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This article is from the March/April 2012 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Torn in the USA

A review of Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression. By Dale Maharidge, with photographs by Michael S. Williamson and a foreword by Bruce Springsteen. University of California Press, 2011.


Economics is called the dismal science for good reason. But economists can be Pollyannas compared to journalists.

Someplace Like America documents the consequences of a 30-year war against average Americans. It is a powerful story of the abandonment of the American worker.

Dale Maharidge began interviewing the unemployed during the early-1980s recession. With photographer Michael Williamson, he spent time in Youngstown, Ohio, documenting its decline after the steel mills closed. They also rode the rails with hobos and interviewed homeless families living in tents throughout America. He likened their experiences to the Joads in John Steinbeck&srquo;s novel The Grapes of Wrath after their Oklahoma home was foreclosed on, and they headed west in search of work and the American Dream.

His book Journey to Nowhere told the story of struggling Americans as jobs began to move abroad in the early 1980s. Williamson&srquo;s pictures of abandoned factories, empty towns, boarded up homes, and people in desperate straits provided heart-wrenching immediacy.

Someplace Like America continues the saga. It starts by summarizing the stories from the early 1980s. Then it moves forward to the 1990s and the 2000s, documenting how things have gotten considerably worse. It ends by coming full circle—updating some stories from Journey to Nowhere. Again, the narratives are complemented by a set of moving photographs.

In the 1980s it was hard for Maharidge to find homeless Americans. Sadly, the job became easier over time, especially after the housing bubble collapsed in the late 2000s. But it is not just homelessness that afflicts us today. Many working poor and not so poor have a roof over their head, but they live lives filled with hunger and despair, and are without health insurance.

For me, two tales best capture life these days for many Americans. Frank and Frances were both employed during the mid 1990s. They earned $11 per hour combined (around $16 per hour in 2011 dollars) working at a casino on a Colorado riverboat. Their income enabled them to pay for rent and food, but not much else. So they decided to become homeless and save the rent money to buy a used trailer where they could eventually live. After two months they had $580 in the bank, more than one-third the cost of a used trailer. Unfortunately, there is no follow-up on this story. We never learn if they succeeded, returned in defeat to renting, or even if they survived as homeless Americans in the wilderness.

The second example concerns Maggie, who was one of the relatively lucky ones. She had a $40,000 home in a nice suburb that she helped build with Habitat for Humanity. A good job with the Texas state government paid her $10 an hour (around $15 per hour in today&srquo;s dollars) and provided health insurance. Her annual income was around $9,000 greater than the official poverty line for a family of two. However, after taxes and health insurance premiums, her monthly take-home pay of $1,240 was not enough to survive. Basic expenses (including a mortgage of just $312 a month) exceeded her take-home pay by more than $100 each month. Making life more difficult, her daughter&srquo;s health problems forced Maggie to take significant time off from work without pay.

By 2000 Maggie had married and had another child. In 2005 her husband left, but refused to divorce Maggie or pay child support, forcing her to raise two children on her own. She worked two and sometimes three jobs trying to make ends meet. She currently spends $210 per month on food, or $2.26 per person per day.

Interspersed with these deeply moving and disturbing tales are some facts and figures detailing how America has further declined over the past several decades. Employment shifted from firms like General Motors, which provides good pay and health benefits, to Wal-Mart, which provides low wages and meager health benefits. The result is that many families are at the edge of destitution, trying to survive on little, and hoping for a break. Literally, they are just a car repair or health problem away from being unable to pay the mortgage or rent.

While the economic condition of the average worker has deteriorated, CEOs have done remarkably well. In 1978 they made 35 times the median pay; today they make 350 times the median worker pay. Meanwhile Republicans talk about removing the last strands of the social safety net so that the top tax rates can be cut even more and CEOs have even greater incentives to make money.

Something is clearly wrong here. We live in a country that, as the book title tells us, is someplace that is like our vision of America. In the real America, middle-class women should not wind up homeless if they lose their job. Single mothers (like Maggie) working two jobs should be able to survive without regularly relying on food banks. Older workers lacking sufficient savings should still be able to retire before they die. Real Americans should not have to go to bed at night fearing the consequences of losing their job and their home.

Maharidge likens the current situation to the Great Depression. The moving depictions of dispossessed Americans provide strong support for this view. Too many families have become contemporary versions of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. They travel long and far searching for work. They struggle to survive, getting what little help they can from family, friends and food pantries. Yet life remains excruciatingly difficult. Even those with a good job live on the edge, not knowing if their job is secure, or what will happen to them if they lose it.

Maharidge tries to end on a positive note by updating the stories of two homeless couples he met during the 1980s. Both were doing better in the late 2000s compared to the 1980s. They had homes and jobs and intact families; there was hope that their children would make it into what little remains of the middle class. Still, these are people visibly damaged from a long struggle for survival; and their fate is likely much better than the former interviewees Maharidge could not find because they remain homeless or did not survive.

Seeking to be even more positive, Maharidge introduces us to people building small communities, growing their own food and consuming less. But he recognizes that the deck is stacked against them. In our current economic and political climate, everyone is on their own, subject to larger forces beyond their control. The rich can survive in such a world; most people cannot.

Inspired by reading Journey to Nowhere, Bruce Springsteen wrote two songs for his album The Ghost of Tom Joad (&dlquo;Youngstown&drquo; and &dlquo;The New Timer&drquo;) based on stories in the book. He also wrote the foreword to Someplace Like America. It probably does require a Bruce Springsteen to point out how this book &dlquo;is not a story of defeat. It also details the family ties, inner strength, faith, and too-tough-to-die resilience that carry our people forward when all is aligned against them.&drquo; Optimism can only come from believing that America remains the &dlquo;Land of Hope and Dreams.&drquo;

As an economist, however, I feel compelled to be more dismal and bemoan the fact that so many people must live lives of desperation in 21st-century America. For me there is just one &dlquo;Reason to Believe.&drquo; During the Great Depression of the 1930s policymakers did not understand how the whole economy worked or what needed to be done to create jobs and improve people&srquo;s lives. The result was a bad set of policies, emphasizing fiscal austerity, which made the Depression a truly great one. Today we do understand how economies work and there is no such excuse.

STEVEN PRESSMAN is a professor of economics and finance at Monmouth University. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including 50 Major Economists, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2006).

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