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Families take stock of their lives as economy struggles to recover

Third in a series

MILWAUKEE, Wis. - Douglas Konecny loved everything about manufacturing. He loved the roar of the machines and the hum of the factory walls. The vibrations. The smells. Even the feel of the fans blowing against his damp skin on midsummer days when it was 10 degrees hotter inside the seven-story building than outside.

He could tell when things were going right and when they were going wrong. Even when he wasn't there.

"You actually feel it like your own blood pumping," Konecny, 49, says of the work that gave him satisfaction and a comfortable, middle-class life for nearly 30 years. "Manufacturing made me feel really good. I felt good about what I did."

A chatty, personable Wisconsin native with graying blond hair, a mustache and the Scandinavian lilt of the Midwest, Doug had started out as an inventory clerk five factory jobs ago and risen to plant manager at the Allen D. Everitt Knitting Co. At Everitt, which produced hats, gloves and scarves for stores like Lord & Taylor and Sears, he supervised a staff of nearly 100 - including his wife, Carole, and their two college-age children, who all worked there part time - and earned $56,000 a year plus bonuses.

But when the company closed its doors nearly two years ago, after losing more and more of its sales base to foreign competition, the manufacturing man realized that, like the crumbling, century-old factory buildings by the Menomonee River that will soon become condominiums and lofts, he had to remake himself for the new economy.

Konecny, whose education had ended with high school, nervously went back to school and took business courses at Milwaukee Area Technical College toward an associate's degree. Carole, 52, with a high school diploma and some cosmetology classes behind her, enrolled in computer courses.

The family collected unemployment - which covered their living expenses once they cut back on gas, walking or riding bikes as often as possible, and eliminated gifts for family and friends, trips, restaurants and "anything that was fun," Carole says.

But health insurance, at $1,150 a month, was "the killer," says Doug, who is diabetic and suffered a mild heart attack six years ago. "We realized if we didn't have health insurance, we're destitute if something should happen," he says.

To pay for coverage, they took out a home-equity loan and dipped into their savings. The two children offered to drop out of college.

All the while, Carole and Doug looked aggressively for work, sending out five to 10, sometimes 20, resumes apiece each week, hoping that at least one of them would quickly find a job with health benefits.

But for weeks and months - in Doug's case a year and a half - the job hunters grew increasingly frustrated at what they were finding in the paper and on the Internet: low-paying jobs, part-time jobs, jobs without benefits.

"We've worked hard," says Doug, who shares with his wife a quirky obsession with all things Disney, including the 4-foot-tall Disney characters adorning the front of their home and their Mickey Mouse toilet seat. "We don't live in the suburbs or have the best house. But every year we've made little increases, investing in the house or things that we did. Each year was a little bit better than the year before."

Until the past two. Until the close-knit, hardworking, coupon-clipping family sunk to just above the poverty level. Until, as they see it, President Bush let manufacturing crumble, let jobs disappear, let the economy plummet, the deficit soar and let hardworking Americans like themselves come dangerously close to losing their place in the middle class.

"There may be jobs, but they are jobs without benefits or jobs without much of a future," Doug says, puffing on a Bronco cigarette as he and his wife, both wearing Disney-themed clothes, rock in matching La-Z-Boy loungers. "They are jobs at McDonald's or Wal-Mart - not that they're bad companies. But the jobs that Bush is reporting, they're not jobs for a family."

The view from Michael Gibbs' new office cubicle at InPro Corp. couldn't be more different.

At this fast-growing company that manufactures architectural trim such as handrails for commercial buildings, the 39-year-old father of two young boys sees a bustling business, a promising future, even perks like a state-of-the-art gym at the office with a personal trainer, who Michael hopes will help him lose 20 pounds.

He had joined the company in the Milwaukee suburb of Muskego seven weeks earlier, taking a $10 an hour job in the shipping department to supplement a part-time nursing job he held at a crossroads in his career.

