Friday, March 14, 2008

Chapter Forty-Nine

After the family celebrates Thanksgiving in their own personal way, things begin to settle back into a routine Scott, Sissy, and their family. The only bump in the road is a mild spike in influenza infections that marks the third "wave" Tampa experiences. The number of people that are being released from professional medical care offsets this however, and the hospitals are able to cope.

Fewer people are ill in the traditional sense, but there is a great number that are still in recovery. The debilitating after effects of the pandemic flu will remain with many of those who fell ill for the remainder of their lives; physically as well as mentally.

Now that December is here the citrus crop is again coming in. The harvest is lighter than normal due to the wind damage from Hurricane Josephine. The Chapman’s learned from last year's partial theft of fruit and harvest as it becomes ripe and leave nothing on the tree that they aren't willing for people to "glean." This means that there are grapefruits and oranges in abundance for awhile that Sissy spends time canning for later use.

A local food distributor approached Mr. D and he is paid quite well for his whole crop. Harvesters come in and every tree except the two next to his house he kept for personal use are cleaned out in 24 hours. There goes James' "job" of grove tending. James is disappointed, but is mature enough to recognize it is a good thing for Mr. D and possibly even a sign that things are trying to get back to some kind of prepandemic normalcy.

Other areas of life are also slowly changing back to the ways things used to be. One of the first things, and the kids notice it first because so many are online for school reasons, is that the Internet bandwidth restrictions are eased. There are more graphics and even the online news agencies use streaming video again. Speed of transmissions has also risen significantly. In addition, there are fewer blackouts restricting Internet use.

Many people in the neighborhood find that their work hours are increasing as higher productivity is demanded by the healing economy. One of the more significant features of this is that grocery stores have more goods on their shelves, a few clothing outlets are re-opening, and even small eating establishments are appearing. This puts people back to work. Curfews are easing, at least for adults. Those under 18 still have to be off the street before dark sets in and must carry official identification at all times.

There are some restrictions on growth. Fuel is still being rationed and available only at a premium price. But for those that can afford to buy it, it is now there more often than not.

Even with increased availability of many goods and services, people are still very cautious. Consumer confidence is stable, but the index shows no sign of rising. No one just tills his or her garden under. No one suddenly replaces his or her worn wardrobe with all new clothing or buys their children upscale sports shoes. No one is going out and buying the latest make and model of automobile.

Plenty of people continue to economize. For example, this month Scott and Sissy are harvesting a nice selection from their garden that they will use to barter for items rather than using up their cash savings. There are grapefruits, oranges, and tangerines; even a few limes and lemons. Their garden also produces garbanzo beans, lima beans, and black beans that will be hung in their shells to dry for later use. Winter squash is coming in with pumpkins, Lakota squash, and Buttercup squash. There are still the last few tomatoes to get off the vines before the first frost kills them to go with the winter greens that are coming in like cabbage, celeriac, collard greens, and iceberg lettuce. Even the garden huckleberries are producing.

People are still going to the thrift bazaars looking for clothes to fit their growing children rather than waiting for the Mall to re-open. Most people don't even flinch at the idea of thrift shopping anymore, regardless of their prepandemic lifestyle. They are just glad that they still have their child to shop for. Too many families have lost a child to the pandemic for anyone to take this for granted. Too many parents have lost all of their children. Too many children have lost their parents.

As for automobiles, the new has long ago worn off of every vehicle that is seen on the street. Sure, some people mothballed their cars and trucks in hopes of better times, but it will be a long, long time before America is again able to satisfy their love affair with the road as they did in the later half of the 20th century. The city of Tampa has started to address the need for transportation by re-opening and expanding its antique street car line. People still wear masks while using mass transportation, but at least people now have another way to get to their jobs.

The "quick economic recovery" from a pandemic once envisioned by financial planners, economists, and politicians has proven to be a pipe dream. It will be years before countries again reach their prepandemic production levels. It will take years just to reach prepandemic population numbers and more than a decade for the "replacements" to be old enough to enter the workforce.

