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Undone, by Choice

books and culture

Undone, by Choice

A new book chronicles America’s struggling transients but reveals, more often than not, that their predicaments were largely self-created. September 22, 2017
Arts and Culture

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder (Norton, 272 pp., $26.95)

In the foreword to Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Jessica Bruder writes that, while there have always been hobos and restless souls in America, there’s a different brand of itinerant abroad today. “[I]n the second millennium, a new kind of wandering tribe is emerging” among people “driving away from the impossible choices that face what used to be the middle class,” she writes. These are people who must choose between food and dental care, she writes, between a mortgage and electricity, or between paying rent and paying off student loans, because they can’t afford both. They have taken to the road, forgoing the struggle for a permanent home and the costs that go with it to live cheaply by moving from place to place, job to job.

Bruder’s language suggests that it is America’s economy in the twenty-first century that has thrust impossible choices on these nomads—“driving” them to take to the road. But once the author begins her tale—and the great strength of her book is that she spent several years traveling among these people, learning about how they found themselves in these circumstances—what emerges is mostly a portrait of twenty-first century pathologies and their consequences. These are stories of lives fractured by family breakdown, single parenting, alcohol, drugs, spending beyond one’s means, and other destructive habits. From a storyteller’s perspective, these drifters’ tales are more compelling and haunting than the more familiar stories of people under economic duress—of neighbors or relatives hit by the recession of 2008, who lost jobs and perhaps were forced to sell their homes, who spent sleepless nights worrying about the future before the family breadwinner found work again. Bruder’s less conventional tales raise questions that go beyond the Great Recession—about the relationship between long-term cultural breakdown and economic instability, for example—that she has little interest in exploring.

The first character whom Bruder introduces to us—64-year-old grandmother Linda, on her way to spend the summer as a campground host in San Bernardino National Forest—illustrates the author’s flawed approach. The story of Linda’s life, which Bruder weaves throughout the book, doesn’t suggest that a bigger government check, or laws guaranteeing better job security, among other progressive remedies, would have made much difference. Linda dropped out of high school (though she later earned a GED) and had two children whom she largely raised on her own. She’s held many jobs (trucker, cocktail waitress, building inspector, IRS phone representative, insurance executive, dog-feeder), never sticking with any for very long, though she’s worked for big companies, like Home Depot, whose employees often rise through the ranks to management positions. Linda has also owned her own business—a flooring store that went under when her business partner absconded with some of the proceeds—but Bruder doesn’t seem interested in why or how her many other jobs never panned out. We can draw our own conclusions: Bruder eventually reveals that Linda has “dabbled with meth” while raising her kids and battled alcoholism. Might these failings better explain her checkered employment history—and why, at age 64, she’s collecting a Social Security check of just $524 a month and dreaming of building a “radically sustainable Earth ship in the Arizona desert”—than the inequities of the American economy?  

Linda’s story is not unusual. Bruder meets her next itinerant, Don, at a new kind of temporary company town spurred by seasonal work at Amazon distribution centers. To help the online giant during its peak fall and winter seasons, workers in RVs and other makeshift quarters converge on the company’s facilities in an assembly now known as CamperForce. In Don’s words, these people are “workampers,” or “mobile travelers who take temporary jobs around the U.S. in exchange for a free campsite.” Don romantically compares himself with other itinerants throughout history, including Roman legionnaires (an analogy that seems strained, to put it kindly), while others describe workampers as “rubber tramps,” present-day Okies, and even the “affluent homeless.”

Don had started his retirement years seemingly secure. A former software executive, he retired to a Colonial Revival home in Berkeley, California (where the median value of a house is $741,000) and indulged “a lifelong obsession with fast cars.” Then it all came undone. He got divorced, and his wife wound up with the house. The 2008 market crash “vaporized” his savings, writes Bruder, though she doesn’t examine exactly how this happened. The S&P 500 declined 37 percent in 2008; even if Don had all his money in stocks (and even the most rudimentary advice about retirement would advise against that), he’d have subsequently experienced a rebound that has continued for nine years—the second longest bull market in U.S. history—and like so many other Americans, would have rebuilt his capital. What did Don do to “vaporize” his money –real estate speculation? Precious metals trading?—and wind up in a camper with a dog, getting by on $75 a week? Bruder has no apparent interest in the facts of Don’s decline.

