Throwaway Americans

STU BYKOFSKY / DAILY NEWS STAFF John Ruths says he's likely to be kicked out of his East Falls apartment in a couple months. He once made $70,000 a year and owned a plane, but not anymore.
STU BYKOFSKY / DAILY NEWS STAFF John Ruths says he's likely to be kicked out of his East Falls apartment in a couple months. He once made $70,000 a year and owned a plane, but not anymore.
Posted: February 14, 2014

"I'M EMBARRASSED to beg for money, I'm embarrassed to beg for food. I never, ever in my life thought this would happen to me," says formerly middle-class John Ruths, face-to-face with the New America.

John grew up in a nice home. His father a regional VP for Wonder Bread, his mother a registered nurse and teacher. The family "lived very comfortably" in Norristown, he went to private schools, John says, as we sit at the home desk from which he's pitched hundreds of job applications over the past year of his unemployment.

His apartment is neat, studded with piles of papers or books in stray corners, plus a pile of cat toys on the living-room carpet.

He took business administration at Montgomery County Community College and sold real estate after he graduated in 1979. In 1985, he found himself in a sales and support job he loved at Eastern Air Lines. When the airline went bankrupt in 1991, Ruths didn't sit around moaning. He went back to school and reinvented himself as an information technology guy, becoming a network administrator.

"I'm a technical person," he told me.

As a college grad with tech credentials, you'd think landing another job would not be hard. You'd be wrong because America's economy is deathly ill and most employers regard long experience as some kind of a liability. Some people - usually well-off and employed - have no idea how bad it is, and some have no sympathy.

There are more applicants than jobs and Ruths has three handicaps. 1. He's 54. 2. He's white. 3. He's not a veteran.

He says it was Point 3 that cost him his job a year ago at the U.S. Department of Labor, which, ironically, usually protects working people. I'll return to that in a moment.

A bachelor who earned up to $70,000 a year, owned a home, an airplane and two cars, John now is a couple of months from being evicted from his East Falls apartment. He last paid the $1,100 rent in December. He can't afford the rent or the cost of moving or storing his belongings. When the bottom drops out, he's prepared to move into his car with his cat, Charger - and there are payments due on the car. It's hard to see how it could get much worse.

He does have an $11-an-hour, desperation part-time job at Lowe's - he's grateful for that - but the monthly $350 check won't keep him from sinking.

Unemployment compensation, which was supposed to last a year, "ran out" before the year was up, he was told by the state, and he can't figure out why. He went to his political reps, who showed him sympathy and the door. Swallowing his pride, John applied for welfare and was rejected, applied for food stamps and was turned down, but he's appealing that.

He's on the edge of a cliff and as he looks over his life, he can't understand how this happened to him, a regular, hardworking American. There are millions more like him.

He's always worked, and always saved, but invested badly. "I got burned in the dot-com bust" in 2000, he says, then got finished off in the 2008 market implosion.

He sold his home, his plane and one car to keep afloat. He used up his $12,000 in savings and is now flat on his back, his calm demeanor masking the unthinkable.

He lost his job as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Labor, he thinks, as a result of Presidential Executive Order 13538, designed to "promote diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce." Preference for veterans was a separate order.

Laudable goals both, but it led to "releasing" some white, nonmilitary contractors and replacing them with nonwhite veterans. John trained his own replacement, a Hispanic Air Force veteran, "equally competent in performing the job," John says, and earning $10,000 more a year.

Leni Fortson, the Department of Labor's regional director of public affairs, denies the layoff had anything to do with any executive order.

"The department made a strategic decision to bring his function in-house," she says.

A former co-worker who requested anonymity says John was a good worker, competent and well-liked.

"They tell you the government has created a full-time job," he says. "They don't tell you they are laying off two contractors."

"I'm not out for political revenge, for personal revenge," John says. "I want a job, just a job to live, to be productive and not worry about this kind of stuff."

Seeing a man who's worked his entire life impoverished and on the brink of homelessness is scream-out-the-window wrong.

I'm hoping my screaming brings John some help, because he isn't getting anything but screwed by his government.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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