Dismal economic news as we travel across the Midwest

I returned home from my vacation today. I had the pleasure of spending 10 hours in the car with a 2-year-old, driving through the hills of Missouri and back to Chicago.

You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a 2-year-old screech in your ear for most of a day.

We spent our vacation in Branson, Mo. If you don’t know Branson, think of Las Vegas. Only for senior citizens. While Vegas has casinos, Branson’s main drags are choked with country music and comedy shows. The town has Yakov Smirnov. Really. Tony Orlando, too, and one of the guys from Paul Revere & the Raiders.

It’s also a town where everyone has their fingers in your wallet. Case in point: We went to a restaurant that specializes in tosed rolls. This means that every 15 minutes or so, a guy comes out from the kitchen and throws dinner rolls at people. It’s a cute gimmick, and our 10-year-old loved it, though he missed about four rolls that ended up on the floor. (Seems like a terrible waste of food, actually.)

But as soon as our food came out, an employee with a camera hustled over to our table to snap our photo. Yes, this is just what I want hanging in my living room: A picture of me behind a huge plate of fried catfish. Here, I can tell visitors, is the reason why I’m a bit paunchy in my middle age.

Of course, our shutterbug wanted to sell us the photo for $20. I’d only pay that if they snapped a shot right as I was chomping into a big buttered roll. So we passed.

My wallet was still sobbing as we drove across Missouri. The radio reports made it hurt even more, especially a top-notch report from National Public Radio. The show focused on housing foreclosures. Seems it’s not just the greedy or the poor who are losing their homes. Solid, middle-class, bill-paying homeowners are falling victim to foreclosure, too. The reason? They’re either losing their jobs or seeing their take-home income plummet.

The NPR segment highlighted the owner of a small restaurant who’s struggling to make his mortgage payments for the first time in his life because people aren’t eating out as much. He’s taking home about $1,000 a month less in income. That’s had a big impact.

I always tell people that the housing industry isn’t going to truly bounce back until unemployment stops rising. The NPR report offers further proof of this.