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Business In A Slump: Scraping By Three Years Later


So as we just mentioned, Americans have little faith in Congress these days. Well, let's talk now about their faith in the economy. Three years ago, I went out on the road, to travel the country and chat with people about how the recession was affecting their lives. That was during President Obama's first hundred days in office. One place I visited was the Stone Soup Kitchen in Atlanta. The diner is in the heart of Cabbage Town, this young, artsy neighborhood. The place is famous for its pancakes. At the time, Jason McDonald, who owns the diner, was seeing signs of economic trouble.

JASON MCDONALD: Our business is doing well. I mean, we're selling comfort food, so we've seen a big increase of pancake sales. I think people just want to eat those fluffy pancakes and forget about their problems. But I put an ad on Craigslist for a server and in the past, I would usually get about 40 responses. I got 350 this time.

GREENE: That was three years ago.


GREENE: This past week, I returned to Stone Soup, and sat down for breakfast with some of the people I had met there - including Jason. It was interesting timing because he had just posted another job opening - this one, for a cook. He only got a hundred or so responses, which makes him feel like the economy has improved from three years ago. Then again, the resumes suggest Atlanta still has a lot of people desperate for work.

MCDONALD: I've seen everything from security guards to a guy that was a private pilot. This morning, in fact, I looked at a few. And there was one who - he just had really high-end restaurant experience. He was a sous chef at some standout restaurants that have been written up in "Food & Wine" and "Gourmet." But this one person in particular, I thought about emailing him and saying, you sure you know where you've applied?

GREENE: One person who knows Stone Soup very well is Raqi Carter. In 2009, she was a 24-year-old waitress dreaming of a career in hip-hop dancing. Rocky has since left the restaurant behind, and is trying to dance full-time. It isn't easy.

RAQI CARTER: Oh, my gosh. It's very difficult. I mean, I used to always have a little cash on me, working at a steady job. But now, it's like big money or no money in this industry. If you don't have a gig in between time, you just have to budget out your money; or do little gigs here and there, you know, just to make the rent. And you just cross your fingers that some gig comes through, or you work with an artist who can keep a steady flow.

GREENE: And Jelani Cobb, remind us who you are, just so our listeners remember.

JELANI COBB: My name is Jelani Cobb. And when you talked to me last, I was a history professor at Spelman College. I'm now a history professor at the University of Connecticut.

GREENE: But still living in Atlanta?

COBB: I'm moving. I haven't moved north yet, but I will be.

GREENE: Well, Jelani, have your plans changed? I mean, you're switching to a different college.

COBB: I'm switching to a different university, and a different part of the country. I don't think my plans have changed. I was pursuing an academic career and I'm still, you know, an academic; and I write. I think one of the things that has happened in the last three years, is a lack of belief in stability - just having seen how the seemingly stable situations can just collapse. We grew up - I grew up, at least, with my parents telling me the most responsible thing that you can do, as an adult, is buy a home. Buying my house was one of the worst decisions I've made, you know, because it's been an albatross. It's about $100,000 underwater, maybe. It's not unusual. I mean, Atlanta got hit very hard. You know, looking around at it - and going, you can short-sell it and damage your credit, you know, or hold onto a house that you have no hope of ever making a profit on, or even breaking even on. And so the snap judgment that homeownership is a good thing, no longer applies.

GREENE: And are you able to - are you going to sell the house? Or are you going to...

COBB: Probably, yeah. And I'm going to take a good while before I buy anything else 'cause - simply, I don't want a repeat of this experience.

GREENE: Another person who felt the economic squeeze in Atlanta, is Jason Palmer. When I first met him, he had just taken a new job with the Federal Reserve in Atlanta, after being unemployed for nine months. To make ends meet during that time, he searched the streets for scrap metal to sell. Now, since I first met Jason, he and his wife had a son. Jason told me last week that he has friends who are out of work, or struggling with homes that are underwater. He's counting his blessings.

JASON PALMER: I think even if I get a lot of stability, I have a tendency to - it creates doubt. Once you've been shaken up, it's hard to see stability and embrace it. It almost feels foolhardy to me. I know that sounds pessimistic, but that's kind of the way I feel. But what it does do is, it makes me thankful for every day that I'm able to go to work and do what I do. I'm totally thankful for that.

GREENE: There was a time when things were very unstable...

PALMER: Correct.

GREENE: ...for you. You had been laid off, and you were out searching for scrap metal.

PALMER: That's correct, yeah. I still scrap metal occasionally. Again, I'm not afraid to roll up my sleeves and get some stuff done. Yeah, that was a tough time. I was. I was back looking for jobs. I would - I'd put on my Sunday best, go to some job interviews; and kind of fight the market that way. And if I saw some scrap metal on the side of the road, I'd just try to pick it up without getting my suit dirty. And it definitely - it definitely put food on the table, at times. And it helped pay utility bills, and put gas in the car, that type of thing. But yeah, that was a real trying time.

But I look back on it, and I don't - it's not that I necessarily pride myself over it. I just know when you've got to do hard work. I just know when you've got to be humbled. There's merit in hardship. There's new perspectives in times that aren't easy. I'm not saying desperate is a way to go. I'm saying that when you only have a few tools in your life, you learn how to use those tools more efficiently. And you learn how to use a crescent wrench like a hammer, you know?


GREENE: Wherever this economy is headed, the regulars at Stone Soup seem to be soldiering on together. Well, almost. Jason McDonald, the owner, has got to hold on to those customers.

MCDONALD: I have a real problem with our customers leaving Atlanta.

GREENE: July. (LAUGHTER) This is July.

COBB: I know. Shocking.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's unbelievable.

MCDONALD: Especially customers who are here, you know...


MCDONALD: ...three days a week...

COBB: Shocking.

MCDONALD: ...every week.

COBB: I'll come back on - in summers.

MCDONALD: OK. All right.


GREENE: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.