Updated: 8/15/2012 3:30 PM ET|
Amid affluence, an uncertain future
Few young people in an idyllic New York village think they will be able to afford the life their parents had; in a grittier area nearby, businesses and workers struggle.
Port Jefferson Village, N.Y., is a rarity in these American times: It is small yet thriving, with a walkable downtown, neighbors who stop to visit in the streets and a crisscross of residential lanes that all seem to intersect with Main.
If you arrive by ferry, gliding into the village's picturesque, secluded harbor after a one-hour crossing of Long Island Sound, it's easy to forget that strip malls and suburban sprawl exist at all, let alone just over the hill in the heart of middle- and working-class Long Island.
But despite the good fortune that keeps this harbor-side community afloat -- namely the proximity of three hospitals, a research lab and a state university, and the jobs that come with them -- many in the younger generation express scant optimism that this life, this lifestyle, will be available to them.
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"Most of us already know that we're not going to buy a house," 28-year-old Kevin Coleman said of himself and his friends. "Unless you're going to make it big and you're going to get a really lucrative job, or you have parents with money, you're not going to buy a house."
At least not in Port Jefferson Village, where the median value of homes was $567,800 in 2011, nearly double the state median, $303,000, according to U.S. Census data.
Coleman is midway through a three-year master's program in acupuncture. The dozen-plus New York friends to whom he refers all have college degrees. But only two of them have been able to find professional jobs: the ones with master's degrees in engineering.
The rest are treading water in low-paying retail or food-service jobs. Coleman makes burritos, working 35 hours a week while attending school full time and raising a toddler. He has no faith in Washington, D.C.
"We have a two-party system that's simply two sides of the same coin," he said. "It's completely corrupt. It's in the pockets of corporations, and there's really nothing that we can do about it."
In the relatively affluent community of Port Jefferson Village, where sons and daughters are likely to attend college and the parents lean Democratic, politically engaged 20- and 30-somethings speak as if they've been disenfranchised, cut from a system that doesn't appear to be working on their behalf. As Coleman put it:
"No matter how many people you get together, when corporations with billions of dollars are throwing money at the problem you will never win. So it really sucks."
Those people who are a bit older, perhaps comfortably settled into their careers, may speak in more muted tones, but the sentiment is largely the same, often expressed as genuine confusion over whom to vote for come November.
"Somebody give me a plan," said Margot Garant, a real-estate lawyer and the mayor of Port Jefferson Village. "Would somebody just tell me what you're going to do?"
Up the hill from Port Jefferson Village, well beyond the lively knot of shops and tourists eating frozen yogurt, Main Street winds past houses with office shingles and small parking lots, and by old stone churches with sprawling lawns and well-tended flower gardens.
These churches have been busy the past few years as more people have come in seeking food and other assistance. Many, but not all, live at the top of the hill, past the railroad tracks, where the Village of Port Jefferson officially ends and the community of Port Jefferson Station begins.
There, the street widens and a gray stretch of commerce for the other half emerges: convenience stores, pawnshops, dollar stores and strip malls with bright signs advertising "Check Cashing" and "We Buy Gold."
Just before the railroad tracks, along a short, busy strip of Main Street, sits an Army-Navy surplus store, owned and run by Barbara Sabatino and her brother, Peter Sabatino.
(They had a stationery store until Staples arrived in town and customers started demanding the kind of loss-leader discounts that the big-box stores use. "You know, 'I want this box of paper clips for, say, 10 cents,'" said Barbara Sabatino, laughing.)
As she spoke, the phone rang: It was her insurance agent, calling to explain the details of another not-so-great health plan insurers could offer her. It had been like that for days, she said, ever since her existing individual plan hit its annual rate-hike date and, this year, priced her out.
"In order to make it affordable, I'd have to do things like give up prescriptions," said Sabatino, 59. "Being a pretty healthy person, I'm thinking about it . . . but what if . . . ?"
New York has some of the highest health insurance costs in the country. The state requires that health insurance companies cover sick people -- no excluding applicants with pre-existing conditions -- but it does not mandate, as Massachusetts does, that all residents buy coverage. As a result, fewer people pay into the insurance pool, driving costs up for those who do.
"You know the old adage: Do you buy food for the table, or do take your medicine?" Sabatino said. "I actually know people like that. And that's sad, because we're talking about solid middle-class people who are now running into problems that you only heard about before with low-income people."
Sabatino, who lives in Port Jefferson Village, calls herself a fiscal conservative with a socially liberal mindset. She did not vote for Barack Obama in 2008, but she doesn't think Mitt Romney would do any better.
