Ph.D. Octopus

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The New American Underclass, the Unraveling of America, and Bruce Springsteen: A Review of Someplace like America

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By Peter

According to a recent study by the National Employment Law Project, the vast majority of new hires made since the Great Recession has started have been in low wage jobs. People are losing mid or high wage jobs and gaining low-wage jobs. Meanwhile the wealth gap between races is the worst in 25 years. Black families have lost half their median family assets, and Hispanics have lost a shocking 2/3rds of their median household assets.

From a bird’s eye view, then, the Great Collapse of 2008, which many of us thought would be the death-knell of neoliberalism, has turned out to be its best friend. As is often the case, capitalism will come out of the crisis reorganized and restructured, with access to desperate low-wage workers, who no longer even expect mid-range wages, a larger reserve army of the unemployed in order to keep those with jobs in line, and a radical Tea-Party led (and Democratic- abetted) assault on unions, government regulation, and social services. Those who still have jobs are working more hours and seeing their responsibilities multiply, while getting paid less. The age of austerity may finally realize Milton, Barry, and Ronald’s dream of destroying the post-war social compact.

And yet, as Dale Maharidge points out in Someplace like America, a new book of photographs and stories from the Great Recession, for most low-income America, the Great Recession (or as he calls it “The New Great Depression), began decades ago. Since at least the 80s, Reaganite economic policy has created a growing underclass of Americans, who have largely seemed invisible to American society. For a brief moment in 2009, Mahardige remembers, journalists were interested in the tent cities springing up outside of cities in California and Florida. But they wanted to hear about people who had just lost their jobs. In fact, most of the residents had been struggling for years, even during the supposedly good times of the 90s. The Crash simply broke the camel’s back.

In some ways its an underclass whose lives seem familiar to us: the men and women who ride railroads, sleep under bridges, squat in abandoned factories, hover outside of overcrowded breadlines, and drift from town to town drawn by rumors of work seem all reminiscent of Woody Guthrie songs and John Steinbeck novels. But it also deeply alien to see it today, which is why many of the most jaring photographs juxtapose images of 21st century American consumption (a Kenny Rogers ad, a faded Office Depot sign, a Wal-Mart, etc…) next to images of 21st century poverty, to familiarize us with a phenomenon we were told doesn’t exist anymore. Suburbanization and the creation of highways has, to a large degree, pushed this poverty out of sight. The poverty rate in the suburbs, where poverty tends to be much less visible, has been skyrocketing.

In many cases, these are men and women who have known better. Much better. There is a sense of bewilderment to the unraveling of the Fordist social compact, as people can’t quite understand why they don’t have the opportunities their parents did. There is B.T., found selling his life’s possessions alongside a highway in Tennessee, in order to buy food. He was an auto mechanic for years, and was laid off a year and a half ago. “I’m ashamed. I’m the kind of guy who works. I always worked… I haven’t gone to the church yet, because I’m a little embarrassed,” he says. His area of Tennessee was devastated by NAFTA, as the Oshkosh factory closed up and went to Honduras.

The authors go to Youngstown and follow the diaspora of workers, scattered after the devastating closures of the steel mills. In a shack outside of Houston, they find one. His grandfather had worked in the mills in Youngstown, he had hauled steel. When it all crashed down, he lost his job, drank, and drifted. Now he “babbled nonsense… a creature that once was a man,” and lived on the streets. They interview Sally, an “upper-middle class” mother, whose husband was a business-owner. Now she’s waiting outside a food bank in Michigan with a crowd of people. “None of the 224 faces,” she stands with, “register as being any different from those you’d see in a suburban shopping mall.”

One picture is of a family—the baby stares directly at the camera– while the family is too embarrassed to look-up —in line at a free health care clinic in rural Virginia. The caption is the kicker: The Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps used to only work with the “desperately poor” in third-world countries. Now it operates largely in rural America.

