Mary Beth Writes

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century - by Jessica Bruder

 

You’ve read these kinds of statistics before.  In the US our incomes are spread like this: The top 1% suck up 81 times MORE annual income than the bottom half of ALL Americans.

 I wanted to know more, looked around and found this. “…the problem of economic disparity lies not nearly so much with the "one percenters" as with the top one-hundredth of that top percentile, about 30,000 people and 12,000 households. These are the super-rich who took in all of the nation's economic growth after the Great Recession plus another 5% from the bottom 93% of households which actually became poorer.”  Quora 

And if you’d like to know who those families are, here they are. The Johnson’s in Racine are #6. Forbes

If you are planning to retire and wonder how you will afford it, or if you are stretched thin for income now, or if you ARE retired - or if you vote – you ought to read Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder.

Bruder spent three years reporting from (sometimes living and working among) communities of Americans who are living in vans, RV’s, cars, and trailers because they can no longer afford to live in houses and apartments. These people, most of whom are past retirement age, are living on inadequate social security checks and temp jobs that offer no benefits – because those are the jobs left in America for skilled, hard-working, educated, smart, past-50  Americans.

The people she interviews and features are mostly Baby-boomers. These are people who got educations and training for a multitude of skilled and highly skilled jobs. They worked these jobs most of their lives - until the economy broke. These are women and men whose economic lives were devastated by loss of jobs when industries moved off shore, or by being replaced by younger workers who were cheaper to pay.  By caring for their kids or parents, or who went through decimating divorces. Who owned homes that went under water in the 2008 recession, or who lost their life savings in that same recession. Some of the younger (under 50) people lost secure homes by paying back education loans for jobs that did not pay enough and which did not pay benefits (such as college level teaching).

Bruder is a good writer. Transient people “moving like blood cells through the veins of the country.” These people are “counting the miles that unspool like a filmstrip of America.” The travelers know “The last free place in America is a parking spot.”

The people she interviews are not pathetic and they do not tug at your heartstrings although you realize quickly that they remind you of people you know, or they are way too close to your own situation.

This is a wake-up book and I have never read anything quite like it.

You see how “houselessness” happens. People who have lived in houses and apartments all their lives get caught in economic undertows. They lose a reasonable job, they can’t pay their housing and utility costs so they live on other people’s couches while they work box-store jobs while they send out hundreds of resumes … until months later when they realize they can’t live with their kids or siblings or friends anymore. They read on the internet about living “off the grid” in trailers and vans; they begin to realize there is an entire community of roving Americans who know this trapped situation and have invented an alternative story.

This is the juncture where huge questions exist.

These people buy, repair, fix-up old RV’s and trailers, cargo vans and cars. They learn new ideas and skills on the internet; there are many blogs and websites devoted to sharing “on the road” knowledge, attitude, and adventures. There are obtainable temp jobs known to all these people: Amazon warehouses before Christmas, harvesting the sugar beet crop in Minnesota and North Dakota, camp host at camp grounds, selling Christmas trees, staffing seasonal roadside stands, service jobs in towns that have huge but temporary festivals. People travel from job to job, earning income to support themselves.

So they are working but usually at physically demanding jobs. Amazon warehouse pickers typically walk 15 miles per day on concrete floors. The sugar beet harvest is about managing hugely heavy sacks of beets. Seasonal work is rarely eight hour per days, these are jobs that are 10-12-14 hours each and every day. No benefits; plenty of expectation that people will work at breakneck speeds. These jobs veer between exhausting, harsh, and brutal. 

Then there are “down times’, typically in January and February in desert locations, where people gather in huge encampments. They make friends, teach and attend daily seminars on all aspects of life on the road. Cooking lessons, engine repair, driving techniques, how to stay ahead of and outside law enforcement when finding safe, free places to park.

These people are the best of American baby-boomers. They take a hard situation and turn it around to be a “choice”. They revel in travel, bonfires at night with old and new pals. They share music, art, conversation, and laugher. They take day trips to particular communities in Mexico to get affordable dental care, eye exams, and OTC medications that one must get via Rx in the US.

