Back in the Great Depression years of the 1930s, unemployed writers, like unemployed steelworkers, were in need of jobs, and so the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, which put all sorts of Americans back to work, did so for writers as well–6,500 of them in the Federal Writers’ Project at approximately $20 a week. Among other things, the FWP’s writers produced a series of classic guide books to American cities and states, still enjoyable to read today. (Richard Wright and John Cheever were among the crew who, for example, did The WPA Guide to New York City.) FWP workers also gathered more than 10,000 first-person oral histories of ordinary — yet extraordinary — Americans, relatively few of which were ever published.
Almost 30 years ago, the writer Ann Banks collected 80 of these into a deeply moving memory piece of a book entitled First-Person America. When you read through it, one thing likely to strike you about its narratives from our last spectacular economic meltdown was how many of the speakers didn’t distinguish between the 1920s and the 1930s, between, that is, "the roaring twenties" of the "Jazz Age" and the Great Depression era. For lots of them, it was all tough times. As Banks wrote in her introduction: "For most of the people in this book, the Depression was not the singular event it appears in retrospect. It was one more hardship in lives made difficult by immigration, world war, and work in low-paying industries before the regulation of wages and hours. Though they spoke of living through bad times, those interviewed by the Federal Writers seldom mentioned the Depression itself."
This came to my mind recently as I read in the Washington Post about a category of crime I hadn’t known existed: desperate people in a money crunch, often behind on loan payments to car dealerships, who torch their cars and then try to collect insurance on them (usually by claiming they were stolen). Washington police estimate hundreds of such cases in their region just in the past two years. Though the numbers of such attempted frauds may now be on the rise, it’s a phenomenon that hardly began with the collapse of Bear Stearns, or the tanking of the stock market, or the global credit crunch that followed. I was left wondering how many people this time around won’t make much of a distinction between the blow-out 1990s, the Bush years in which the President, in response to the 9/11 attacks, asked Americans to head for Disney World and shop till they drop, and the disaster that is now almost certain to follow and haunt us all.
As more people today are behind on car loans than ever before, we undoubtedly can brace ourselves for a rise in car burnings in the years ahead, just as we are already seeing a rise in all kinds of extreme acts, as ever more Americans have their homes foreclosed and face the reality of eviction. As Nick Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, points out, if you search carefully through local news reports nationwide, you can already see where we’re heading, and it isn’t pretty. Not one bit.
Suicides, self-inflicted wounds, resistance to eviction, armed self-defense, arson, and murder–such acts may become increasingly run-of-the-mill as the foreclosure and financial crises meld into a single disaster in the United States. Already Turse finds painful evidence of the human costs of the present crisis bubbling up into consciousness. As he writes in "The Rising Body Count on Main Street":
"Right now, there are no real counts of the many extreme acts born of the financial crisis, but assuredly other murders, suicides, self-inflicted injuries, acts of arson and of armed self-defense have simply gone unnoticed outside of economically hard-hit neighborhoods in cities and small towns across America. With no end in sight for either the foreclosures or the economic turmoil, Americans may have to brace themselves for many more casualties on the home front. Unless extreme economic steps, like mortgage- and debt-forgiveness, are implemented, the number of extreme acts and the ultimate body count may be far more extreme than anyone yet wants to contemplate."