Along Recession Road

Meet some of the people who are falling out of the American middle class

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.’‚ÄČ” 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?”

She was selling clothes she liked to wear, her children’s toys that they still wanted to play with, and her daughter’s bed. She got $15 for the bed. “Did she outgrow it?” Williamson asks. “No, no, she loved that bed. I’m desperate. She can share with her sister.”

The Fix Is In

Lutz, Florida June 23, 2011 3:10 p.m.

After having no luck finding a well-paying job, Greg Perrini made ends meet by doing yardwork. Then he learned that mortgage companies and banks need workers to maintain foreclosed homes.

Most of the houses that he keeps presentable are places where the owner was evicted or just walked away. The homes then fall prey to vandals and thieves, sometimes almost instantly. “I’m not going to lie to you. I’m doing better these days because somebody’s life fell apart,” he says. “But what do you expect me to do, turn down work? I do a good job, and I’m cheap.”

There are thousands of homes in foreclosure in central Florida where Perrini is based, so he doesn’t expect to be out of work anytime soon. “Look, I’m really sorry about this real estate mess. But, hey, I got kids to feed, you know?”

Window to the Future

Lavelle, Pennsylvania January 1, 2011 12:39 a.m.

Williamson left Shamoken, Pennsylvania, after New Year’s Eve. He was driving lonely backroads to the east and came to this town with a population of 649. A man smoking a cigarette outside this mini-mart was the boyfriend of Samantha Nevick, who cleans windows as part of her job as a clerk on the overnight shift. The boyfriend was there to protect her from drunks he suspected might be out on the holiday.

Nevick, in her early twenties and from a middle-class family, wanted to go to college to study forensic science, in the hope that one day she might be a crime-scene investigator. She had trouble getting loans and so her plans are on hold. Her family doesn’t have the money to pay for school. “I might just settle for working here,” she says, “and hope I make manager someday.”

Soap Opera

Lowndesboro, Alabama May 28, 2011 10:13 a.m.

After growing up in Arlington, Virginia, Sam Gordon came to live near his extended family in Alabama. He found a tight job market, so Gordon decided to create a job. He rigged a mobile car wash (pulled behind his truck on a small trailer) out of a 250-gallon water tank, a generator for a spray hose, various brushes, and a dozen different soaps and waxes.

When Williamson came across him, Gordon was on US Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery, the route of the famous 1965 civil rights march. “For fifteen bucks, I will wash the holy heck out of your car,” he says. “Just a few years ago I could make a hundred dollars before noon. Cars were lined up; there was an hour wait. Now I only get about three cars a day. I understand it. I mean if money is tight, you’re going to wash your own car.

“You know, there is a byproduct of this recession people aren’t thinking about. There’s a demasculinization of the American male. The jobs that are available, they’re in fast food, cleaning motel rooms. Women get those jobs.” He emphasized that he was not against women working. “But a guy’s not being a guy anymore. There are a lot of households here in the South where the man is unemployed and is feeling worthless. People are underestimating what that can do to a culture.”

Sad Movie

Abingdon, Virginia June 18, 2011 9:43 p.m.

Barbara Faulkner, the general manager at the Moonlite Theatre, counts the evening receipts inside the ticket booth. She said that the Moonlite drive-in, built in 1948, has survived the advent of television, video, the DVD, and even the construction of the interstate highway that put it off the beaten path.

But what has her worried these days is the recession. “People are hurting because there are no jobs and gas prices are high. Going to the movies is a luxury, so in turn we are cutting it real close,” she says. “We have damage to our sign and screen from the last bad storm but right now there’s no money for repairs.”

She explains that the theater makes almost no money from ticket sales. The concession stand accounts for their small profit. “We don’t show ‘R’-rated movies because we need families to come here. It’s the young kids who want the candy. If they aren’t allowed in, we make much less. Half of the staff is volunteers because they love it here. Gosh, if we had to pay everybody, we’d be dark by now.”

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Dale Maharidge and Michael S. Williamson's latest book is Someplace Like America: Tales From the New Great Depression, published this year by the University of California Press.