To earn rent money, a laid-off single mother in Moulton, Alabama, has a yard sale. She parts with the bed of one daughter who now will sleep double with her sister. In Willoughby, Ohio, a woman who planned to retire is devastated when her investment plans go south. She considers herself lucky to work at Starbucks. In Lavelle, Pennsylvania, college is an expensive dream, probably forever deferred, for a young clerk at a gas station.
These are a few of the people, all tumbling out of the middle class, who photographer Michael S. Williamson found as he drove around the country for his “Recession Road” series for The Washington Post. I was not along for the ride this time, but for the past thirty years, Williamson and I have teamed up to document in books and articles the long decline of the American middle class.
It’s an essential story. And as a presidential election year nears, it’s vital that journalists fully cover that story, as the economy ravages millions. Officially, we’re in a “recovery,” but one that mostly impacts Wall Street. On Main Street, things remain dire. “The biggest chuckle that I get is when I tell people, ‘I did a story at the peak of the recession two years ago and now I’m following up in the recovery,’” Williamson tells me. “Ninety percent of them laugh in my face. They say: ‘Recovery? What recovery?’”
Remember, the Great Depression was really two “great recessions.” Between 1933 and 1937 there was a “recovery,” though the average American didn’t benefit. Larger forces of change were at work—as they are today.
To return to full employment, the US needs to create twenty-one million jobs, according to a 2011 McKinsey & Company report. But eight out of ten of the jobs that will be created between 2009 and 2016 will be low-paying, according to the US Department of Labor. Half will pay less than $22,000 annually. This isn’t a recipe for strengthening the middle class. “We’re in an epic, bro’. We’re not in a cycle,” says Charlie LeDuff, the former New York Times reporter and author of the forthcoming Detroit: An American Autopsy. “People are withering on the vine.”
Yet many are in denial. “It reminds me of when I went to the Soviet Union when it was falling,” says Lucian Perkins, the former Washington Post photojournalist. “They were living in la-la land, talking about how the Soviet Union was the best country in the world. They didn’t know how bad it was. In some ways people in America are the same. They don’t realize some of the challenges we face.”
It’s the job of journalists to show these challenges, says Perkins, a co-founder of “Facing Change: Documenting America,” a project affiliated with the Library of Congress akin to the Farm Security Administration of the 1930s. Perkins says Director Roy Stryker “talked about ‘introducing America to Americans.’ ” It’s good advice for today. He says we have to “not only just present the problem, but find people trying to make a difference.”
These stories are everywhere. Visit local campgrounds and you’ll likely find families who have lost homes. At food banks, you’ll find people whose stories you can explore more deeply. News hooks come with the release of economic data.
What follows are a few sketches of middle-class Americans that Williamson photographed for The Washington Post during the first half of 2011 by driving around and sleeping in “Tes,” his name for the Honda Element leased by the Post. He began “Recession Road” on New Year’s Eve in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, and he will end it there on January 1, 2012. His pictures were taken with an iPhone in standard mode or, occasionally, the Polaroid application.
The Clothes Off Her Back
Moulton, Alabama May 12, 2011 2:13 p.m.
She is at the side of the road, Michael Williamson says, “with a permanent thousand-yard stare.” Her eyes slowly meet his on his long walk from the car, and she senses he is not a typical customer. “I’m raising funds to live,” Rhonda Walker says. “This is not just for fun.”
The single mother of three had worked at a local furniture store, but the recession was killing business. There were two problems, she explains: people stuck with their worn couches as the economy worsened. And those who did want to buy too often didn’t qualify for credit. “They laid me off last December and I’ve looked everywhere for a good job, but nothing,” she says. “I am so embarrassed that I have to use food stamps to feed my kids, but what are you going to do?”