The company was doing so well that after his first week, he received a $100 bonus in his check. At the end of the quarter, he took home an extra $450.

When a sales position opened up at InPro, where a gardener tends to the petunias outside the sprawling plant in a suburban industrial park, the college graduate applied for and got the job. He now earns $34,000, plus commission, which, if all goes well, should put him in the neighborhood of at least $45,000-$55,000 in his first year.

His wife, Kristin, 36, who met Gibbs when both were students at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, has also been feeling flush. A manager at J.C. Penney who designs the floor plans and signage for merchandise, she has doubled her salary in the past seven years and is making more than $50,000.

"Now we have more money than we need," Michael says, sitting on the deck of his three-bedroom home in suburban Muskego while their 2- and 6-year-old sons watch TV in Scooby-Doo pajamas. "We're very blessed."

The Gibbses share some of their good fortune, giving 8 percent of their gross income to the nondenominational Christian church they helped build in their community and to other charities.

In contrast to the Konecnys, Michael and Kristin Gibbs credit Bush for much of their success. Without the administration's tax breaks to small businesses - which reduced rates for companies that pay taxes at the individual income rate - Michael's new employer would not be thriving as it is and would not have been able to hire Gibbs and 17 other employees in the past nine months, he says.

What's more, Michael figures his family saved about $1,600 on its taxes in the past few years, thanks to Bush's two rounds of tax cuts. The savings helped them buy a new computer and put hardwood floors in their kitchen and foyer.

"We put money back in the economy, put people to work, bought something to help us educate our kids and added value to our house," Michael says. "Now we're looking to put in granite countertops when I get my first big commission check from InPro. We're living very nicely and comfortably."

The presidential election will be decided around kitchen tables across the country, where families like these two - the Gibbses, who say they are better off "by far" than they were four years ago, and the Konecnys, who say they are not - take measure of their lives.

Unlike the classic liberal/conservative split in the electorate, most evident on cultural issues, the economic debate cuts along a slightly murkier axis - with voters often willing to cross over to the other side if they feel their own financial well-being is in peril but generally sticking with their party and their candidate as long as they perceive the economy in general is on an upswing.

The economy has been improving in the past year - about 1.7 million jobs were added after big job losses during the previous three years, reducing the net loss of jobs during the Bush presidency to about 900,000.

But the massive dislocation of workers in the very parts of the country where the election will be won or lost - the battleground states of the Midwest - has scrambled the political equation, weakening the president's ability to capitalize on economic progress and offering John Kerry an opening.

In Wisconsin, as well as Michigan, Missouri and Ohio, the combination of increased productivity and globalization has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs since Bush took office. Even in Wisconsin, among the industrial states where the past year's recovery has been the strongest, 52,500 factory jobs have been lost since January 2001.

These were the jobs that for decades enabled those with a high school diploma, or less, to live securely and proudly and support families in middle-class style, jobs that workers stayed in for 40 years, jobs that employees saw their fathers and even grandfathers retire from.

The region, and the nation, has struggled to replace those jobs and retrain workers for a post-industrial age. But the transition has accentuated one of the clearest fault lines in the new economy and led to a heightened sense of winners and losers. College graduates like Michael Gibbs are finding new and better opportunities, while others, like Doug Konecny - one of the more than 70 percent of adults without a four-year degree - are finding little to match previous livelihoods.

The changing economic landscape has left a vast middle class highly polarized around issues of taxes, health care, trade and the role of government.

Both presidential candidates, who have made numerous trips to Wisconsin, which voted narrowly for Al Gore in 2000, have seized upon the economic vagaries of the industrial Midwest to appeal to voters' concerns about jobs and wages, globalization, and their futures.

Kerry has used the frequent plant closings and substantial job loss in the state to slam Bush on his economic policies, calling the president's record on job creation "the worst record since Herbert Hoover."

The Democrat argues that most of the jobs created in the past year are low-paying, such as those in leisure and hospitality. And he finds surefire applause lines in his vows to cut taxes for businesses that create jobs in the United States, end tax breaks for businesses that move jobs overseas and refund payroll taxes for companies that hire new employees.

