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.

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.