"I think they're two sides of the same coin. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss," she said. "I was never so disappointed as when Obama got in and he appointed a lot of the same people that Bush had. What the heck?"
Sabatino said she honestly doesn't know how government repairs an economy. But she'd like to hear some concrete ideas. She recalls Obama handing the job to Congress and can't think of Romney offering any plans at all.
That puts her in a quandary: Technically she is an undecided voter who likes neither candidate but would never toss out her vote.
Sabatino does know that a lot of people, even in a fairly well-off town such as Port Jefferson Village, are struggling. There are contractors, electricians, teachers and others who have lost hours. People wander into her store with real problems.
Then she turns on the Sunday-morning talk shows, listens to the political leaders and political pundits and wonders, "Where is your connection to somebody who doesn't make the kind of money you do?"
Looking at herself and her neighbors, she wonders how a family of four makes ends meet. "They're making two car payments. . . . Then the price of food goes up and your taxes go up and it's just more and more. And when do people say, 'OK, that's it. I'm getting out and moving to Florida, where it's more affordable'?"
"We have a serious brain drain here," said Mike D'Abramo, 34, a political campaign worker. "There really aren't a lot of people my age -- everybody left.
"The social and economic dislocation is creating a shift in the demographics of this area," he said. "This will become a retirement home."
D'Abramo grew up here. A third-generation local, his grandfather immigrated from Argentina and, after serving in the U.S. military, raised a family and became active in politics. The family was uniformly Republican, as was D'Abramo, who headed to Washington, D.C., after college to work for a Republican congressman and, later, a foreign policy think tank.
But the son is hardly recognizable at the family dinner table today.
After witnessing firsthand the social, environmental and human consequences of "U.S. strategic interests abroad -- oil," he had a change of heart. D'Abramo spent years in Nigeria, Iraq and Jordan working for U.S. international development organizations.
"Living in Nigeria, when I saw the utter devastation, crushing poverty, kids with flies begging me for money. That was a real eye-opener," D'Abramo said. "It was a real sad thing to experience, and it made me realize that I frankly didn't give a s--- what Wall Street made."
D'Abramo returned to Port Jefferson Village recently with his wife to help his family here. He is currently working on a New York Assembly campaign.
"The Republican Party that I worked for, the values that it stood for, doesn't exist anymore," he said. "It's been completely overtaken by this Tea Party movement, which is a frightening thing."
D'Abramo, who has a master's degree in international relations, has also seen too many educated people his age struggle to find work. He looked hard -- sending out résumés and networking daily, he said -- on Capitol Hill for a year and a half during the recession. His cousin, an architect who is now 41, was out of work for three years.
"And he went to Harvard. There's no reason he should be out of a job," D'Abramo said.
D'Abramo is working now, but he can't afford health insurance, at least not a plan that would offer coverage he considers worthwhile. When he lived in Romania, his wife's native country, he received inexpensive national health care, even as a resident.
"Why is it that I can get health coverage in Romania but not here?" he asked.
"No one in this country wants to use the S-word -- socialism," he said, adding that this negative connotation is a misplaced holdover from the Cold War. "The things that got us back on our feet after World War II, these are socialist policies."
Such programs -- Medicare, Social Security, the G.I. Bill -- are popular among voters. But today's young people face the dismal prospect of possibly being worse off than their parents and grandparents because of rising college costs and long-stagnant wages.
D'Abramo remains optimistic on the whole and continues to campaign, but he is utterly frustrated by the intransigence of Congress. And he now sees the effect not only abroad but in his backyard.
"Can people my age afford to live here? No way. There's a real social dislocation," he said. "I feel like this country is in a state of political paralysis, which is only exacerbating the economic paralysis."
Kevin Coleman moved out of Port Jefferson Village.
Coleman, who makes burritos at Salsa Salsa, recently moved out of the village. He'll have to stay in the area to be near his son, but he would like to find someplace less expensive.
His co-workers at the food stand are all graduates of four-year colleges, except for one with an associate's degree. Coleman, who has a bachelor's in linguistics, had planned to get a graduate degree in linguistics but opted for a licensed degree instead to narrow the job competition.
"I had come to the conclusion that a four-year degree gets you nothing, and you really need a trade," he said.
For the moment, Coleman can pay his bills, but he doesn't have any money saved for emergencies and lacks health insurance, a situation that's typical among his friends.
"A lot of my friends are supporting Ron Paul, but a lot of them are talking about how it's just throwing your vote away," he said. "But in my mind it's all throwing your vote away, because regardless of who's elected, nothing's going to change -- except maybe for the worse. At least I'll throw my vote away on the person who might try to do something positive."
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