Michelle describes herself as a lifelong Democrat. She had not long moved to the Fort Collins area when her husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. They had health insurance, but with only one salary coming in they ate through their savings just to keep afloat.
“We raided our personal accounts to survive,” she says.
She got a job in marketing paying US$75,000 a year and remained relatively comfortable in the 223m2 house she was buying. Then she lost that job and went into consulting.
“I just kept going,” she says. “I [had] lived through recessions before, and assumed I’d come out the other side.”
However, work was beginning to dry up and when her boyfriend of six years killed himself last March she struggled to keep up.
“After that I’d get up to feed my dogs, but that was about it.” When a client complained that she was not meeting deadlines she texted back: “I’m just trying to not kill myself.”
Struggling to pay the mortgage on the house, which had been sold on from her bank to a loan company, she tried to renegotiate. In a conference call with an adviser and the lender, she was told that it made more sense to foreclose on her than change the terms of the loan.
“I stopped paying the mortgage and got the house ready to sell,” she says.
She managed to sell it for a small profit and move into a place less than half the size with her son. It was around this time she found herself crying as she prepared to go to the food bank.
“I just couldn’t make ends meet,” she says. “I don’t go every week. Just when I really need something. When I first went I was worried that I would see people I knew.”
Now she’s starting a new career as a journalist and has scaled down considerably and muddles through.
“I have an understanding mechanic,” she says. “If something happens to my car and I can’t pay him everything he let’s me pay what I can.”
She thinks things are getting better, although she wishes they would improve faster. She blames the slow pace on the Republican congress rather than on Obama.
“He tried to incorporate some of what they want but ever since he got in all they’ve wanted to do is get him out,” she said.
The ramifications of the inability of the nation’s political culture to engage with this increasingly pervasive sense of fragility goes beyond the immediate election. Since the financial crisis began five years ago, the significant shift in Americans’ economic wellbeing has posed a considerable challenge to both national mythology and the political rhetoric on which it is built.
Among other things, the American dream rests on the notion of meritocracy and progress — that those who work hard will get on, that each year will be better than the last and each generation better off than their parents. Since 1977, when Gallup first asked if people thought they would be personally better off the following year, an overwhelming majority say yes every year, even though there have been four recessions. It is not a guarantee of success — indeed, quite the opposite. Inequality of wealth, and the poverty that comes with it, is tolerable on the understanding that there will be equality of opportunity. While only 2 percent described themselves as “rich,” 31 percent thought it very likely or somewhat likely they would “ever be rich.”