There seems to be people drifting around these days. Not exactly lost, but rather coming into and out of places you’d not normally expect to see them. I’ve noticed recently more and more men and women walking along the side of roads where you’d least expect to see people walking at any time. And if you’ve been grocery shopping, chances are you’ve seen lots more Dads pushing shopping carts and looking lost and befuddled.
Those people walking on the shoulders of Interstate highways trouble me. For one thing, I can’t figure out what they’re doing there. They’re not thumbing for a ride, and I don’t seem them lugging a gas can; they’re just walking along with only a sliver of inches separating them from hurtling, speeding metal. I have yet to see any of these people with luggage.
For another, I am perplexed in trying to figure out who these pedestrians are. What’s their story? Where did they come from? Where are the headed? Might they be day laborers, or homeless waifs, or perhaps former accountants or project managers out of work for so long they can’t afford cars? Hard to say without stopping to ask, and I’m not prepared to do that.
I’m searching for an explanation. Perhaps these wandering strangers are impoverished travelers whose car broke down. Recent studies have concluded that many people in cities can’t find work because they have no way to get to where the jobs are located. Could this be what’s going on — that they are walking to work? To me, they look like refugees, but that can’t be right. There’s no war and nothing to flee from. Besides, they’re not pushing carts or carrying heavy suitcases.
I’m beginning to think that the people walking along busy roads, and the guys in the cereal aisle might well be the face of the unemployed — that 7% or so of the public that is out or work and struggling to make ends meet. Perhaps what I’m seeing is a burgeoning strata of people who’ve been economically displaced, and for which there are no jobs, and won’t be jobs, or jobs that you have to pick up stakes and walk to, like leaving the Dust Bowl. Businesses — where most jobs are — boosted productivity even in the midst of a severe economic downturn. But that has impacted people differently. In some families, the traditional “bread winner” — the father, most often — has lost his job, and his spouse is carrying the work load. These are who you see shopping for food. They could also be caught in the ominous new economic reality that many jobs for middle class professionals have been eliminated, leaving them outside of the economic “engine” — perhaps for good.
Does macroeconomics explain why there are more people walking along roads these days? I can’t answer that. I do know several colleagues and acquaintances who’ve lost their jobs and are struggling. I also know that poverty is increasing, even as the economy is gradually improving and people are buying cars in record numbers.
Which is interesting for the juxtaposition booming car sales presents to each of us as citizens. The other day, I came upon two children walking hurriedly along a highly traveled commuter route. ages 10 or 12, I guessed. They had their heads down, as if it were raining (it wasn’t). They were holding hands. I glanced at them, wondering how they happened to be where they were, and then I put my eyes back on the road and my thoughts of them drifted away in the bustling traffic.