“Survivors of the 21st Century”: Who Are the New Poor in America?

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Journalist Jessica Bruder traveled 15,000 miles and wrote a book about families fallen into poverty who live in motorhomes and survive on trailers.

When you hear again that journalism is in crisis, that the paper press has its days numbered, think of journalists like the American Jessica Bruder, author of a macro-report that can be read as the continuation of The grapes of wrath. If John Steinbeck narrated the exodus from Oklahoma to California of farmers drowned by the crash of 29, Jessica Bruder has followed the pilgrimage of the castaways by the recession responsible for the new poverty in America.

The author, who has collaborated with the main print media in her country and teaches future journalists, originally published her texts in headlines as Harper’s Magazine or the paper edition of The Christian Science Monitor, among other. Now those writings, revised and expanded, have appeared in a book that fits like a punch and reads like a warning of what can happen to us. Nomadic country (Captain Swing), is the birth certificate of a social class: the techno-pawns.

“Workampers” (which we could translate as workers in camp) or “workers on wheels” (workers on wheels). There are a thousand other ways to call those Americans who dreamed of being part of the middle class and have woken up in the nightmare of the wildest capitalism.

Unable to pay a mortgage or rent, they live in their vehicles, with trailers or not, as they roam the country in search of temporary jobs that allow them to survive.

Most are old enough to be retired, a luxury they cannot afford. They define themselves as nomads or, ironically, gypsies. The apostles of neoliberalism call them “Economically displaced”, “indigenous refugees”, “modern homeless” or, at the height of shamelessness, “the wealthy homeless.”

Nomadic country it has been made into a movie with its original title, “Nomaland”. The film, directed by Chloé Zhao, stars a wonderful Frances MacDormand.

Jessica Bruder dedicated three years of her life and traveled more than 15,000 miles, from coast to coast and from Mexico to Canada, to live with these Survivors of the 21st century, the subtitle of her book. He conducted hundreds of interviews and was the shadow of this transhumant population.

He met women and men who rent their workforce from here to there. From picking raspberries in Vermont to apples in Washington or blueberries in Kentucky. They tend forests, guard fish farms, control the entrances to the race tracks or the accesses to the Texas oil fields. One day they sell hamburgers at Cactus League baseball games in Phoenix, Arizona, and the next week they serve stalls at rodeos and the Super Bowl.

They are also the receptionists of camping sites and caravan parks. Companies subcontracted by the United States Forest Service claim their services from the Grand Canyon of the Colorado to the Niagara Falls.

The wages are low and the work strenuous. They work overtime that is not counted and at any time they can be fired, “depending on the interests or needs of the company.” When that happens, back behind the wheel and out on the road looking for something else to pull off.

“They want to take away our decency,” Steinbeck denounced. “There have always been itinerant populations and street workers,” adds Jessica Bruder.

But she has found people who never imagined a transhumant existence and who have had no choice but to hit the road. They live and travel in second-hand trucks or motorhomes and are torn between dilemmas: “Eat or go to the dentist? Car or medicine deadlines? “A coat or gasoline?”

The business giants have specific programs for hiring itinerant personnel in warehouses throughout the country. Amazon’s has a revealing name: CamperForce, a team of campers. The multinational offers them a place in a parking lot with electricity and water supply (and waste management, in the best of cases) while they work in its mammoth facilities during the dates of greatest demand, such as the months before Christmas.

Victims of rising rents and stagnant wages, they join gyms to use the showers. They move from place to place, working seasonal jobs to fill the gas tank. After a lifetime of hard work, in their early 70s, they are homeless and forced into precarious jobs and even more precarious payrolls. In Steinbeck’s novel, a temporary worker complains about the misery he charges. “Take it or leave it, there are two hundred men who will take it.”

A supplement of The New York Times joyfully proclaimed at the end of 2011 that “living in a caravan has become fashionable.” Fashion. In other information, the same newspaper recalled that that year at least 1,200,000 homes were seized, which had triggered the sale of motorhomes by 24%. Tie ends. The protagonists of Jessica Bruder’s passionate investigation are not neo-hippies or mature tourists in search of a second youth. Let’s repeat it: they don’t live, they survive.

“Nomad country” explains that a legion of people who have passed the age of retirement travel thousands of kilometers and endure “the routine indignities of criminal record checks and the detection of drugs in urine” to access “a temporary position such as warehouse assistant ”.

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