Archive for June 2005
[Fifth in a Series]
MILWAUKEE — In 1957, Wayne Hall, then 24 years old, responded to a help-wanted shingle outside Badger Die Casting on this city’s south side. He started work the next day, and, over the years, rose from machinery operator to machinery inspector to chief inspector. He helped organize a union, got regular raises, enjoyed generous pension and health benefits and, eventually, five weeks of vacation. At age 72, he is retired and can afford to travel with his wife to Disneyland and Tahiti.
It was a typical Milwaukee factory worker’s escalator ride to the middle class. His stepson Ron Larson, 58, thought he’d ride that escalator, too. He was wrong.
In 1971, Mr. Larson went to work as a welder in the fabrication shop of a factory across the street from Badger that made rock crushers and other heavy equipment. By 1981, he was earning roughly as much as his stepfather. But he was laid off that year. Mr. Larson has held many jobs since — tour-boat operator, trucker, air-conditioning repairman. Except for one year, he has yet to earn as much as he did at the welding job. Today, he works as a computer support technician, but the contract job runs just six weeks and he doesn’t know if he’ll still be working after that.
“I always believed if you worked hard, your rewards would come,” Mr. Larson said earlier this year when he was between jobs. “I said there’s no way I’m going to be like that guy sleeping under the bridge, or homeless. Right now I don’t think that.”
The gap between poor and rich in the U.S. has widened over the past 30 years. But people born to modest circumstances are no more likely to rise above their parents’ station. The divergent fates of Mr. Hall and his stepson — and others in this blue-collar city — illustrate why it can be hard to move up. Read the rest of this entry »