15 November 2005

Then came Reaganomics.

When I was a kid, we had a house. My dad, a CPA, paid for the mortgage over time. My mom went back to work when I was 8, and with the extra income, they paid for vacations, invested, saved to send their kids to school. As far as I can recall, there was never anything we really wanted that we couldn't afford.

When I was 18, I moved out, and, passing up the opportunity to go to uni, I supported myself in a series of low paying jobs. However, Buffalo N.Y. was inexpensive and progressive, with a lively arts community, cheap pubs with great music and food co-ops. To top it off, there was a natural food restaurant where you could trade work for food credit. I lived with about 8 people in a "collective" house where rent was cheap, and I didn't want for much, despite my low earnings.

Then came Reaganomics.

Suddenly, jobs were hard to come by. I knew well-educated people who were driving cabs or flipping burgers in order to make ends meet. Most of my friends rented, but I did know the occasional person who owned a house and who suddenly couldn't pay their mortgage and ended up losing the lot. I remember newspaper articles about tent cities springing up in (warmer) towns. In 1982, we protested the closing of Bethlehem Steel in nearby Lackawanna. Despite everyone's best efforts to pressure the company, the state, the local government and to convince the unions to take over the shop themselves, 20,000 workers lost their jobs within the year.

Fast forward 20 years.

A few months after we moved to Canberra, some friends purchased a house. "Why, that's ridiculous," I thought. "You don't buy houses. What if you lose your job and it gets repossessed?" It never occured to me that two wage-earners in their 20s could actually buy a house.

Since then, housing prices have gone up, professional wages have gone down, and mortgages now have extra pages for parents as co-signers. The house my father bought would have cost two wages one generation later. Two generations and you need a third wage.

My friends were lucky to buy when they did. And because of Australia's labour laws, they're currently guaranteed that they won't be arbitrarily dismissed from their jobs. And if by some misfortune their job disappears, they will be made redundant with generous packages that will give them at least a few months to find something before the money runs out.

At least for now.

Because in John Howard's Australia, all these rights that workers fought for over the last century could be taken away.

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