Bush, for his part, has had a more difficult task portraying the economic outlook as a sunny one, especially in regions like this, where plants sit vacant and retraining centers are full. "The economy has improved, but it's still in catch-up mode, particularly in the industrial Midwest," says Diane C. Swonk, chief economist for Bank One in Chicago. "That's a challenge for an incumbent."

But making the case that the loss of jobs is part of a decades-long trend toward globalization and greater efficiency of factories, Bush has found success stories like InPro Corp., where entrepreneurs have benefited from his tax policies and expanded their businesses on his watch.

Michael Gibbs had a business administration degree and a series of jobs working in computer operations, cable installation and then customer service that, combined with his wife's income, paid well enough to enable the couple to buy a house for nearly $200,000 five years ago.

But he had always wanted to be a nurse.

The son of a Coast Guard technician and stay-at-home mom, Michael liked the idea of helping people. In fact, before he went to college, he had spent a year at a Bible college toying with the idea of becoming a pastor. A tall, burly man with the kind of "can-do" spirit he associates with Republicans, he has a knack for dealing with people.

After nearly 15 years of high-tech jobs, the past two years without a pay raise or any hope of career advancement as the economy went into recession, he decided to make his move. He got a part-time job at Elmbrook Memorial Hospital as a nursing assistant last year and planned to enroll in nursing school in the summer.

His parents had been against it. They didn't think men and nursing went together.

His wife, too, had been against it. "I'm ready for the second half of my life," Kristin says. "I want to go on vacations. I want to start redoing the house. I want to go out to dinner."

Even with her full-time job, his $20,000 salary at the hospital wouldn't get them there.

So Michael scanned the papers for a job to supplement his hospital work. He came across the warehouse job at InPro Corp., maybe a five-minute drive from their home. In less than two months, he was plucked out of the factory and promoted to a lucrative sales position.

To the delight of his family, he left his hospital job and dropped his plans for nursing school. He booked a family trip to Disney World for the fall. Kristin started making plans to remodel the basement.

They don't understand all the "doom and gloom," as Michael says, coming from the Democrats.

As they see it, the Republican economic policies that started with Ronald Reagan and have been embraced by George Bush - primarily tax cuts and support for business - have enabled Michael to move around in the job market, even dabble in nursing, and still land on his feet.

Aside from the money they saved in taxes thanks to Bush, they refinanced their home at a lower interest rate several years ago and went from a 30-year to a 20-year mortgage.

"We're right where we want to be," Michael says. "We're saving for retirement and college."

Michael resents the fact that Democrats blame Bush for the loss of jobs and the sputtering economy. He argues that the economic downturn started at the end of the Clinton presidency and was exacerbated by Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, which he supports. He believes Bush is a man of convictions and has done a good job of helping to bring the economy back.

As for the drastic loss of manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin and other industrial states, he points to the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada that Clinton championed and signed.

"Wouldn't you think Bill Clinton's to blame for a lot of this, too?" Michael asks. "If you freed up free trade to go down to Mexico and pay somebody $1 an hour, versus paying somebody here $8 an hour to do a job, companies are going to choose to do business where they feel like doing business."

Growing up in families of Reagan Democrats, the Gibbses bristle at what they see as needless and wasteful government spending of their tax dollars and expensive government assistance programs they believe people take advantage of. "I am not a big fan of handouts," Michael says. "I like the idea of self-empowerment."

Michael sees the issue of taxes and the size of government as the chief difference between the parties. "The Democrats treat us as needy individuals," he says. "They don't let us do things for ourselves."

The couple fear that a President Kerry would raise the minimum wage, increase funds for workers compensation and, as the Democratic nominee has indeed promised, spend more money on health coverage for the uninsured by raising taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.

