Jobless, facing a mountain of bills and the possibility of losing his house, Michael Timpson of West Philadelphia has begun to doubt the American Dream.
“American dream? What American dream?” the 53-year-old asks quietly.
He lives in a neat block of colonial revival houses in West Philadelphia.
It was once a neighborhood for the upwardly mobile, which for years included Timpson.
In fact, it was Philadelphia’s higher wages that drew him from his hometown of Baltimore a decade ago.
He was proud to be able to purchase the house. It’s a gracious brick home with a large front porch leading to a spotless front room boasting two fireplaces, both with mahogany mantles. The dining room is fitted with a built-in corner cupboard filled with china.
But, on this chilly January day, the rooms are cold.
“It’s a little warmer in here,” he explains, waving to the kitchen where the four gas burners on the stove are turned to high and the oven door is open.
Heating oil prices have gone nowhere but up recently, and Timpson has to buy it 50 gallons at a time to keep the hot water flowing. He can’t afford to fill the oil tank.
That means conserving heat, especially while his wife is at work.
He’s glad it’s been a relatively mild winter.
“Just for 50 gallons I pay $250,” he notes with a nod of his head. “Thank God it hasn’t been freezing cold.”
Timpson and his wife support two nephews, two sons and a disabled brother-in-law — all of whom live with the couple. The brother-in-law does get food stamps, but doesn’t collect anything else, Timpson said.
What was once a stable middle class life has now turned to struggle — and fear.
“With overtime and all of that,” Timpson smiles at the memory of his former salary.
After losing his job at a company called SPC, a scrap yard in South Philadelphia where he worked maintenance on the mill for seven years as a welder, he now collects $574 a week in unemployment benefits.
It’s enough to survive — sort of.
He admits that his exit six months ago from SPC was complicated. He filed a grievance through the Teamsters union, but has little chance of getting his job back.
Hardship has a way of snowballing.
At about the same time Timpson lost his job, his wife, Jeri, got sick and had to take a two-month unpaid leave from her job as a customer service representative with Amtrak.
“Hardships happen,” he said, with another shrug of his shoulders.
Jeri’s illness and his unemployment left the couple with very little money for what Timpson estimated was four months until his grievance process ran its course and both could collect unemployment.
“There wasn’t no income coming in,” he said. “We was behind four months with our mortgage.”
The couple immediately made sacrifices.
The car went first.
“I had to give up my vehicle,” he said. “I couldn’t afford the insurance. I couldn’t keep it.”
Having no car, though, complicates Timpson’s job search.
“I’m going to need that transportation,” he said. “That’s a must.”
Now, he’s faced with the prospect of losing his home too.
“I stay worried, every day,” he said. “I can’t financially support my family like I want to. I don’t want to lose my home. This is what I strived for.”
The bills pile up relentlessly.
“I’m trying to pay a mortgage,” he said. “I got other bills but the mortgage comes first.”
He recently got a lawyer and counselor through a non-profit to get the interest on his mortgage cut from its current 7.25 percent.
“I hear that even through these organizations the chances for a modification are pretty low,” he said. “But, I’m not trying to lose my home.”
Jeri is back to work, and Timpson hopes to have the mortgage situation under control by March when he can expand his job search.
He tries to remain philosophical about his situation.
“It’s always been hard for Blacks,” he said.
Plenty of statistics echo what for Timpson is simply common knowledge.
Government statistics show higher unemployment among African Americans and note that the gap, which narrowed during the 1990s, has again widened during this recession. In addition, Blacks were hit harder when the housing bubble burst, because they were more likely to have taken out sub-prime loans.
“I’m very worried about the Black middle class,” said Algernon Austin, director of race, ethnicity and the economy program at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. “There is the foreclosure crisis which kind of underlies the recession, and we know Blacks have been disproportionately hard hit. We’ve seen a pretty strong loss of wealth in Black communities. There are significant numbers of Blacks falling out of the middle class.”
Black unemployment, according to labor statistics, is at 15.8 percent, nationally, unchanged over the last year. There are no local statistics for Black unemployment.
Using the standard rule of thumb that Black unemployment is double the average, Black unemployment in Philadelphia is at about 21 percent, based on the city’s overall rate of 10.5 percent.
Austin worried that shrinking budgets for state and county governments — traditionally reliable employers of African Americans — continue to contract unemployment among Blacks would continue to grow.
In addition, foreclosure rates among African Americans was twice what it was for whites, reported a recent study by the Center for Responsible Lending.
Those figures put Timpson in the middle of an economic crisis in the Black community that rivals the Great Depression.
To compound the difficulty of Timpson’s prospects, manufacturing jobs continue to disappear in Philadelphia, with the number of manufacturing jobs in the city falling 2.3 percent in 2011, a loss of roughly 4,200 jobs.
He tries to remain upbeat.
“I take what’s handed to me,” the 53-year-old said.
Age may be a barrier, he acknowledged, but he has to try.
“I’m hoping and praying I can get a job,” he said. “It ain’t going to be easy.”