Meet Paul Pittman, Mr. US Economy

The US economy is much more than a series of stats. Rather, it’s a living entity, made up of individuals who experience highs and lows just like any trend in a chart.  Paul Pittman, a US Air Force veteran, found himself riding the swings of nearly every economic indicator we follow.  And when things seemed like they would only get worse for Pittman, they somehow got better.  This is his story.

Paul Pittman

For anyone who believes there are no economic classes in America, they should meet Paul Pittman.Pittman, 49, currently lives with his wife Amanda, a graphic designer, and their two daughters, ages 14 and 10, just outside Charlotte, North Carolina.

In July, Pittman will celebrate his first full year of employment as a logistics planner at Odyssey Logistics and Technology, a global transportation firm.

Pittman says he’s lucky to be there. In June 2009, he was laid off from his job as a managing dispatcher, a job he’d held for three years making around $32,000.  It was a good living.

For the next 39 months, he was out of work.

“You keep thinking it will never happen to you,” he said. “I’ll be the first one in line to say ‘yes it can.’ There’s no prejudice at all involved.”

The Other America

In 2010, Pew published a study called “One Recession, Two Americas.” It found the recession had divided the country in half: between those who said they’d “lost ground” and those who had “held their own.”

Those in the former category experienced job loss, had to borrow money from friends and family to pay bills or had trouble finding or paying for medical care. They also had trouble paying rent or mortgage or had dipped into savings or retirement to pay bills.

Overall, the study showed, half of the “lost ground” group experienced “major” changes in their lives.

The Pittmans found themselves ticking nearly every box in the “lost ground” category.

Paul Pittman’s personal impact on the economy may be negligible. But having dropped from solidly middle class to something more precarious, the Pittmans’ success in reestablishing themselves financially can be viewed as a proxy for tracking the broader recovery.

Luckily, they seem to be on the right track. But it’s taken a while for them to get there.

Mr. US Economy

After being honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1992, Pittman settled in Wisconsin. He held a series of jobs in the transportation industry, a field he’d always been interested in, and had taken on a management role at a small firm.

Paul, his wife Amanda, daughters Destiney (left) and Alexia (right)

The Pittmans were financially secure, enjoying trips to Disney World and the Wisconsin Dells water park downstate.  They had full package Direct TV.  And in 2006, they bought a $60,000 house on a stable fixed-rate mortgage, not some exotic interest rate product.But in 2009, business at the transportation company began to slow, and Pittman was laid off — temporarily, he believed.

Like any prudent American household, the Pittmans had enough money in savings to cover a couple months’ worth of mortgage payments.

“It wasn’t that big a deal.”

But the job did not come back.

The family began living off Amanda’s wages and Paul’s unemployment. But they were losing money fast.

First they wrote off vacations. Paul also had to abandon doing media work for an auto racing organisation. Racing is his passion, and the gig paid, but he could no longer justify the time, he said.

They also started paring away at their Direct TV package until they canceled it altogether.  At one point, they couldn’t even afford the digital converter for their TV when the government officially phased out analogue television signals in June 2009.


Rock Bottom

As it became clear he would not be rehired, Pittman fell into a funk. Eventually, he was diagnosed with depression. Fortunately, Amanda’s insurance covered his prescription; Paul imagines a worst-case scenario without it.

“If I hadn’t been treated for it, it probably would have led to divorce, or worse.”

But they were still barely getting by. Eventually it came down to the house. They were paying about $800 a month for the mortgage. There wasn’t much equity in it.

In August 2010, they ended up filing for bankruptcy. The foreclosure came through the following spring.

“One of the hardest questions I’ve ever had to answer was, ‘Daddy, are we poor?'” Pittman said.

“How do you answer that?”

A Turning Point

But they struggled through. Pittman decided to get his associate’s degree, taking online courses from American Intercontinental University, a private institution specializing in online courses.

It became clear, though, that an online associate’s wasn’t going to be enough to land a new job, he said. So he decided to go back to finish his bachelor’s degree, enrolling in the Wassau, Wisconsin campus of Rasmussen College.

In October 2010, his wife’s firm, a medical device company, announced it was moving to North Carolina. Pittman said they put their faith in the fact that a larger community would offer more job opportunities for someone with his skills.

In March 2011, they moved.

It took just a few more months, a blink by comparison, before Pittman landed at Odyssey Logistics through a temp agency. He’s now earning around $40,000.

The women in the household are enjoying their new surroundings in the Tar Heel State, Pittman says. As far as spending goes, they’re working their way back up. They have cable — no satellite — but do have high-speed Internet. They’ve even been able to start going back to the track. Their rent is between $700 and $800 a month, about what they were paying on their old mortgage.

In August, the Pittmans emerged from bankruptcy.

“We learned to live with a little, make things last, and just get by.”

Pittman is still working to complete his bachelor’s. He’s taking online courses offered by Rasmussen while continuing to work full-time and has about a year’s worth of credits to go.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is not a train,” he said.

Why Did Things Turn?

Pittman’s comeback mirrored the economy’s return to growth in many ways.  Spiralling to the bottom, it seemed like the economy would only get worse.  Back in March 2009, some economists argued that we were witnessing the end of capitalism.  Others went as far to say this was the end of the world.  Yet things somehow turned.  Experts still haven’t come to a consensus as to why the economy got better or why it turned when it did.

Pittman and his family never threw in the towel.  But the more things got worse, the more it seemed they would never come back.

But they did come back.

And Pittman has an elegant and simple explanation.

“We got lucky, that’s all I can say,” he said. “Luck has everything to do with it.”