family starts to have stabbing pains in their back and you're terrified of the consequences and sinking expense of going to the doctor and terrified of the consequences of NOT going to the doctor.

AND THEN the news hits that General Motors is going to go bankrupt and lay off thousands and the whole country cheers for their demise, Democrats and Republicans alike. "This is capitalism as it should be," they tell us. And even though you don't work for a car related industry you know this is going knock the last leg out from under the economy that's got you stretched to the very edge. There's always going to be that last straw somewhere in every community, the failure of a local business that buries you.

And you hold your breath. You want to scream. At times you wake up in a panic. You want to leave, pack up the family and go someplace. Some people do. Some can't. Some have no idea things are different elsewhere. Many have skills that are being offshored, and they wouldn't have luck finding work elsewhere, meanwhile the Republicans in office try to shut down education programs for people seeking new skill sets. Some are just demoralized. Others don't want to uproot their families unless they absolutely have to, so they hang on until they can't anymore. But the rest of the country falters, even moving fades as a way out.

And it's everywhere. You wouldn't know it by the look on peoples' faces or casual conversation. But go a little deeper and everybody, it seems, is going through exactly the same thing. Year after year after year. We're told it's because our industry, manufacturing, is a casualty of the global market. We're told it's good for us.

But look at those houses on the lake just a block down. They're over a million dollars! What on earth do those people do for a living? From the lake vantage point you'd think this was a city of millionaires with their yachts and their three story homes overlooking Lake Michigan, Muskegon Lake, or Mona Lake. Who the heck are these people?

Maybe they're local versions of the tourists who come into town every summer now that the factories have been torn town. They come in with amazing cars and rent empty homes near the lake for thousands of dollars a week in the summer and they lounge on the beaches. They come into our town and wave the scent of money everywhere, and we feel the promise of a budding tourism industry. But the jobs are seasonal,the employees are usually kids back from college, and the wages are minimal. Sometimes they make me feel scruffy when I go to my own beach in my own neighborhood and they come out of their glimmering Lexus with plates from Texas or Virginia and they've got their body boards ready to go.

Sometimes a conversation starts up with people at the beach. Nowadays people tell you what state they're from and ask you where you're from. That never used to happen. We all assumed we were locals.

"We're from Atlanta" they say "where are you from?"

"Oh! I'm from here. I live here."

"Oh wow..." they say "it must be amazing to live here."

"Oh yes. It's very nice." I tell them.

Originally posted to Muskegon Critic on Wed Jan 14, 2009 at 10:33 AM PST.

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