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Political Bookworm
Posted at 01:54 PM ET, 07/01/2011

In hard times, optimism endures

Praying for better times. Bayview, Virginia. 1998.

About this blog: Dale Maharidge and Michael S. Williamson have spent 30 years putting a face on economic hardship. In 1980, they set out to chronicle in words and photos the plight of jobless workers and homeless families – people living on the margins — and have never stopped. In their book, “Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression,” recently published by the University of California Press, Maharidge and Williamson revisit some of the people they met years ago and report on the newest generation of Americans to fall behind. A common thread ties the eras together: Maharidge, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and Williamson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for The Washington Post, found that struggling Americans from generation to generation share a sense of an innate optimism. Here, Maharidge looks at American optimism old and new.


In the early 1980s’ recession, Washington Post staff photographer Michael S. Williamson and I became hobos and rode freight trains with the new jobless, documenting them as they traveled seeking work. We repeatedly heard two things: there might be a job in the next city, and maybe “they” had to start a war to create employment.

For the next 30 years, in a half dozen books (and Michael documenting workers for the Post), we have kept on the story of how the economy affects Americans. Today, everyone knows that jobs don’t exist elsewhere, and that war isn’t like it was in 1941. War today mostly employs soldiers, not people working in factories.

Yet one thing remains constant, a third thing we found – optimism.

The Alexander family in their ‘living room’ with the neighbors. Houston, 1983.
It’s very American to try to find the bright side. This goes way back in our history. I’m a student of the 1930s’ Depression and its literature. Tom Joad in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” saw a better future in the passage where Tom says he will be “Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy,” and people can build houses and grow the food they eat, and so on – it was an anthem to optimism amid bleakness.

On the other hand, James Rorty, who traveled America for his 1936 book, “Where Life Is Better,” was dismayed by this cheerfulness. “I encountered nothing in 15,000 miles of travel that disgusted and appalled me so much as this American addiction to makebelieve,” Rorty wrote.

He was wrong. I’m encouraged by this positive attitude. In reporting our new book, “Someplace Like America,” we found people changing their lives. An upper class suburban family in New Jersey hasn’t used a credit card in three years in what amounts to a rebellion against bankers by not participating in the consumer society. A single black mom in Kansas City became an urban farmer. A jobless mill worker in New Hampshire joined a local group to help form community.

Over and over, we found people who are changing their lives in a better direction. The message of “Someplace Like America” is that we all can learn from the people we documented.

As usual, citizens are ahead of politicians. There is a lot of anger and Americans hunger for change. But this does not translate into political mobilization.

Among those between the ages of 18 and 29, there is a jobless rate of 37 percent, the same as the Great Depression, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It reaches over 50 percent in many inner city neighborhoods. But these young people don’t protest as they do in Spain.

I don’t expect Americans to become as politically active as the jobless in Europe. But, as in the 1930s, politicians will someday catch up with Americans, as Franklin Roosevelt did, and it will translate into the change that must occur in this country. I don’t see an FDR at this point. But I have to believe that he or she is out there.

By Dale Maharidge  |  01:54 PM ET, 07/01/2011

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