When 2011 began, the worst recession in two generations was technically over, but Annica Trotter, Ray Meyer, and Jennifer and Brian Barfield were unemployed and searching for work. Six years later, their experience demonstrates life doesn’t just snap back to normal after a job loss. Their economic recovery remains incomplete and in some ways their story is America’s story.
NPR first profiled Trotter, Meyer, the Barfields and two others in the St. Louis area in 2011 as part of a long-term project called The Road Back to Work. For a year, they kept audio diaries documenting their quest for employment. There were successes and failures, health scares and relationship troubles, jobs secured and lost.
In the past we’ve mostly talked about the economy generally, and their personal economies, but this time, we asked about politics, too: their view of President Trump, his first month in office and what they hope to hear him say in his address to Congress on Tuesday night.
The Barfields, both Trump supporters, want to hear more of what he’s already promised. Annica Trotter didn’t vote for Trump; she wants to hear humility from the president. Ray Meyer, who has mixed feelings about Trump, is looking for a measured address with hard evidence.
These are their stories.
Brian and Jennifer Barfield
What they want to hear Tuesday night:
Brian Barfield: “I want him to come out and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve done. That was the start folks. And here’s what I am going to do. I’m going to put Hillary behind bars. I’m gonna build up our military. I’m going to make sure that wall gets built and Mexico will pay.’ … Everything he said in his campaign, just keep going right with it.”
Jennifer Barfield: “I want to hear him say he’s crumpling up other trade agreements and changing that ASAP. That’s what I really want to hear. Even though I know he’s got a lot of big fish to fry on his plate, that’s the one that I want the most.”
The Barfields met in what was at the time a booming support group for unemployed people in St. Louis. They didn’t immediately find jobs, but they did find love.
Brian Barfield, 59, has long considered himself a conservative, a Reagan Republican, and he jokes that his wife is “liberal.” Jennifer Barfield, 53, did vote for President Obama in 2012, a choice she made after he approved the raid that killed Osama bin Ladin, but she bristles at her husband’s description.
Both feel strongly that politicians, at the national and local levels, have failed them. When we spoke in late 2011, Brian Barfield said there was “no such thing as a politician that knows how to bring jobs back.” Elected officials were so worried about winning partisan squabble, he said, that “America’s losing.”
It’s no wonder he took one look at candidate Trump and was sold on the brash businessman who didn’t always tow the Republican Party line. Jennifer Barfield wasn’t far behind. Trump sold her with his tough talk on ISIS and bashing of trade deals like NAFTA.
For the Barfields, Trump’s focus on the “forgotten” man and woman and getting American factories humming again hit home.
For Brian Barfield, it’s almost as if candidate Trump was channeling his very thoughts.
“It’s about time someone stand up for us,” he said.
He was particularly fond of Trump’s promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico. “You’ve got new ideas, you’re willing to protect American workers. You’re willing to help us out, you’ve got my vote,” Brian Barfield said.
Brian traces his employment problems back to 2007, when the Chrysler plant where he worked closed up. He’s worked off and on since then but never really recovered from it.
“Never have, and I never will,” he said quietly.
His shoulders and knees are busted from years of physically demanding work. And unable to find a job after years of searching, he finally gave up and got approved for federal disability payments. “So I am officially retired,” he said.
Brian Barfield has felt forgotten for years:
“I have been unemployed so long they just said, ‘Well, you don’t count.’ You don’t receive benefits, you don’t file anymore, so you’re one of the … 9 percent that just don’t count anymore.”
The unemployment rate would rise to about 9.4 percent if those who are marginally attached to the workforce or working part time for economic reasons are added to those still looking for work.
Jennifer Barfield is currently among the 4.8 percent officially counted as unemployed.
“Unemployed and looking and available,” she said with an eager lilt in her voice.
She works in IT and just scored an interview with the company that is her top target.
The irony is Jennifer Barfield spent most of the last five years gainfully employed. But at the end of November, a temporary assignment ended, putting her back in the all-too-familiar position of searching for work.
When she lost her job, she also lost her insurance. So, on the last day in January, Jennifer Barfield signed up for health insurance — through Obamacare.
She and Brian go back and forth about whether her Obamacare plan is any good. Because she is unemployed, there are enough subsidies to make her plan affordable (though Brian adds they wouldn’t be able to pay for it without his disability money). But if she gets a good-paying job, she’ll have to pay the government back. Brian is skeptical and calls it the “unaffordable care act.” Jennifer said she’s thankful to former President Obama for making this option available, even if it is imperfect.
President Trump is pledging to repeal and replace the program with the help of Congress. Jennifer Barfield doesn’t know how she feels about that. It all depends on what Obamacare is replaced with.
On this, and other matters, she’s willing to give President Trump the benefit of the doubt.
“Let’s give him a chance,” she said. “Let’s see what he does. He’ll work it out.”
A month into Trump’s presidency, Brian Barfield is elated.
“He’s doing everything I sent him to Washington to do, everything,” Barfield said, his face lighting up. “When the press gets upset with him, I know he’s had a good day.”
Barfield watches the NBC Nightly News and it usually starts with a story about Trump. “The more bad things they say about him, the better I enjoy my day because that means Trump did something right,” Barfield said. “When [host] Lester Holt’s upset with Trump, Trump — I could just go hug him.”
Jennifer Barfield says she loves Trump, too, but maybe not absolutely everything about him.
“He went in high gear and it was so fast for me,” Barfield said, referring to the president’s flurry of executive actions in the early days of his presidency. “I was saying in my head, ‘Slow down, slow down … let some dust settle here from that last thing you signed before you sign another big thing.’ ”
Asked whether they think Trump will be able to do something to improve their lives directly, the Barfields give very different answers. Brian said it’s too late for him. At this point it’s about his children and grandchildren. But Jennifer does have hope “that I will see changes that will affect me directly before I am retired, and I don’t want to retire anytime soon.”
