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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.

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