• We Were Once the American Dream

    May 9, 2013

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    Posted in: Democracy

    We were once the American Dream, and now we’re just what happened to it. That’s the phrase that informs my research into a new book I’m working on, The People on the Bus: A Story of the #99Percent. I’m trying to trace the decline of the American Middle Class over the last forty years, and the concurrent rise of the Working Poor. The people I am writing about seem illusive here on the East Coast; in crazy New York last week, visiting the South Bronx, there are plenty of poor people. The sense in Midtown was that if they didn’t deserve to be poor, then, well, they were sort of naturally thrust into it as immigrants, as drug users, simply because they lived in a poor part of the city and it always would be. Kind of the natural ecology of the place.

    In talking to people in New York the working class tends to appear as caricatures, like Joe the Plumber in interior America was to politicians, the people of Brigadoon for elections, who then fade after the candidates grab votes promising new jobs and manicured optimism for a working class that somehow still listens to them. It’s inconveniently convenient to walk among them every four years, like having to be nice at your in-laws’ house for a family gathering. OK as long as it doesn’t drag on too long.

    The View from Ground Zero

    The story is different when I talk about what I’m working on in Kansas, Kentucky or Ohio. People there nod their heads, and everyone has a story to add: the family that lost their home to the bank, the factory that closed down and the retail outlets that replaced the factory closed down, one after another piling up like the late spring snow we had that week. People say “But I’ll take any job. I just want to work. I’m not too proud to get my hands dirty. I still know how to sweat, the good kind.”

    I believe them all. But even if they’ll accept minimum wage, how far is a couple of dollars an hour throwing construction debris into a Dumpster going to get you? Better than nothing but not much better. You going to do ten hours of labor for the phone bill? Another ten for the groceries each week? Another twenty or thirty for a car payment? How many hours you going to work? How many can you work? Nobody can make a full living doing those jobs. You can’t raise a family on minimum wage. And you can’t build a nation on the working poor. It is a rough portrait of an American past and a tough vision to push into an American future.

    But my goal isn’t to speak in broad terms; I want to understand what’s happening on an almost documentary level. So what stood out on this trip was the proliferation of a new, New Economy, one designed to prey on the fact that people who don’t deserve to be poor are now poor. There are whole industries that sprang up because poor people became a new market.


    Pawn shops are an old business, but one that has grown alongside the working poor. In 1911, there were only 1,976 licensed pawnbrokers in the country. By 1988, there were 6,900 pawnshops in the U.S. (one for every two commercial banks) and in 2012 there were almost 14,000 pawnshops in operation throughout the United States.

    Pawn shops are one thing, but there are newer predators on the ground. I ended up buying Kenny’s story for two cups of coffee. Kenny told me that he couldn’t qualify for a credit card, the middle class’ old way of borrowing money. Average people with cards carry monthly balances of almost $16,000 and that’s at twelve to fifteen percent interest, so not a helluva lot different from payday loans. Just looks cleaner. Kenny told me about the trap of the rent-to-own stores, who let people without a credit card rent a TV or a washer and dryer until they paid back a lot more than the appliance is worth. It was more like time payments than rental as most people used to understand the word. By the time you owned the appliance, it was old, and with interest you dropped $450 on a $200 item. You needed something and there wasn’t any other way to get it.

    Rent-to-Own is a big, big business. According to Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin, the largest rent-to-own operation, Rent-A-Center, reported three billion dollars in revenues in 2008. The bottom line has only gotten stronger for them since.

    Cashing In

    Kenny even said he’d tried to cash in on it for himself, working briefly for a collections agency. When folks could not pay, the debt got sold down the line. Some big bank wasn’t going to fuss over small change, so it sold the ownership of the debt to a big agency, who sold it to a smaller one like he worked for, a place that might see profit in getting twenty percent of a two hundred dollar collection. At those rent-to-own joints, customers have to sign tons of papers, all looking like they were written by a Keep Lawyers Employed committee, so that if you miss a payment the store takes back the whole appliance, not just the half they still own.

    This scared the people renting, but actually the last thing that company wanted was to repo a two year old TV, so Kenny’s job was to knock on the door and try to get them to pay something, and at the same time see if they’d refinance at an even higher rate. Loan to pay a loan. That old TV was worth nothing to the rent-to-own store, but it was some kind of magic thing to some old lady. If she was a single mom, the TV was her babysitter—feed your sister after Wheel of Fortune, lights out after Idol– and she wasn’t going to give it up easy. When Kenny talked them into an even uglier refi deal that let them keep the TV, they’d usually thank him for helping them out. Sometimes, he said, moms would offer what he called a couch payment, bed in return for a report to the boss of no one home. His last customer before he quit the job was a former soldier who owed for a bicycle he was renting/buying over time for his daughter’s ninth birthday. Kenny said to hell with it, he wasn’t going to repo a Barbie two-wheeler with pink streamers on the handle bars and reported it as No One Home in that part of America.

    The Ohio town we were in was falling apart economically, but it still had its looks, to a point. This wasn’t the South Bronx. Old habits die hard. When middle class folks fall out of the middle class, they still tend to keep things neat and see that grass gets cut. But what was once maybe quaint was now just old and tired. Pretty soon I worry there’ll be no one home.

    Van Buren wrote about the New Economy and what working for minimum wage means earlier on the Huffington Post.