True poverty, Maharidge points out, takes some time to kick in. At first, when people lost their jobs in Youngstown, they survived. Some found new jobs, others accepted lower pay. Many drifted on unemployment or disability. But eventually these supports dry up, and the longer you’re out of work, the harder it is to get new employment. You are evicted or foreclosed, your family or friend gets sick of you crashing with them, and you move on. Maybe you hear about an opportunity a couple of towns over, but can’t afford a hotel room or a deposit on a rental. So you begin sleeping in your car. Gas and maintenance becomes too much, so you hitch or walk. Many sell blood or begin scrounging food from wastebins, at first in moments of despair, later as an everyday activity. The embarrassment and stress gets to people, who begin abusing drugs or alcohol. Many are victims of theft, murder, or rape, and rarely do the police investigate.

As the Great Recession continues (and it is continuing for most people…) the middle class is falling into the lower class, the lower class falling into the poor, and the poor falling off the social map into the informal economy of scrounging, subsistence farming, petty thievery, homelessness, prostitution, and the like. There are almost certainly more Americans who live like this then, say, Americans who watch the Daily Show. Mahardige and Williamson introduce us to “Edge men,” people who have completely given up on the prospect of employment, and squat or set up tents outside of cities, to live permanently outside of society. With years of high unemployment, and millions of so called ‘99ers approaching the end of their benefits, we better get used to seeing these people.

The authors of Someplace like America had previously collaborated on Journey to Nowhere, which had the distinction of inspiring a number of Bruce Springsteen songs, including Youngstown. There is a line in that song, “those big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do,” referring to the destruction of the steel mills. It comes directly from an unemployed steel worker Joe Marshall Sr. There is an odd section of Someplace like America, where the authors meet Springsteen and sneak into the abandoned Jeanette blast furnace (the “Jenny”) to contemplate what’s happening to America. I’ll give Bruce, who wrote the introduction to this book, credit. In his own way he’s been warning about this stuff for decades, while much of the left couldn’t even use the word “class.” During the heady days of Morning in America, while the Democratic Party began its now unbreakable marriage with Wall Street, he was writing about the consequences of these policies. He saw the future better than most political pundits did.

Even many of us on the left aren’t nearly as comfortable talking about poverty and class, as we were in the 30s. We’re comfortable with racialized urban poverty, which makes sense in our post-68, urbanized, information-age worldview, but have pushed rural poverty (white or black) completely out of our imaginations. We live in Brooklyn or Cambridge or San Francisco or Portland, little bubbles that have done much better than the rest of the country. Our discourse is almost completely unable to talk about poverty except as a technocratic problem. The moral core of the problem—that some have so much and some have so little, and that this is a result of collective decisions we have made—can not fit into our ideological imaginations.

Which is why the photographs by Michael Williamson are so important. I wish there were more. It’s a book that is self-consciously in the tradition of Let us now Praise Famous Men (the authors previously had done a follow-up, called And Their Children After them) and Dorthea Lange. The photos are stark black and white images, often of destroyed mills or houses, with only slight traces of human activity. When he focuses on a human subject, often the faces are obscured, as the child pumping water by hand, from the only source of fresh water in Bayview Virginia, a rusty iron spigot. B.T., the unemployed mechanic selling his life’s possessions from the back of his truck, looks down, ashamed of what he’s doing. Perhaps my favorite photography is of “Edge Man Ed.” You only see him in silhouette against a gigantic garish photograph of smiling Kenny Rogers smoking a cigar. Ed had saved the plastic sheeting from a Rogers’ billboard and was using it to make a tent out of.

Williamson walks a fine line, between drawing attention to the poverty and helplessness of his subjects and trying to find the dignity and resolve in their faces. It’s hard not to see the same tension in how Mahardige talks about the subjects or we think about them. Too much pity makes them degraded victims; too little anger is inappropriate.

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Written by Peter Wirzbicki

July 28, 2011 at 14:34

One Response

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  1. Awareness leads to action, action leads to results

    Redefining the Relationship between Awareness and Action
    Ask activists in the U.S. how they see the process of social change, and most will describe a linear relationship: i.e., social change occurs when people become aware of important issues and then act upon this awareness to change society. Thus, working from this assumption, activist’s first focus on education, so that people armed with new knowledge can act to transform society.

    YJ Draiman for Mayor

    August 15, 2011 at 18:18


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