Some of the major corporations did have business continuity plans, but given the extreme economic slump, even the most flexible plan requires more stringent cuts than was initially anticipated. Many businesses, especially in the entertainment, tourism, and services industries have failed. All those people that depended on those industries, from executive to janitor, have experienced significant financial depravations. Other industries have taken near deathblows as well. The insurance and health care sectors are in shambles. Many insurance companies have already tried to file bankruptcy papers, but the federal government is moving in to force them to pay at least a percentage of all the claims. There are major re-writes on the horizon for insurance requirements for existing mortgages and for automobiles. Health insurance, even a nationalized form of it, is likely years away. People are encouraged to take their health and health care seriously, as they will now be responsible for it without the benefit of subsidies.

HCWs were hit worse than any profession with fatalities. Nearly an entire generation of doctors, nurses, and other trained support staff are gone. It will be at least four years before the first nursing graduates enter the workforce and enrollment will be down compared to previous trends. It will take long than that before the doctor shortage begins to fade. Specialists will be in short supply even longer.

The social security and disability programs offered by the federal government are bankrupt. A measure in Congress would move retirement age to 80 years of age and is certain to pass.

Another measure in Congress that has strong bi-partisan support is the establishment of work programs similar to those of the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt's attempts to mitigate the Great Depression of the 1930's. People who want governmental assistance will have to participate in public work programs to receive it. Even people with physical and mental challenges can find a place in the suggested system that also include mandatory job training/re-training classes, parenting classes, and daily living skills training. Only children under sixteen and those on one hundred percent physical or mental disability are exempt, but even those two groups have exceptions. Children under sixteen will only receive assistance if they are in school full time or in some other type of full-time apprenticeship program and maintain a certain grade point average. The disability laws are being re-written so that even a paraplegic can obtain training on assistance equipment so that they can take a more active role in their own care and in the workforce. One hundred percent disability is now strictly enforced as the inability to participate in society in any meaningful way such as those in a vegetative state or those with severe mental or physical deficiencies preventing them from acquiring and maintaining any kind of job skills. This sector of the population will be quite small as many such individuals died due to the loss of their caregivers during the pandemic.

Time limits on benefits are being strictly enforced. Any person aged 18 and over may receive assistance for a maximum of five years so long as they fully participate in the work programs and abide by all of the restrictions and responsibilities in their contract. Once off the assistance rolls, it will be at least another five years before they may reapply for assistance. At each succeeding five-year cycle, the application process will become more difficult. If someone loses their benefits for some reason and fails in the appeals process, it will be a minimum of 10 years before they can reapply and in some circumstances, permanent removal from the roles will be the consequence.

Retirement accounts were gutted due to their dependence on the investment markets. People who did not safeguard their savings and investment dollars at the beginning of the pandemic have little to nothing left to show for it. Even those that did plan for economic interruptions in their investments realize it will be years before their investments are worth what they were before. Access to retirement accounts such as 401Ks has been frozen for one year to give the financial industry time to sort everything out.

The Internal Revenue Service is being restructured as well. Most analysts foresee the real possibility that the ten percent straight tax will be implemented. There will also be far fewer exemptions. A citizen will receive their W-2 from their employer. The W-2 will be turned in with a one page form showing what the citizen had already paid in taxes and whether they owe more or are due to receive a refund. All businesses will pay taxes, compliance with immigration laws will mean their taxes are lower. Immigrants will be taxes at a 12 percent rate. Lower taxation will be the reward for obtaining citizenship.

Now that the beginnings of economic recovery seems imminent, the federal agencies that dealt with finances are coming together and planning solutions to avoid recession, depression, or continued inflation/deflation/stagflation. What they are looking for is slow, steady gains rather than a return to large profit margins that were invariably offset by huge risks and loss.

The recovery is appearing in Scott's property management in that more cash is coming in. He figures that it will take at least a year to totally transition back to cash from bartering for rent, but at least now enough cash is coming in to pay for the utilities and mortgages without resorting to using all their savings. Their savings took a huge hit during the pandemic and the only action that saved it was being able to re-work their mortgage payment from the Mortgage Moratorium Act, due to expire in 60 days.

Most non-barter businesses are still cash-only. Those people who no longer have a bank account must stand in line at the post office to exchange their cash for a federally backed money order in order to pay bills by mail. Scott and Sissy have had to provide documentation for a few payments they made online, but they always printed out the proof of payment pages. Scott’s extremely detailed bookkeeping system has proven, once again, to be a smart move. Now if they can continue to make smart moves, they might just make it to the other side of the pandemic relatively intact if not unscathed.

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