"It killed me to hear John Kerry say, 'I'm going to take back those tax breaks that President Bush gave to the so-called rich,'" Michael says of the Democrat's acceptance speech. "If the rich are rich, they usually own companies and/or businesses, so that allows them to put more capital into their business maybe or into hiring more employees. So if they're going to take more money from the rich, to me that's just slowing down the economy."

For their part, they believe they should be the ones to decide how to spend their own money. They embrace Bush's proposal to create private investment accounts for Social Security beneficiaries.

Social conservatives who listen to talk radio, and watch Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network, they especially resent their tax dollars going to a public school system that teaches about the "homosexual movement," Mike says, or that doesn't allow studies of creationism. But, with his oldest son just starting kindergarten, he says he will give public schools a try, with parochial schools the fallback.

In this solidly Republican county, the newly trained salesman who wears a black polo shirt with a company logo finds many a kindred spirit at work, especially at the top.

Steve Ziegler, an accountant who bought InPro Corp. in 1993 and turned it from a $10 million to a $44 million business, is such a fan of Reaganomics that he recently offered to donate $60,000 to any local school district that would rename one of its schools after the late president.

A Bush supporter with a "W '04" sticker on his black Lincoln Navigator, Ziegler says he knows from running his own factory that improved technology is the cause of the sharp decline in jobs, not anything George Bush has done. "The people who used to do these jobs - you need to do something else," he says, walking through his plant, where sprawling machines turn plastic pellets into handrails with minimal manpower.

"Unfortunately, some individuals are stubborn and don't want to do something else," Ziegler says. "So they go on unemployment and they blame Bush and they complain, 'My job was lost.' The job wasn't really lost; it was taken over by technology."

He points to his recent hire, Michael Gibbs, as Exhibit A in the new economy, someone who rose out of the warehouse ranks to a more lucrative position, one that gives him financial security and the kind of family life he and his wife covet.

"We both like coming home at 5 o'clock and having a family dinner and going out with the kids, and doing all those things," Kristin says. "We want to be able to take family vacations, and we want to be able to do fun things. And yet we don't want to be at our jobs 80 hours a week, where you can't enjoy any of those things. And so this is perfectly comfortable for us.

"It's exactly where we want to be."

The Konecnys once had all that. Dinners around the table with Carole's pot roast and potatoes. Children running in and out of the house. Family vacations (to Disney World, of course). In fact, the Konecnys liked to think of their family as the Cleavers - as close as you could get to the TV ideal living in an urban bungalow bordered by a freeway overpass, railroad tracks and a cemetery.

But with the four of them suddenly jobless, the comfortable, traditional 1950s-style life they had clung to seemed as much a relic of the past as Beaver's soda shop slang.

"It was devastating," Carole says of the loss of their work and the change in their lifestyle.

After taking out a home-equity loan - which has set them back five years in paying off the $32,900 house they bought in 1981 and remodeled, they stripped their budget to bare bones. Shopping was confined to the dollar store. Dentist visits were canceled because the health insurance they bought didn't cover dental. Their son Daniel switched from Claritin to a cheaper generic version of the allergy medicine, which he says is not nearly as effective.

For six months, Carole, a high school graduate with a cosmetology license and much typing and office experience, searched the newspaper and the Internet for work. She says she went on roughly two interviews a week, including six interviews at Palermo's Pizza, which never got back to her. Finally, she found an entry-level clerical job, with benefits, at a health insurance company.

It took Doug longer, a year and a half, before he found a job that wasn't too drastic a cut in pay or too humiliating a cut in responsibility.

"You hear people say, 'I'll dig ditches for a job,'" says Doug, who has worked since age 11, when he had a paper route. "You go down quite a ways in what you'll do."

When he did find a management job, he was competing against former CEOs, he says, or hundreds of applicants, most with college educations. He realized that his lack of a college degree put him at a severe disadvantage. As a former supervisor himself, he knew that employers always made two piles when collecting resumes - degree, no degree.

"My resume was always in the wrong pile," he says.