These people are gung-ho, problem-solving, “can-do”, sharing, fixing, and mutually independent. They are really good humans. This lifestyle while it works, is a fairly healthy life for humans. Busy, physical, communal, plenty of company, plenty of alone-time to think and plan and dream.

But when it stops working- there is no lower to go. There is no end game. It’s this until one falls or fails, and then a hospital might patch one back together, but there is no home to which to go.

Plus there is this anomaly. Nearly all the people living this life are white. Why? An obvious onservation is that if its this hard for an old white lady with a mini-poodle to find a safe place to park her little van at night – what will happen to people of color? There must be more to this, but this is certainly a lifestyle with plenty of options to interface with law enforcement.

Len and I have talked so much and so often about our frugality. It works for us, we have a strong amount of saved money in conservative investments. (We didn’t lose much in 2008. Thanks, Jack.)  We made financially conservative choices most all our life (well, one could say the 3rd kid was not an economic choice – but she just started a Master’s program yesterday WHILE she works FT; she may end up the richest of us all! Also, we really, really like her ….) We stayed married. We learned and pursued frugal strategies.

But as we entered our 50’s our options in our jobs slid the same path as it did for the people in Nomadlands. We were given more responsibilities and opportunities in our careers while employers paid us less and less. We were hired, we fixed problems, made cold calls, engaged customers and co-workers, organized and streamlined what we were doing, wrote How-To manuals for various complicated parts of our jobs – and then when our employers were squeezed by outside forces – they let us go and hired younger people for lower salaries to do the jobs we had put in good shape.

This happened for us and it has happened for many of you. I know this, I have talked with you. This is the trending path of employment in the US.  It is not sustainable but while it goes on those 25 families are grabbing the wealth of this nation.  While we citizens are becoming more strapped for income and some of us are sleeping in cars with clever curtains and rigged-out batteries to start the heat pump when the water in the RV toilet starts to freeze.  

This is a political book and it is scary. This is the future of our country … and it is possibly the future of us. Read the book. Pay attention.

 

PS: Yes, I read Nomadland as an eBook loan from my library. 

 

 

Comments

Scary. I have read of this phenomenon before. I am planning to buy this book and support the author. If ever I thought “ there but for the grace of God..., this is it. I have an intelligent son with a wife and a baby- to- be who lives like this. We are trying to find them an affordable place to live in. As it is, they are planning on having two roommates. Very different from when I was young... we have wealthy neighbors whose children made great choices and have high cost of living lifestyles. Very different
Mary Beth's picture

I read somewhere that if a strong thing happens and it affects you - that becomes the psychology of you. If that thing happens to many people, that is sociology and as such, is a societal problem. When (we are all asking), will the people who win political races ALSO be the people who want to attack these societal issues and problems? Some do, but obviously not enough. Not when the 25 families can buy congress and the Supreme Court. I'm not totally negative, but its hard to keep the cynicism at bay.

I realize how easily this could be me, especially with the current government. Certainly not the American Dream nor any of the promises made as we paid into Social Security, Medicare, and other benefits. I share my home with a friend who has struggled; it benefits both of us. Not the life we expected.
Mary Beth's picture

I thought of you as I read the book (and many other friends). You have picked your way across this minefield, but it is requiring decisions we never foresaw.

Great review of this book Marybeth. I too read this from the library but will buy a copy to support this author. I have many people I want to give a copy to. I talked about this on my blog too. I'm linking your review to my site. Very well said. I love your writing.
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you! And in case someone wants to check out your site - it is: http://ihearttightwads.com/ We are working on this website as we go along. One of these days we will have an automatic way for comments to lead readers to other writer-websites.
Leonard's picture

This is an interesting review. It spotlights the resilience of the Boomers to deal with tough situations (not sure if "The Greatest Generation" could do as well), but it also makes you wonder what happened to the world, that this was ever necessary. We escaped from a trap of our own making.

I am reading all the columns this morning! Am definitely going to read this book, thanks for the recommendation. Have you read Evicted by Matthew Desmond? I read it last year, and it was eye opening.
Mary Beth's picture

I've read parts of it. After the jail job, reading those stories of people living on that edge ... it works my mind so hard to read of good people living so fraught.

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