And so it goes, throughout Nomadland. Bruder assures us that she met people who had seen their savings wiped out by bad investments, or who didn’t have enough of a safety net to survive injury or divorce, and many readers may know such people. But in most of Bruder’s examples, whenever she (or her subjects) peel back the layers of their lives, something else emerges—as in the story of Alaskan Bob, a guru of the cheap-living movement who suffered through a financially debilitating divorce but also admits that he was a “debt addict,” with $30,000 in credit-card liabilities. That deficit helped force him onto the road and into cheap living as an alternative to bankruptcy.

A journalist can’t tell such stories without offering at least some speculation on their causes. For Bruder, the answer is that this new class of wanderer illustrates the dark underbelly of American capitalism. Yet, her brief detours into economics lead nowhere. At one point, she observes that minimum-wage workers can afford the average rent on a one-bedroom apartment in only about a dozen counties in the United States. Her implication, I guess, is that a lack of well-paying jobs is what puts many people on the road. The problem with this reasoning, as economist Bradley R. Schiller found in a 2011 study, is that for the vast majority of minimum-wage workers, actual family income is much higher. In 94 percent of families with children where an adult works a minimum-wage job, Schiller discovered, the spouse works as well, and minimum-wage earnings account for just 20 percent of family income. Three-quarters of single adults working minimum-wage jobs hold additional jobs, and minimum-wage earnings make up just 30 percent of their income. For others, government already supplies a wide range of income supplements—from the earned-income tax credit to rent subsidies to free health-care through Medicaid—that supplement low-wage work. Today is not the 1930s, and Bruder’s itinerants are not Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl, with no safety net beneath them (though The Grapes of Wrath predictably get more than a few mentions).

What goes unexplored in Nomadland are the economic consequences of the cultural transformations that have shaped American life in the last 50 years. Bruder’s subjects are like a roadmap of that transformation. We’ve made divorce easy and more socially acceptable, but perhaps failed to warn people that it can “devastate your wealth,” as sociologist Jay Zagorsky noted in 2005 research published in the Journal of Sociology. “If you really want to increase your wealth, get married and stay married,” Zagarsky wrote. Bad marriages will happen, of course, and some really do need to end, but the financial consequences of these events are not the fault of the American economy—as the stories of Bob and Don illustrate. Similarly, we now know that the surest way into poverty, especially for a woman, is to have children without a husband, and to do so without completing high school. Some 40 percent of women living under such circumstances are in poverty—and they face a formidable array of obstacles to climbing out of the economic cellar. Can we assign blame for this to the American economy—or does the stark rise in the number of children born out of wedlock bear the real blame? America has also seen a notable shift in attitudes toward permanent work. The proportion of able-bodied adults no longer participating in the labor force has grown steadily for the last 50 years—not only during recessions but also in boom times, when jobs were plentiful. A rise in drug use, accentuated now by the opioid crisis, makes some of these adults unemployable or uninterested in work.

Digging into the cultural trends that go hand-in-hand with economic decline is not politically acceptable in some circles—it’s blaming the victim, says Bob, the champion of cheap living. Bob’s view is typical; Bruder’s itinerants have been taught to see a world aligned against them. “At one time that if you played by the rules . . . everything would be fine. That’s no longer true today. You can do everything right, just the way society wants you to, and still end up broke, alone and homeless,” Bob says.

Bob is exaggerating the economic security of the American past. What he may be feeling, given his own story, is the insecurity and isolation that results when you lose your family and especially your connection to your children through divorce, and spend the rest of your life working to overcome the economic and emotional consequences of those events. Bob’s story, like others in Nomadland, is a tragic one—but it is not principally a story about economics.

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