(236) Broke, USA [Book review]

Broke, USA. From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business.  Gary Rivlin. 2010: Harper Business.
358 pages. ISBN: 978-0-06-173321-5.

On a deindustrializing continent
where elite financial institutions hold enormous power it shouldn’t really be surprising that students, prisoners, immigrants, the unemployed, the unemployable and the working poor have become big business.

Both market and commodity at the same time, such groups find themselves colonies of entrepreneurs and the global economy, to have resources wrung from them at every turn with little concern for morality on the part of those doing the wringing.  A whole set of creepy new economic relationships have come to replace a healthy economy based on making or repairing things of value, growing or preparing the food that sustains us, teaching people, doing research that expands meaningful knowledge, or helping those in physical or emotional need. Lamented here and there, this development tends to be seen as inevitable, even by those victimized by its outcomes.  And victimized they are.

Journalist Gary Rivlin has written a book, now released in paperback, about how less fortunate Americans have become lucrative fodder for large-scale economic undertakings.  It is tough, necessary reading for understanding how things have gone in America since the crash of 2008 and how they may go in other countries like Canada.  Here we see some of the trends evident in Broke, USA but count ourselves fortunate to have not fully arrived in the tragic place described by Rivlin.

Plenty has been written about the Great Recession at the top of the financial ziggurat, anyone who wants to learn all about Goldman Sachs, AIG, the Royal Bank of Scotland, the big players at the US Federal Reserve et al, can do so with ease.  The predatory behaviour directed downwards at the working poor in America has gained momentum since the Reagan-Bush era and went truly hog wild after 2008, a story less well documented.

In a deregulated environment, the credit-hungry, wage-deficient working poor and lower middle classes are sucked into ruinous arrangements with a plethora of corporate players offering them instant tax rebates, payday loans, check cashing services, lines of credit, student loans and credit cards, all rich in fees and high interest rates.  The fact this industry is now bigger than the casino complex is one of the troubling things to learn from this well-written book.  There are a number of portraits of suffering people, ruined lives in fact, from the growing population of customers of this new poverty industry.  Many are people who do their part, who work as waitresses or warehouse workers for example and remain poor despite their efforts to follow the script.  Their desire to escape poverty, as well as public initiatives aimed at reducing poverty, are undermined by the operations of the new hardship industries.  Again and again, the venue is suburban, the place once identified so strongly with success now contains a real horror show.

Why Americans put up with this remains difficult to explain.  The reactionary, feisty, violent nature of our superpower neighbour is generally taken for granted in Canada.  Political illiteracy, fear, ignorance, at this point the how and why seem to matter little.  Again, with a right wing prime minister in office at the head of a majority government Canadians need not be too smug that these abusive conditions will not take deeper root here.  Having said that though, it is harder to imagine any other time in history when Canadians have had so many reasons to be thankful they are not Americans than perhaps since the last few years of the Vietnam war.

Wherever you are, read this book.