THE FACTORY WORKER
Jody Baugh escaped the ranks of the unemployed, but nothing about life feels secure.
Baugh lost his welding job in fall 2008 when his recreational vehicle factory in Wakarusa, Ind., closed, a casualty of the recession. He was unemployed for almost a year before he found work making fiberglass boats, but at a fraction of his former $19.50 hourly salary.
"I had to take an $11-an-hour job just to feed my family," Baugh says. But that company closed, too, so he bounced from one job to another, forced out by layoffs or businesses shutting their doors. Along the way, he says, he found himself becoming one of the working poor.
Baugh now makes modular homes in Indiana. He likes his job and company, but worries about gas prices, health care costs and more generally, the future.
"I feel like there's no direction," he says. "You don't have the promise of a job the next day. A few years ago, gas was cheap, food was cheaper. I knew I had a job, at least I thought I had a job. I had a safety net. Now I have no savings. You don't know what's going to happen next week."
The recession's impact leaves him pining for the past.
"I would love to go back to before everything happened," he says. "Things were much easier. You felt like you had a future. Now you don't know if you're going to have one. I'm going to be 47 next month and I don't know if I can ever retire. It's really scary. Time catches up with you and you really don't know what to do."
Baugh feels he's gone backward. "When I was 19, I used to bring home $320 a week," he says. "Now I'm 46 and I bring home $390 to $420. Where's the progress?"
The financial strain, Baugh says, also took a personal toll, contributing to his divorce from his wife of 21 years; he says their joint annual income plummeted from $103,000 to $36,000. "A lot of people get scared when you're used to a certain way of life and it changes overnight," he says.
Baugh says he's detected a modest economic turnaround but wishes Obama had done more to help folks like him. Some friends think Romney is the answer because of his business background. Baugh isn't sure he'll vote. "I can't believe anybody anymore," he says.
"I really did have hope when (Obama) got in that things would be good," he says. "Now the only thing I see is the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I was born into the middle class and now I'm on the other side."
THE SMALL BUSINESSWOMAN
Peppe Smith's index for economic recovery: the party calendar at her bowling alley.
Four years ago, high-end children's birthday parties were a rarity at Camelot Lanes in Boardman, Ohio. Now, there are a few every weekend.
Smith sees positive signs all around her suburban Youngstown community: Farmers buying tractors. Women purchasing expensive sewing machines. A doughnut shop under construction. Vacant stores filling with businesses. An expanding steel pipe mill. And more bowling balls thundering down the lanes.
"I cannot deny that I am better off than I was four years ago," she declares, then pointedly adds: "I do not attribute that to the president."
Smith credits the resurgence in the area to a natural gas-drilling boom that could create tens of thousands of jobs and bring billions of dollars in investments. It's a dramatic change for Youngstown, the archetypal Rust Belt city, whose shuttered steel mills have long served as a bleak reminder of the decline of America's manufacturing might.
Since Youngstown was struggling before the recession, Smith says, its decline wasn't as steep during the downturn.
"We didn't have the go, go, go," she says, "so we didn't have the fall, fall, fall "
But crews involved in the natural gas exploration are boosting her business, along with workers from the nearby General Motors' Lordstown plant, a major beneficiary of the auto bailout. Since its restructuring, GM has added a third shift there to produce the Chevy Cruze.
Despite the bailout's benefits, Smith is no fan. Ford, she says, handled its own financial troubles on its own. "It makes you want to buy a Ford," she says. "GM should take care of its own problems."
Smith believes the Democratic Party approach is "socialistic," creating big government, with people becoming too dependent on "handouts."
"You look at the Kennedys, the Clintons, the Obamas, they always run their campaigns on volumes of people who will need government help," she says. "People make fun of the fact that Republicans have assets and want to run government like business."