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  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...


      The American experiment maybe could have used 60 million tops to work for a few centuries not 300 million citizens. It will be a harsh return to that 60 million. The culling won’t be anything anyone wants but it will happen.

      05/9/13 1:07 PM | Comment Link

    • kulturcritic said...


      Hi Peter,

      I would say there never was an American Dream. Rather, it was, and still is, a Global Nightmare. Our national dreaming (actually crafted by a few creative and wealthy promoters) came at the expense of every other non-cooperating society, culture of nation, as well as the health of the natural world. Rather than seek an explanation for America’s growing poor, which really is quite understandable when you play a zero-sum game in a world of finite resources (winner take all), we should examine the psychology and epistemology underlying this fantasy world we have constructed. As your own case would clearly suggest, there is plenty of psychopathy in the official story, more than anyone cares to admit. They know what they want, and damn anyone and everyone that stands in their way.

      05/10/13 3:50 AM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      “The culling won’t be anything anyone wants but it will happen.”

      Um, since the continent is not overpopulated at all, wouldn’t a simpler solution be to devolve into various different nation-states?

      05/10/13 11:55 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      probabaly- but new groupings would have to start off small while large unsustainable cities will experience culling. A little farming community in Nebraska won’t need to cull any of its members. Large groupings will just be too hard to manage. Many people are on almost complete subsidies which will probably be terminated. Good luck living in one of those large cities. It won’t be Soylent Green but how people will act during turbulent times is anyone’s guess. We can hope for a zero generation reset that is fairly organized and peaceful but the record in history doesn’t show that happening often.

      05/10/13 12:25 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote:”We were once the American Dream, and now we’re just what happened to it.”unquote

      right. American Dream. I chased the illusion for 56 years. That’s how old I was when I was able to buy my first home. Not that a bank would even talk to me. It was only because of an “owner financed” deal. I lived in it for 6 yrs. Then, because of the monstrously corrupt Child Support system I had to sell it. Thank god for the housing bubble at the same time. It’s the only thing that saved me..for a while. Bought it for $72k..sold it in ONE DAY..for a whopping $190k..for a 900sf 50’s tract house. Moved to Oregon and found another house, right before the bubble burst. And now…10yrs down the road..I just finished selling that dream by virtue of one of two yard sales. Made enough to pay for the U-haul truck that will carry whats left of that dream to Michigan. In two weeks, one final moving sale, and I might make enough to pay for the gas.
      And then I’m going to walk away from that dream. Just like 4 other people on my street in the last 6 months. There are 8 houses on my little street that are for sale. One of them for over 2 yrs. That’s why we aren’t even bothering putting it on the market. There is none.
      yesireebob. American dream. And that’s EXACTLY what it was. A dream. Inside a nightmare, inside a mystery, inside an illusion. All concocted by the masters of the Compound Interest Paradox.
      youbetcha. Fuck em. All I know is ….unless you can pay off a home, which most people on the low end of the totem pole will never be able to do now…you loose everything. Which in my case was a $25k down payment and 10yrs of principle.
      Oh..btw, about Obama’s “home owner in distress” program he boasted about not long ago…it’s just another round of bullshit. Total bullshit. Vs..all those “too big to fail” banks we bailed out?. Well…they’re doing just dandy. Just dandy. Whudda thunk.

      Well, I’m done with the bullshit.

      05/10/13 2:31 PM | Comment Link

    • jo6pac said...


      This covers it pretty will.


      Pitchfork Good Luck on your next move.

      05/10/13 4:25 PM | Comment Link

    • David M said...


      I love (if thats quite the term) your comparing the middle classes living off cards that are the equivilent to the poor using payday loans. I look forward to the book.

      05/10/13 4:55 PM | Comment Link

    • J.Patricia Connolly said...


      Sorry you didn’t run into people like me in NYC: I’m a lower, very lower middle class earner. I’m a freelance book editor (collections of academic papers on psychology, education, political science), been doing that since the late seventies, and before the economic downturn I got around $25 an hour, now, because I’m paid by the page, it’s more like $8 to 12 an hour.

      Of course there are people much worse off. And I talk to people all the time who’ve been laid off, found another job, only it means doing three laid-off people’s jobs…. So it goes.

      05/10/13 10:33 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      Yes, good luck Pitchfork

      05/11/13 4:31 AM | Comment Link

    • America’s Broken Dreams – Documentary – The new American poor: The Middle Class! Thanks a Lot Obastard For No Jobs For Legal Americans!! The Marxist, Muslime, SOB Has Done This To America Intentionally!! He Admitted His Plan To Fundament said...


      […] We Were Once the American Dream (wemeantwell.com) Share this:PinterestStumbleUponTwitterGoogle +1TumblrFacebookLike this:Like Loading… This entry was posted in Politics and tagged Australia, Disney World, Documentary film, Florida, Medicare, Motel, Social Security (Australia), United States, Walt Disney World. Bookmark the permalink. […]

      05/13/13 1:32 AM | Comment Link

    • Eric Hodgdon said...


      “And you can’t build a nation on the working poor.”

      But, we’ve been built already. So, we don’t need as many people. So, let’s just kill them off legally by starving them to death.

      Learn to resist:

      05/14/13 8:26 PM | Comment Link

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