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Great Recession:

Crushing the Life Out of Rural California County

Calaveras County, in the heart of Californias Mother Lode region, (between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite) has a population of about 45,000 and an official unemployment rate close to 16 percent. So many people are jobless that even the local doctors and dentists have reduced their workweeks.

By Sunny Lockwood

Copyright 2009 by Merikay McLeod All Rights Reserved First Electronic Printing, June 2011

In February a friend of ours, Chuck McLeod, committed suicide. He probably wasnt the only person to take that step that day, but he was the only one in our county -- Calaveras County, California. And its what brought him to that decision that merits discussion. Calaveras is a rural county with quite a past. Its the county that put Mark Twain on the literary map when his short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County became a national sensation. Its the Gold Rush county where the largest gold nugget ever found in the U.S. was discovered more than 200 pounds of pure yellow beauty. Its 1,020 square miles include rolling foothills, bucolic ranchland and rivers tumbling down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Geographically beautiful and historically rich, today Calaveras is a world of Great Recession suffering. Our official unemployment rate dropped to 15.1 percent in April, from 16 percent in March. However, in some of our communities, the real unemployment rate is more than 25 percent. The County Food Bank is begging for donations to feed record numbers of hungry families. Churches are providing free lunches from one end of the county to another. Our friend Chuck was not officially unemployed. He was one of the hundreds here who scramble for any kind of part-time work they can find cutting weeds, cooking or washing dishes at local restaurants, performing handyman services, picking up cans beside the road.

For years, Chuck had been my husbands assistant on construction and remodel jobs. An honest laborer, Chuck would be at the worksite early, ready to go. He had a big smile, a clever wit and lots of friends. But construction is dead in Calaveras County. My husband, a former Silicon Valley engineer and a licensed general contractor, has had no contracting work in more than 18 months. The financial sector meltdown (caused by smart aleck suits devising fraudulent investment products for greedy investors) destroyed construction here. And the inability of ordinary folks to get loans has kept the industry buried. According to, building permits for new house construction in Calaveras sank from a high of 851 in 2005 to 497 in 2006, 262 in 2007, 126 in 2008 and just 58 in 2009. For politicians, economic pundits and those with investment portfolios and retirement savings, these numbers may be merely abstract statistics in the wake of the recession. For us in Calaveras, they mean that friends and relatives cannot put food on the table, gas in the truck or shoes on their childrens feet. In 2011 in the U.S. of A., people who want to work are going hungry. So are their children. Chuck was one of the hungry. At 66, he had a small Social Security check, but it was not nearly enough to live on so he searched incessantly for handyman work. But, when even licensed contractors are taking on handyman work to pay the bills, theres not much left for laborers for Chuck. Actually, theres nothing left over. Despite the rosy pronouncements made regularly by experts, things are not improving here. We live in a slowly imploding nightmare. Businesses continue to close, foreclosures continue to turn homes into empty shells, and work is virtually non-existent. Chucks paying jobs all but dried up. Then the clutch on his truck began to give him trouble. He and his girlfriend split.

When he didnt come home, his roommate reported him missing. A sheriffs deputy found Chuck in his truck dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. His roommate told us that Chuck had not been able to earn enough to both pay rent and buy food. If we or any of his other friends had known . . . . But he was a proud man who had always paid his own way in life, and obviously could not or would not ask for help. So for all those who claim that the Great Recession is over, Id like to show them Chucks truck with its bloodstained seat. Id like to introduce them to all the workers in Calaveras County who cannot find jobs, all the businesses that are going under, all the folks here who used to have houses and now dont. (Many of them camp in nearby state and local campgrounds). And then have them tell me the Great Recession is over and things are looking up. Ill give them this much, for one local worker Chuck McLeod the Great Recession is definitely over.

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