Hard Times: A Journey Across America
11:13 pm
Sat October 29, 2011

NPR's 'Hard Times' Series Reporters Begin Journey

Originally published on Fri November 11, 2011 11:49 am

Millions of Americans are hurting financially, and they're worried about their future.

Fourteen million people are unemployed, and millions more are realizing that the jobs and the income and the home values they once had may never come back.

NPR has been reporting these stories for years, but in November, two reporters take the story on the road.

Veteran correspondents Debbie Elliott, who's based in Alabama, and Richard Gonzales of NPR's San Francisco bureau, will spend the month reporting from places we don't often visit, telling the stories of people we don't often hear from.

With the 2012 election one year away, Elliott hopes to learn more from everyday people in small towns and communities across America. "What are people thinking about? How are they living? How are they coping?" she tells Weekend Edition host Audie Cornish. "What are they thinking about when they are looking to next year's election? What are the issues that are important to them? How are they surviving in this economy?"

Gonzales tells Cornish that he will be listening for their hopes and aspirations: "What gets them out of bed in the morning even when we're in such tough times and when perhaps they and their friends and family may be really struggling?"

Gonzales begins his journey not far from home — in Silicon Valley, where the economy is still very strong. As part of his report, he'll also visit California's Solano County, which ranks second in the country for foreclosures.

Elliott's first report is on a wounded warrior in Meridian, Miss., who is only 49 but finds himself in early retirement from the Army because of injuries he suffered in Iraq. The soldier and his family are struggling to live on less than half of his salary. "They're disappointed because they feel like their interests aren't being served in this political and economic climate," Elliott says.

The stories kick off the series this week.

Throughout the month, Elliott and Gonzales will visit places and talk to people suggested by NPR listeners and readers, who submitted story ideas at NPR.org, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Thanks to a reader's suggestion, Elliott will report from Huntsville, Ala. The city had been a mecca for engineers working on NASA programs, but it is now hurting because of job cuts in the space industry.

"So far we've had a tremendous response — close to 1,000 responses — from almost every state," Gonzales says. "And we're always open to more ideas."

So readers, among the ways you can help us plan our trip, consider where Elliott and Gonzales should meet up to wrap up the series. Some have suggested that since the two are headed toward the middle of the country, they meet along the Mississippi.

Let us know where you think they should go and also tell us what stories you want to hear along the way using the form below.

And as the series unfolds, you can follow @NPRhardtimes on Twitter.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

Call it the new normal or use an older term, hard times. Either way, millions of Americans are hurting and they're worried about their future. Fourteen million people are unemployed. Millions more are realizing that the jobs and the income and the home values that they once had may never come back. From young people entering the workforce all the way to retirees leaving it, there is anxiety and frustration.

We've been reporting these stories for months and years now, but in November we're going to take the story on the road. Veteran correspondents Debbie Elliott based in Alabama, and Richard Gonzales of our San Francisco bureau will spend the month reporting from places we don't often visit. And they'll be telling stories from people don't often hear from. And we're going to ask for your help.

Debbie and Richard have been doing some traveling already and they join us now. Debbie, Richard, welcome.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Thanks.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: So what's the idea behind this project? I mean is this getting behind all those poll numbers we hear?

ELLIOTT: You know, it'll be an opportunity to do that. We're going into an election year, it's one year away. What are people thinking about? How are they living? How are they coping? What is it like for every day people in small towns and communities across America? What are they thinking about when they are looking to next year's election? What are the issues that are important to them? How are they surviving in this economy?

You know, you hear a lot about people thinking that the middle-class is somehow being squeezed out. Well, let's go find out what it is people think and how it is they're living.

GONZALES: The other thing, you know, we want to be listening for are people's hopes and aspirations. What gets them out of bed in the morning, even when we're in such tough times and when perhaps they and their friends and family might be really struggling? And do people feel alone? Is there a sense of commonality about these struggles? And where do people draw their strength from? Those are some of the basic questions I hope to ask and find answers to.

