What is Sylvia going to do?

I drove up — and back — to Moorhead today, which gave me plenty of time to listen to Minnesota Public Radio along the way. In between, I heard details of an estimated 14-percent budget cut at the University of Minnesota Morris. It’s amazing, really, how every moment of my day these days is somehow consumed with the economy. I find it difficult to end the day with the same hope with which I start it. How about you?

Some excerpts from MPR’s broadcast day are worth considering:

KEEP HOPE ALIVE

The first is the Midday rebroadcast of the Commonwealth Club speech by journalist and former Clinton administration adviser Matt Miller. He discussed his new book “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity.”

What got me yelling back at the radio was his claim that we have overemphasized — or at least overvalued — the power of the individual to change his or her life; that the “you can grow up to be whatever you want to be if you work hard enough” mantra is dead or dying.

I come from New England with an overdose of the Protestant work ethic so it’s virtually impossible for me — DNA wise — to accept the premise, although I find it an intriguing one worthy of discussion.

But it requires the dissolution of hope and I, personally, can’t let that be an early casualty of this economy. I’m not talking about the black, former drug-using, kid who grows up to be president, I’m talking about the people I’ve met on the News Cut on Campus tour. To accept Miller’s premise is to say the very heart of those kids’ endeavors — and there’s a lot of heart involved — is a charade.

WHAT HOPE?

And that idea lasted me from Pelican Rapids to Maple Grove, and then I heard the story of Silvia Martinez on All Things Considered. I tried to get at the emotional toll of the economy earlier this week in this post. And Brandt Williams gave it a similar go.

But nothing that’s been said about the economy for the last year anywhere put a human face on the desperation like her story did. She loved her job. She was the sole provider for her family, and she got laid off. She was too ashamed to tell her children. She not only feels unemployed; she feels worthless.


“I would start thinking about it and my heart would start racing and I would start sweating and [having] chest pains,” she says. “And, of course, at that point I would try to hide, because I didn’t want my children to know what was going on with me. So I would go to the bathroom and just stay in there. Just go through it in the bathroom.”

In the three months since she was let go, this sense of panic and fear has not improved.

“I apply for jobs and apply for jobs and no one calls. Nobody. I’ve even gone as far as applying at fast-food places; I’ve applied at Wal-Mart, at Kmart, at Target,” she says.

Be sure you listen to the audio.

I thought to myself, “someone with a job will hear this story and offer her a job,” but I quickly realized those days are probably gone, too.

During the drive out, I listened to two state senators talk about transportation and the best way to jumpstart the economy. They disagreed on most things. Lots of talk about numbers and each uttered the usual talking points of their party, but they never really talked about what it’s like for people who don’t have a guaranteed job through at least November 2010.

On the drive back, I heard the House approved a stimulus bill and heard our local delegation arguing about whether it was too much.

But there’s something I didn’t hear from any of the politicians: What is Sylvia — and no doubt, the tens of thousands just like her — going to do? Where is she going to live? How is she going to take care of her children? Now that her kids can’t go to community college, how are they better off?

I don’t have an answer, either. But after listening to her story “just work harder” seems insulting.

What would you do?