Somethings rotten in Shangri-la

Economy puts GOP on defensive in stronghold

WEST MILFORD, N.J. — Drive 60 miles northwest of Manhattan and you’re on a New Jersey road winding beneath mountain ridges exploding with fall colors reflected in a string of lakes. As you think you might be in Shangri-la, you pass a billboard proclaiming, “Welcome to West Milford — a Clean Community,” signed by the Republican mayor. An American flag flutters atop a pole next to it.

In five minutes, you pull into the Shop-Rite mini-mall parking lot. As you walk from the car to a shop, you pass young people in their late teens and early 20s standing around chatting, riding bikes or balancing skateboards. You may witness a drug deal or two.

Blake Depp, 18, spends a few hours a day in the parking lot. He and his mom live in a Victorian mansion on Marshall Hill Road, a quarter of a mile away. The mansion is a homeless shelter run by Save Our Sisters. The two had been living on the streets of nearby Paterson after the bank foreclosed on their mortgage. Mom had a breakdown. Blake was supposed to leave the shelter in August when he turned 18, but has a little extra time granted to first-time job seekers.

“The day laborer thing is not just for immigrants,” Blake, who is white, told the World. “I wait around and get picked up by someone who needs yard work or painting. I also haul out garbage.”

“It’s rough,” Blake said. “I’ve got to help my mom because she can’t make it right now and there’s no time or money for college. Half the kids who graduated from West Milford High in June don’t have jobs yet. If there’s an opening at Dunkin’ Donuts I can do that but they’re full right now and Shop-Rite isn’t hiring.”

Jason Mann, 25, is an African American who lives in Ringwood, the neighboring town. Jason was hired in September as a bus driver for New Jersey Transit. He started in the parking lot six years ago, earning tips to carry supermarket bags and getting money under the table from the store manager to round up scattered shopping carts. His transit job pays only $10 an hour “because that’s all new drivers get,” Jason said. “It will take two years to get bumped up to full time and get a raise.” Jason’s wife, Evelyn, is pregnant and works in Shop-Rite as an $8-an-hour cashier.

“We’re never going to do as well as pop and grandpa did,” said Jason. His father is a full-time bus driver making a union wage and his grandfather was an autoworker at the Ford Mahwah plant, which shut down in 1986.

The situation here shows reality behind Bush administration attempts to put a positive slant on the latest job figures. The Labor Department reported 110,000 jobs were created in September, and revised the 4,000 loss reported for August to a gain of 89,000 jobs. This is supposed to be great news.

So why all the unemployed youth in the Shop-Rite parking lot?

Economists estimate it takes 150,000 new jobs per month to absorb a growing workforce. Only a few in that parking lot are “making it” into Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Shop-Rite or, in Jason’s case, a low-tier transit job. This is because the 110,000 “new jobs” reported in September were really a net job deficit, less than what is needed monthly to absorb all the “kids” in America’s parking lots.

Another factor, of course, is the kinds of jobs available. The 2001 recession led to an unprecedented loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs. The number has continued to drop. In September it was less than 14 million, the lowest since 1951.

Layoffs, foreclosures and no jobs for first-time job seekers are rapidly becoming the new reality in idyllic West Milford. “We used to think that was what happened in Paterson,” said Bob Berson, a mail carrier at the West Milford Post Office. In Paterson, with its abandoned textile mills, half the predominantly African American population is unemployed. “People didn’t want to see that if it could happen in Paterson, it can and will happen here,” Berson said.

Berson is a member of the local Democratic Party club. Last November his club successfully ran two people against incumbent Republican councilmembers. They’re now backing the woman who runs the town’s volunteer animal shelter in her bid to unseat the Republican mayor. “People are starting to wake up,” Berson said. “The kids in this town are suffering and the local Republicans are afraid because they can’t defend a president who tells children they don’t need health insurance, a president who says ‘Let them go to an emergency room.’”

jwojcik @pww.org