CORNISH: So, Richard, where are you planning to start this trip? And what exactly are you hoping to find?

GONZALES: Well, I'm starting the trip kind of close to home. I'm looking at as to what's going on in the Silicon Valley, where the economy is still very strong. And hope to talk with some people who have a ground zero kind of orientation to what's going on there.

And to the north of where I live, there's Solano County, which is just the complete opposite of the Silicon Valley. It's a county in a crisis over foreclosures. It has the second highest rate of foreclosures in the country.

CORNISH: Wow.

GONZALES: And so, I attended a town hall meeting. I heard people talk not only about foreclosures, but also their anxiety over the shortage of good paying jobs. On that theme, I want to play this tape cut of a man named Robert Frazier(ph) who told the town hall meeting about an invention he hopes to manufacture and market.

ROBERT FRAZIER: Imagine a sleeping bag. Now imagine that sleeping bag attaching to the top mattress like a fitted sheet. Wal-Mart loved it. So when they say we like it, we put it in our store, I went out to try to get manufacturing. I have the patent so I'm legal. I'm ready to roll. But I can't find no one to manufacture it for me unless I go to China or India.

GONZALES: And needless to say, Robert Frazier hopes to manufacture his product here in the United States where he can create jobs, he hopes, for Americans.

CORNISH: And that's interesting 'cause there's so many things wrapped up in there - the manufacturing, the innovation - and all those things kind of being stifled in this economy.

GONZALES: Absolutely.

CORNISH: Debbie, where are you headed?

ELLIOTT: I started my trip in Meridian, Mississippi. And I spent a little time with a family there, Norris and Janice Galatas. Norris is 49 years old, but he finds himself now in early retirement from the Army, because of injuries he suffered in Iraq. Now, this family is trying to live on less than half of his salary. They're really struggling to make ends meet. And they're disappointed because they feel like their interests are not being served in this political and economic climate that we're living through.

Here's what Norris told me.

NORRIS GALATAS: Politics and corporations have run our country into the ground. It's sad that the American dream is not even realistic anymore.

ELLIOTT: You know, the couple never thought that they would find themselves in this position at middle age. They thought this is where things were supposed to start to get a little bit easier for us. You know, we had almost have the house paid off, we'd be waiting for that gold watch, as Norris said. And they say that's just not possible anymore.

CORNISH: Now, we're hearing clips from interviews that you've done. But we should say that you're using suggestions from NPR listeners to plan out the rest of your trip.

ELLIOTT: Right. I'm actually going to head to Huntsville, Alabama next week for my reporting. And that's because a listener, Erica Mosholder(ph) replied to our online call-out for story ideas. And she started telling us about how Huntsville is going through a tough time right now because of the decline of the aerospace industry.

You know, that city has been a Mecca for engineers and been a bright spot in Alabama's economy for a long time, because of NASA's space shuttle program. Now with the end of that there are all these rocket scientists and the like who are underemployed.

They're out there looking for jobs. There are not the jobs there that there used to be. They're having to leave town. And then, all of the engineers that are coming out of the college there are finding that they're not able to find work. So we're going to go find out what's going on in Huntsville.

CORNISH: Yeah, Richard, can people still get involved at this point? Or I mean how else can they contact us?

GONZALES: Oh, absolutely. You know, we're looking for help and the suggestions and tips through Facebook, Twitter, the website, e-mail. So far, we've had a tremendous response, close to a thousand responses from almost every state. And we're always open to more ideas.

CORNISH: NPR's Debbie Elliott and Richard Gonzales, their month-long series of reports, Hard Times: A Journey Across America, begins November 1st. You can follow our Hard Times series on Twitter, At NPRHardTimes and at NPR.org, where you can also help us plan the trip.

You guys, best of luck.

ELLIOTT: Thanks, Audie.

GONZALES: Thank you. Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.