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Americans Try to Deal With, and Even Laugh at, Economic Realities


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Shirley Griffith.

And I'm Steve Ember.  This week on our program, we look at how some Americans are dealing with the current economic situation.

"Reality" television shows are very popular in America. Some show the lives of the wealthiest people in the country.  "How'd You Get So Rich?" is one program on cable television. The program features people worth more than a million dollars. It  shows how they got their money and what they do with it.

The interest in wealthy people may have something to do with the increasing difference between the richest and poorest Americans.

Recent Census Bureau findings show the number of Americans in poverty is the highest in more than fifty years. In addition, the income inequality between rich and poor Americans has been increasing in recent years. It reached the greatest difference ever last year.  And the United States has the greatest income inequality among industrial nations.

Economists say the recession and the high unemployment rate are among the reasons for the growing number of poor Americans. Henry Freedman is director of the non-governmental National Center for Law and Economic Justice. He says the decrease in the number of people in the middle class has also had an effect.

HENRY FREEDMAN:"The elimination of most of those jobs that people could get in factories, our factories are not there so much anymore. Other kinds of clerical work that is either being outsourced or is being replaced by technology that does it efficiently. Those people are competing with people below them for work."

Robert Hawkins is associate professor of social work at New York University. He says people in poor areas do not have the same chances for success that rich people have.

ROBERT HAWKINS:"What we have there are people who did not and do not have opportunities. So those folks cannot get an education, and so, what happens? They cannot get a job."

Professor Hawkins says lack of opportunities causes greater risk for crime, teenage pregnancy, illness and early death. He also says the weakening of the middle class could have lasting effects on everyone.

He says it could affect the quality of teachers, law enforcement officers and nurses. The professor says wealthy people have increasing political influence in America because the poor are not using it.

ROBERT HAWKINS: "If low-income people want more political power, they have got to organize, they have got to vote. That is the best and probably only way."

Almost ten percent of Americans are unemployed.  Some people believe one way to deal with a bad situation is to laugh at it. That is the idea behind "The Adventures of Unemployed Man."  It is a funny version of the superhero comic books. Writers Erich Origen and Gan Golan created the comic book.

The story is about a man called Ultimatum. He teaches the power of positive thinking: If you can believe it, you can do it.  That is, until he meets a woman searching for food in the trash. She explains that she has a job and works hard.  But she is still paid too little and has to find food to survive. When Ultimatum tries to help her, he is fired from his job and becomes Unemployed Man.  He cannot find a job. Erich Origen explains:

ERICH ORIGEN:"Unemployed Man lost his house in a fantastic foreclosure. He's living in a cave, Rock Bottom, which is the cave underneath his former mansion."

Unemployed Man searches for work. He fights against bad people or super villains with the help of other down-on-their-luck superheroes.  Will Unemployed Man find a job? Will he be defeated by evil forces like The Human Resource and Toxic Debt Blob? "The Adventures of Unemployed Man" is a light-hearted story of the recession and unemployment.

Erich Origen says that early in "The Adventures of Unemployed Man," our hero meets his silver-haired friend, Plan B.  He cannot get hired because he is too old.

ERICH ORIGEN: "They met in a job line and of course Plan B has been in the business for decades and can't afford to go into retirement because the broker made a joke with his 401K."

The writers had fun with the names of their characters, using terms from financial news. Gan Golan says Unemployed Man and Plan B meet others who are affected by the economic crisis. They include Wonder Mother and Fantasma, an undocumented immigrant superhero.

The superheroes struggle with the economic crisis and a group of evildoers who are profiting from it, including Outsource. Here Erich Origen reads an exchange between the bad guys and one of the heroes:

ERICH ORIGEN: "His ideas infect others, eliminate him immediately! Then backdate a charge on his credit card and raise his APR by seventy percent!

"Pain! It's time you got … the boot! Klank! You're fired!

"Aaaah!"

The classic American superheroes, like Superman and Batman, first appeared in the late nineteen thirties. During the time of the Great Depression, they were symbols of hope and the desire to succeed.

Erich Origen says the idea for unemployed superheroes came from the present economic downturn.  But unlike Superman and Wonder Woman, Unemployed Man's friends have no superpowers other than the ability to face reality. Gan Golan and Erich Origen want people to laugh as they deal with their troubles.

GAN GOLAN:"A depression is not just an economic term, it's an emotional term. And I think we're providing a kind of comedic stimulus package for the country and for other people who are struggling right now."

D. Prichep

Many Americans save money by preparing nutritious soups to feed themselves and their families. These soups usually include more vegetables than meat and go a long way.  People often make these soups in large amounts.

A few years ago, Knox Gardner, a technology consultant in Seattle, Washington, made a big pot of soup. He grew tired of eating it day after day. So he decided to get a few friends together for a soup trade.

KNOX GARDNER:"My original idea was that it would be some loud, boisterous kind of event, where you would trade three of my corn chowders, because you know I'm an awesome cook, for, you know, one of your minestrones."

This was the beginning of Soup Swap. It works like this:

KNOX GARDNER: "You bring six quarts, (liters) and then draw numbers and go around the room six times until everybody gets all new soups."

In addition to a set of rules, Knox Gardner got a website and declared National Soup Swap Day in January. The idea has spread across the country. There are now soup swaps from New York to Texas.

In Portland, Oregon, Jon Van Oast and Megan Kelley invited twelve friends to a Soup Swap.  People started by sharing their stories about how they made their soup.  Knox Gardner calls this "The Telling of the Soup."  Some recipes came from the Internet. Others, like Christina Kellogg-Gratschner's fruit soup, were family traditions.

CHRISTINA KELLOGG-GRATSCHNER: "Fruit soup is something that my mom would make out of all her home canning pears, peaches, whatever she happened to have. And she'd cook it up with a little bit of cornstarch, and pour it on whole wheat toast."

Swappers then went around the circle, choosing their six quarts or liters.  People were excited about leaving with a collection of different soups, especially people with busy lives. Stacy Meyer teaches fifth grade and tries to fit inexpensive and healthful meals into her diet.

STACY MEYER: "I will admit to having the breakfast-for-dinner kind of thing, that's happened before. And so being able to have a ready-made dinner in the freezer helps out quite a bit."

Boston University economist Juliet Schor says people are increasingly coming together for these kinds of informal swaps. In her latest book, "Plenitude," she describes how the economic downturn has made more people open to the idea of swapping. And the Internet has made it easier.

JULIET SCHOR: "In the past, if you wanted to organize some kind of a neighborhood swap or sharing scheme, you'd have to go around and call the people in the neighborhood, knock on their doors, etc. So there's a lot of what economists call transactions costs. With the Internet, that's drastically reduced."

Ms. Schor says that once these swaps come together, they strengthen connections between people. This is what economists and sociologists call "social capital." Juliet Schor says communities with strong social ties work better.

JULIET SCHOR: "Soup may seem like a small thing, but it may turn out that your sharing network is very important to you if you lose your job, if your housing is in jeopardy. You're going to have these folks to rely on."

Soup Swap activity has increased every year, as more groups start up. Founder Knox Gardner agrees that the Internet and the economy have helped its popularity. But, he says, it is also because of the soup.

KNOX GARDNER:"I think that there's something really fundamental that happens when people bring food together to share it. Soup's like the ultimate soul food."

Our program was written and produced by Brianna Blake, with reporting by Peter Fedynsky, Deena Prichep and Faiza Elmasry. I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Shirley Griffith. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at voaspecialenglish.com. And you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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