For millions, recession is the new normal

For those struggling to make ends meet, the recession is no longer a crisis to endure so much as a reality to accept. For house painter German Morales, it means living “job to job, week to week. It's not getting better.”

German Morales dressed for work in tattered painter’s jeans and a stained white T-shirt, even though he didn’t know when or whether he would paint again.

He tucked a brush into his back left pocket and a rag into his right. He walked outside to the utility truck he had bought with the last money in his family’s emergency fund and called the only employee he had left.

“I’ll let you know if I hear anything,” he said.

He turned the truck radio to a Spanish pop station and checked his cellphone for messages. No new e-mails. No missed calls. “Half of my life is waiting,” he said. He decided to kill time the way he often did, by opening the camera on his phone and looking through dozens of before-and-after photos of jobs he had completed over the past four years.

Morales had started taking the pictures as a marketing tool for potential clients back when his ambitions were big, but now he relied on the images to re­assure himself. Here was a clogged gutter turned clean, an aging bathroom remodeled, a three-story house painted in deep greens and gold. Each set of photos showed the value of his work. He arrived at a mess and then fixed it.

But lately his job has been defined by what he can’t fix, the mess he thinks is well beyond fixing.

Morales filed paperwork to open his painting business in December 2007, the month the recession officially began, and his life has since become a reflection of the country’s economic fate. He lost his house in Woodbridge to foreclosure, lost four of his five painters and lost $35,000 of his elder son’s college savings. He stayed busy in 2008 and 2009 by painting and then repainting his own house, convinced that recovery was just around the corner. He reinvested everything he earned back into his business last year, believing the economy finally had stabilized.

Then, last month, when stock prices tanked and sales of new homes fell for the third straight month, Morales sat down with his wife and two sons to discuss their finances. “I’m sorry,” he told them, “but this is the way it is going to be — job to job, week to week. It’s not getting better.”

He is one of millions for whom the recession has become permanent, no longer a crisis to endure so much as a reality to accept.

The average length of time a person is unemployed rose to 40.4 weeks last month, the longest period ever, and an estimated 1.1 million Americans have given up on looking for work entirely.

A record number of people exist on the fringes of the workforce: part-timers looking for more hours and the self-employed eager for more work. Like Morales, they hang their fate on a turbulent economy, sitting in the car, waiting for a call.

His cellphone rang in the middle of the morning. A number he didn’t recognize. “Yes?” he said. “Can I help you?” It was the owner of a townhouse in Centreville who had stumbled onto the listing for Morales’s business, DeMaya Clean­ing Service, on the Internet. The owner had been waiting to sell the townhouse for three years because of the housing market, but he had decided that was long enough.

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