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Strategies & Market Trends : The Economy Made Me Do It.

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From: Smiling Bob11/1/2009 12:52:41 PM
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Laura Rowley Money & Happiness
Laura Rowley, Money & Happiness
The Rage of Anxiety

by Laura Rowley
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Posted on Thursday, October 29, 2009, 12:00AM

The town of Chatham, New Jersey, a few towns away from where I live, is a bucolic suburb of historic homes and refined new mansions, with a population of 10,000.

The median family income is $132,000. Just 45 minutes from New York City, it's the kind of place where it helps to know somebody if you want to buy a home, because properties often change hands without ever making it to the real estate listings.

On the evening of Oct. 22, Father Edward Hinds, 61, pastor of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Chatham, was stabbed to death in the rectory. He was found when he failed to show up to celebrate morning Mass at the parish school, which some of our friends' children attend. The level of shock is difficult to express.

The police subsequently arrested Jose Feliciano, 64, the janitor at the church, a 17-year employee whose son graduated from the school and whose daughter is enrolled there. In press reports, both the priest and the janitor have been described as quiet, kind, amiable, caring and hardworking. Both were known to chat with neighbors while walking their dogs.

The previous pastor of St. Patrick's, Monsignor Ronald Amandolare, said he never saw Feliciano angry or violent. "He was loved by the kids, loved by the parents," Amandolare told the Star-Ledger of Newark. "He was a great, hard worker and very kind. You could call him in the morning, noon and night if anything broke … . You say, 'Jose, can you help me?' 'Sure, I'll be right over.'"

An attorney for the Archdiocese of Paterson told reporters that Hinds intended to lay off Feliciano because of financial problems at the parish. Feliciano had reportedly been beset with money and health issues -- "in and out of the hospital," by one account. The janitor had worked a second job in an electronics store, and lost that position earlier this year.

In 2004, the Felicianos moved from an apartment adjacent to the church to a home they purchased for $145,000 in a working-class city in Pennsylvania, 45 miles away. A neighbor said both Jose Feliciano and his wife, who also worked two jobs, typically left for work at 5:30 a.m. and returned home at 7:30 or 8:30 in the evening.

Obviously there is no excuse for the brutal and horrific attack on Rev. Hines. But I can't help thinking that both the victim and the alleged killer are casualties of a treacherous economy, which continues to batter the ordinary American while the experts proclaim recovery is upon us.

A recent study by researchers in California and London found the stress of recessions, particularly of unemployment, markedly increases rates of death from intentional violence. Looking at joblessness in the European Union between 1970 and 2007, researchers found each percent increase in unemployment raised homicide and suicide rates by 0.8 percent, respectively. An increase of 3 percent in unemployment, for example, is associated with a 4.5 percent increase in suicides, said the study, published in the journal Lancet in July.

"Suicides are just the tip of the iceberg," said lead author David Stuckler, Ph.D., of the University of Oxford and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in a statement. "Rising suicide rates are a sign of many failed suicide attempts and high levels of mental distress among workers and families."

The murder in Chatham makes me think about the millions of Americans who live in a state of perpetual anxiety, an illness or a layoff away from disaster. U.S. personal bankruptcy filings topped 1 million in the first nine months of this year, up 35 percent from the year-ago period, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. It's the highest nine-month figure since 2005, when consumers rushed to file for bankruptcy before stricter laws went into effect. The figures also saw a growth in middle-class filers -- those with associate and bachelor's degrees, and earnings of $40,000 or more a year.

Meanwhile, foreclosure-related filings are on pace to hit about 3.5 million this year, up from 2.3 million last year, according to a report this month by RealtyTrac. New defaults are surpassing the number of people helped by the federal mortgage relief program, which earlier this month reported that 500,000 homeowners had received assistance.

In addition, Moody's says that 2010 loan charge-offs by banks, on an annualized rate, are exceeding the levels of the Great Depression, and will increase in the coming year. In a related twist, analysts described why household balance sheets may recover faster than predicted: People are defaulting on their debts like crazy.

That means, in official economic terms, those obligations don't actually count as "debts" anymore. Apparently this is upbeat news for the larger economy -- a shiny veneer on a national edifice of crushed aspirations and heartache.

Heartache that now includes the tragic story of the priest and the janitor in Chatham.

(For an update on this story, see my blog.)
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