Which is why he and his wife were insistent that their two children - who were paying their way through college with the help of partial scholarships and their jobs at Everitt Knitting - stay in school, even though they talked about dropping out. "There was no way we would let them do that," Doug says of his son and daughter, who both live at home. "We said, 'We'll figure out something.' Like every parent, we wanted the best for them - better than what we had."

As it turned out, Megan, 23, who graduated last May from Marquette University, and Daniel, 22, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, were eligible for tuition assistance through a federal program attached to NAFTA because the family had lost its employment because of foreign import competition.

The assistance program was enacted before the Bush administration, Doug is quick to point out.

Finally, in the middle of the summer, Doug was hired as an office administrator for Batzner Pest Management, a local exterminator company based in the suburb of New Berlin.

There is no factory hum, no product to inspect at the end of the line. Doug's work world is now a small, noiseless, blue cubicle with bookshelves, a computer and his Mickey Mouse mug.

He is making $45,000 - respectable but little more than he made when he started out at Everitt Knitting nearly a decade ago. Still, a 49-year-old manufacturing man with only a high school diploma, he considers himself one of the lucky ones. "It's less income. It's a lot of hours. But it's a job," he says. "I took this job. I will do this job. It has to work."

With Carole's full-time job, they are earning close to what they once did. But the Konecnys mourn the loss of the traditional home life that was important to them. "We're about where we were financially," says Doug. "But it's totally destroyed what we had as a family."

They had resisted the lure of the suburbs all these years and stayed in their small city house so they could afford for Carole to be home part time. When the children were younger, she had been so active in their lives that the school principal joked that she had a better attendance record than some of the students.

The parents feel the choices they made paid off - both children graduated from public school at the top of their classes, lettered in sports, and won numerous academic awards and scholarships.

They don't think such a lifestyle is possible in the middle class today.

"We achieved something good because I worked hard all my life and my wife was able to stay home and do nice things with the kids," Doug says. "I think that's gone."

In fact, Megan recently announced to her family that she did not plan to have children because she wanted a career instead. She doesn't think both are possible. "She saw how we struggled," Carole says with much sadness. "She said, 'I don't want to do that.'"

The products of Democratic working-class families - Carole's parents are strong union people who still make sure the clothes they buy are American made - the Konecnys believe Bush has failed hardworking middle-class Americans like themselves. "I don't feel we've received any benefits from the Bush administration whatsoever," Doug says. "Everything I see he's doing is for the rich."

He blames Bush for the rush of jobs out of the country. "He's ruining the good country that we have," Doug says. And he believes John Kerry - really, the Democrats in general - would do more to protect the interests of families like his, who only go to restaurants in their discount book and split a burger four ways when they go to Disney World.

Mostly, they like Kerry because they believe his health care plan comes closer to their ideal of universal coverage. "If we had that when this happened with the job market, we at least would not have had such a weight on us," Doug says. If they had their druthers, in fact, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led her husband's ill-fated attempt to provide universal coverage, would be the nominee.

Consumers who have always paid off their credit cards each month, something they believe saved them from losing their house when they were unemployed, they are dismayed at the rising deficit - especially because they believe the costly war in Iraq was misguided. "If Bush was going to raise the deficit that bad, he could have done an awful lot here at home," says Doug, who voted for the deficit-minded Ross Perot in 1992. "Our country needs help."

The money could have been invested in education, he says, helping to offset skyrocketing college costs that forced Megan to leave the University of Alabama after one year and head home to Marquette, which offered her more assistance. The money could have been invested in health care. And child care. And helping the homeless.

In fact, since their brush with unemployment, the Konecnys have a deeper empathy for the people they see on the streets. "Some of them have had basically what we've had happen to us - and just went down and never recuperated," Doug says. "We're struggling. We're positive people. I feel we're going to make it."

But again, says a man who goes to sleep every night beneath a Mickey Mouse bedspread and adorns the front of his home with Donald and Goofy and Mickey and Minnie to make people smile, he feels he's one of the lucky ones.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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