Many of us didn’t appreciate how devastating the loss of good jobs would be to the social fabric, and we had no idea that it would lead to family breakdown and a tide of alcoholism, addiction and early death. The economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson found that when trade cost men good manufacturing jobs, the result was more unwed mothers, more children living in poverty, more people dying early and more “male idleness.”
“Male idleness” is one way to describe Mike Stepp. He bounced among unsatisfying low-wage jobs, and he and his buddies escaped their frustrations by turning to alcohol and drugs, periodically tangling with the law. His wife, Stephanie Ross, who had gone out with him when she was 14, kicked Mike out of the house when he began leaving needles where their two young children might find them. They divorced in 2003, and he eventually landed in the streets of the nearby town of McMinnville.
“I like it out here,” he told me one time when we chatted in the park where he slept, and then he said with a laugh, “This is the great outdoors!” But it was just a line. He was often lonely, cold and wet. Previously, he had lived under cover in a county parking garage, and when he was forced out, he broke down and wept on the street.
In his shopping cart, which he took everywhere, Mike carried a couple of my books that I had signed for him. We would catch up when I visited McMinnville, and I would also fill him in on Bobby, who was serving a life sentence in a Colorado prison and whom I corresponded with.
I introduced my wife and children to Mike, and he charmed them with his easy humor. As he walked the streets, picking returnable cans out of garbage cans to make a few dollars, he had cheery greetings for everyone who passed.
“Mike always greeted me with, ‘How you doin’, kid?’ and a big smile,” recalled Casey Kulla, a county commissioner. My mother told me to be nice to Mike in writing this article, because “he never asked for anything.” That was the thing about Mike: He was homeless but rich in friends.
So what went wrong with Mike?
“He didn’t want to work,” Stephanie told me. She is angry at Mike for abandoning his kids and failing to pay $68,000 in child support, but then the anger passes and she wistfully refers to him as “the love of my life.”