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Trapped in Economic Hell: Tales from the New Great Depression

Rebuilding an economy that works for everyone can happen only if we relearn some lessons about caring for and relying on one another.

The following is an excerpt from Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depressionby Dale Maharidge (University of California Press, 2011).

My America is one of iconic landscapes, places of lost dreams and hard-lived lives.

The Deep South: abandoned cotton gins and vine-covered shacks of tenant farmers. The Great Lakes region: rusting stacks of ghost steel mills on forested riverbars; the ruins of a Detroit hotel with a rotting piano collapsed on the floor of its ballroom, where one imagines giddy couples dancing away the nights after the men came home from World War II to an industrial America that promised a limitless tomorrow. All through the Midwest and the West: century-old grain silos; telegraph lines that now transmit only the sound of the wind; storm-ravaged homesteads with blown-out windows on the desolate prairie. California’s Central Valley: forgotten backwaters where people who evoke the Joads still walk lonely roads flanked by orchards of orange, peach, and prune; the sun-blasted camps of the newly unemployed of 2011, in secret patches of dusty digger pine, just as their counterparts formed the Hoovervilles of the 1930s.

My America is also seen up close in the eyes of its people. They are eyes that speak without words. Among those photographer Michael S. Williamson and I remember the most from our most recent travels around America:

The eyes of a Michigan woman who has fallen from upper-class privilege and is now standing in a charity food line are still proud and hurting a year after she lost the big home. A frugal white-collar mom, raising children on her own, works two jobs year-round, in some seasons, three; her eyes fill with tears as she talks about how she is barely surviving in Austin, Texas. A waitress in her sixties, whose tips are way down, will never be able to retire and believes she’ll work until she falls dead; her sleep-deprived eyes gaze into a realm of numbness as she sprints between tables at a Denny’s in Florida. Unbridled fear is in the eyes of a Latino man, a U.S. citizen, who is terrified of being stopped and once again bloodied by Joe Arpaio’s thugs otherwise known as Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies in Phoenix—they have assumed he’s undocumented because of his brown skin.

There are so many more, named and nameless, thousands of eyes.

Some say that Americans are no longer able to stand up to tough times the way the “greatest generation” of the 1930s Depression and World War II did. But this is so very wrong. We are wounded as a culture today, certainly, and many of us are soft, bewildered, made numb by loss. Yet something is going on. We are at the front end of a process. People will rise to the challenge of these hard times. We have a long way to go before the transformation occurs, but it will happen. As usual, the people are ahead of our alleged leaders.

I know this because I’ve been out there looking into the eyes of Americans, some of whom Michael and I have visited repeatedly over the decades, listening closely to what has happened to them. There’s a lot I don’t know. But American working people, I know. Mine is a journey that began in 1980, when I hired on as a police reporter at the Sacramento Bee. I was unaware then that I would soon be drawn into the lives of America’s economically dispossessed and homeless. At the Bee, I met up with Michael. He was young like me, newly a staff photographer after having spent a few years as a copy boy. Michael would go on to cover this story with me. It’s not a story we set out to do. It found us.

By 1982, we were immersed in reporting the recession of that decade, which was then the worst hard times since the Great Depression. (Those days now seem nearly idyllic in comparison.) Over a period of three years, we documented the decline of a steel town; this work became our first book, Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass. We traveled around the nation with job seekers by bus, by thumb, in boxcars, and in a rusting 1973 Olds Delta 88. We slept in rescue missions and hobo jungles. We saw, over and over and over, desperation and terror in the eyes of the newly homeless. It was a look we weren’t supposed to see in America.

Throughout the next few decades, we continued interviewing and photographing workers, white collar and blue collar, whose lives had been growing steadily worse, despite the glowing economic reports found in the business and popular press. We hit the road for newspaper and magazine articles and for books. Other times, we went just because we felt it had to be done, even if our work never saw publication.

A conservative estimate is that we have journeyed, together and separately, a half million miles by car and freight train around the country since 1980, talking with hundreds of people, in our work documenting Americans.

Both of us have drawn from history in our work. For Michael, the work of photographers Robert Frank and Walker Evans are a strong influence. (Michael is a bluesman with a camera.) One of my influences is Louis Adamic, a now-obscure writer who did some amazing documentation of America in the 1930s. Another is John Steinbeck. In 1999, Tom Wolfe spoke to my students at Stanford University about his method of operating as a writer. When he approached the reporting of a story, he said, his “Theory of Everything” was “status,” or social position. By this, he meant that people are motivated by “group expectations.”

