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.
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.
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.