What Trotter wants to hear: “I would like to hear some kind of humbling statement that addresses the elephant in the Oval Office. I want to hear something that says, you know, ‘I do understand the power of my position. I do understand the needs of the American people and that I am working hard to remain connected and do what I can to serve.’ You know, to actually serve the people and not run the people … or dictate the people. But that’s a pipe dream. I’m not going to hear that from him.”
Annica Trotter, 31, was the youngest person we met in 2011. And she doesn’t just have a job six years later, she has a career. She is working overnights as a registered nurse, making a difference in people’s lives one shift at a time.
“Part of being a new nurse also is teaching myself that it’s OK to prioritize and ask for help and delegate and do the best you can in 12 hours,” Trotter said.
But getting to this point wasn’t even remotely easy. She went to nursing school while still working to support her two kids. In December Trotter earned her degree and started working right away, which is a pretty remarkable shift for someone who at one point was convinced she would never even go to college.
“That was the bar that I had set for myself, but then I realized I can move that bar,” Trotter said. “It’s not fixed in place.”
Of the four people NPR visited in St. Louis last week, Trotter is the only one who didn’t vote for Trump in November.
“He’s not my president,” she said.
Trump’s first month in office “seems like a clown show to me,” Trotter said, though one with very serious implications.
Trotter finds the flurry of executive orders coming from the Trump White House unnerving.
“You don’t play with people’s lives,” Trotter said, referring to the potential impact of Trump’s orders on immigration and federal hiring. “I think that before anyone makes decisions so concrete, much more thought needs to be put into it.”
Her daughter is named Malia and was born shortly after President Obama won in 2008, though Trotter and her boyfriend picked the name before they knew one of Obama’s daughters was also named Malia.
“It felt kind of magical,” Trotter said, “that I was witnessing history and also that my daughter would have a connection to that history by having the name of one of the first daughters.”
Until January, Trotter’s daughter Malia had grown up with a president who looked like her in the White House.
Trotter is concerned about the rhetoric coming out of the administration, the message that Trump’s travel ban sends. “Not all Muslims are terrorists, and I really think that he finds those two terms synonymous,” said Trotter.
She is worried about what that type of thinking could lead to. “It’s really sickening because when you have people in power that have those kinds of ideas it can be very dangerous for some and then eventually all,” she said.
She doesn’t want her daughter to experience another side of history “that we don’t ever want to revisit.”
What she hopes, though doesn’t expect to hear from President Trump on Tuesday, is some humility and an effort to make her feel like she is part of his America.
“I feel that if I came across President Trump, he would disregard me,” Trotter said. “Who am I to him? I’m a poor person, even though in my world I’ve done what I need to do to elevate my income and financial status.”
Although Trump speaks frequently about the forgotten men and women of this country, Trotter doesn’t think he’s talking about her.
“From my short experience with him in government, he’s not that kind of leader,” Trotter concluded.
What he wants to hear: “I would like to see him remain calm, and not go off on a tangent, and focus — focus on the problems at hand and what he’s done so far and what he hopes to accomplish. I want him to get up there and act presidential and look presidential and don’t pass buck and don’t start slamming anybody and just tell it like it is. … I want to hear what he thinks he’s accomplished. And I don’t need him to necessarily be optimistic, to sugar-coat it, but tell me what you really are doing. Tell me what progress he’s seen, real progress he’s seen. I would like to see some hard mechanics.”
At 61 years old, Ray Meyer has worked in banking for some 40 years, except for the three-year gap where he struggled to find any work at all. In January 2009, the bank where he had worked for five years laid off more than a third of its staff.
“I was terminated and I set home and watched [Obama’s] inauguration,” Meyer said. At one point he even sent his resume to then-President Obama, asking what the president could do for him. He didn’t get a response.
Meyer has been working at his current job for almost two years, not making what he did before, but it’s enough. Meyer’s marriage, however, did not survive. The extended unemployment, the financial stress, they all took a toll. But he insists he’s happy now.
“Life goes on,” he said.
For Meyer, the feelings about Trump are mixed. He is thrilled about the way the stocks in his retirement account are performing. He figures the economy will continue improving under Trump. But he is worried about race relations. A Jewish cemetery in St. Louis had been recently vandalized, and he was puzzled why anyone would want to do that.
Meyer said when he voted for Trump, he was voting to have someone run the country like a business. The status quo hadn’t been working for him, and he thought Hillary Clinton would just be more of the same.
He’s been happy with some of the president’s choices, including some of his Cabinet picks and the nomination of Judge Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. “I really like that guy,” Meyer said. But others like, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, make him shake his head.
And then there’s Trump’s tweeting, the constant talking about his Electoral College win, the claims of widespread election fraud with no proof.
Meyer figured once he took office, Trump would be more presidential than he had been.
“I just wish that he would kinda get a little bit thicker skin and get on with what he’s got to do,” said Meyer. “He’s got a job to do, you know? He’s got all of us looking up to him with hopeful eyes thinking that he’s going to be not our savior, but that he’s going to get where we need to be and on the right track again.”
Comedians have been mocking presidents forever, Meyer said, wondering why this president feels compelled to respond.
“No, you don’t do that. You’re a step above all of us as far as I’m concerned,” Meyer said. “Who cares? He’s the president of the United States. He needs to act like it.”
Meyer accidentally slips into the past tense when talking about his hopes for the Trump administration, before correcting himself. Meyer still hopes President Trump can get the country moving in the right direction. But he just wishes the president would stop tweeting.
“Every time he tweets something, I just shake my head and say, ‘Oh God, please don’t tweet anymore.’ Maybe they should take and dismantle his tweet account,” Meyer said.
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