Long before Wolfe articulated this notion, Steinbeck had elaborated his theory of the “group-man,” the idea that people can come together in a “phalanx,” an assemblage that can develop its own motives and behaviors—which might be quite different, even at odds, with those of individual participants. From my reading, his concept most clearly applies to authoritarian groups, those with an “iron fist,” as he wrote. I think of it as a “marching phalanx” when powerful groups conspire, wittingly or unwittingly, against individuals or social groups who do not wield political or monetary clout. In The Grapes of Wrath, for example, the big eastern bankers and local cops were arrayed against farm laborers and dispossessed migrants.

Our 30 years of work has been about today’s marching phalanx. Again, it’s about big bankers and, in some places, local cops. It’s also about politicians who don’t care about people who can’t or don’t give them donations. And, once more, it’s a story of people and weaker groups caught up in events beyond their control, dealing with tragedy and challenges.

As for the power behind this phalanx, Steinbeck termed them the “Big Boys.” Today they are still largely boys, these “big men” on Wall Street and in Washington who have ruined the lives of American workers. When things took a bad turn in the fall of 2008 as the stock market tanked, I sent my Columbia University journalism students down to Wall Street to check out the Big Boys. They half-expected to find people jumping from windows. (No traders leapt to their deaths, even in 1929; that tale of the early crash is fable, or wishful thinking, as historians have documented.)

Today, officials brag that another Great Depression has been avoided because of the bailouts given to the Big Boys.

Yet what has been done for workers and low-income Americans, who have for too long been bleeding? When we look at where most of the help has been directed, it’s plain to see that we took care of the wealthy, just as we’d been doing for the previous 30 years. Trillions for the titans. Crumbs for the rest of us.

But have we really averted a crisis like that of the 1930s? The answer, officially, on paper, is yes. But many rapids (and maybe even a waterfall) surely lie in wait in the economic river ahead of us. Regardless, I argue that millions of American workers are in fact in a Depression—and have been for some time—and that the overused modern expression “Great Recession” is misleading. In fact, if we applied this terminology to the 1930s, the Great Depression was technically two “Great Recessions,” one that spanned the years 1929 through 1933, and another that ran from 1937 to 1938. Between 1933 and 1937, the market and other indicators upticked, a “recovery” that didn’t, however, mean a return to pre-1929 conditions. Things regressed after 1936, when President Franklin Roosevelt backed off on stimulus spending in the face of conservative opposition.

I’m not an economist, but from my street-level perspective, the technical definition of a Great Recession or a Great Depression might mean a lot to Wall Street and banking interests, but it means very little to the jobless. These official pronouncements often seem like nothing more than semantics. My Great Recession is your Great Depression if you lose your job and your home. The oxymoronic term “jobless recovery” is an insult to those who have been laid off.

In the past century, the economic experts were repeatedly wrong in the lead-up to the 1929 market crash, and they continued to be wrong through the 1930s as they predicted a turnaround. And they’re likely just as wrong now. Who knows what will happen this time? I don’t. All I do know is that we should stop relying on the words of supposed experts and should instead listen to the voices of people like those in our new book, listen to our own instincts as we try to survive. These ordinary people are the real experts.

Michael and are not wonky. In our current book, we aim to show the human side of where we are today, trapped in an economy whose fruits have been denied to a majority of Americans.

It’s taken 30 years of war against working-class Americans to get where we are. It may take a generation to get out of this mess. We are at a cultural and economic turning point. One era has ended; another, as yet unnamed, is dawning. How will it be shaped? As we begin to understand the pointed, painful questions that must be addressed, such as finally ceasing the firehosing trillions into the military-industrial complex, perhaps we can begin to change.

After a long career as a journalist and documentarian, I’m deeply disillusioned and cynical about our political and business “leaders.” They have failed us, repeatedly.

Yet I am ever the optimist about the American people. This is the message of our new book. People are coping and adapting on their own. Lacking any help from a federal level in the face of inaction by the Pansycrats (Democrats) and the Republicans in bed with the Big Boys, people are charting ways to survive today’s Great Depression. Something is going on and our new book is not as depressing as the title might appear: I have hope in the energy I am seeing among ordinary people struggling to cope and find community to create a new America. In their voices are lessons for all of us.

One thing I’ve discovered in all these years of hearing Americans talk about their lives and dreams is that collectively we are strong. We are survivors. We emerged from hard times in the 1930s. We will do so again and will begin the long process of rebuilding an economy that works for everyone, but this can happen only if we relearn some lessons about caring for and relying on one another. And relearn we will, for we have no other choice.

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Dale Maharidge is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia.