In March of 1936 U.S. photographer Dorothea Lange, on her way to San Francisco after searching the countryside for Depression-era photos, passed a sign saying "Pea Picker's Camp" in Nipomo, California. Thinking little of it, she drove on. But a few miles down the road she changed her mind and turned back. Her first encounter in the camp was with a widowed 32-year-old Oklahoma mother of seven who had driven to California looking for work. Now, after a storm had wiped out the crop, and after she had sold the tires from her car to buy food, she sat under a makeshift tent with her children, unprepared for the days ahead of them. She looked a lot older than 32.
Days later a San Francisco News article reported: "Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squalor." Shocked Californians immediately began sending food, and the family of "migrant mother" Florence Thompson found refuge in a government shelter.
Millions of Americans today are like the woman in that 76-year-old black and white photo: desperate and determined but dignified individuals who want a job rather than a handout. But the present keeps fading into the past. The National Poverty Center recently reported that extreme poverty in America has doubled since the 1990s. 1.5 million people live on less than two dollars a day. Many more Americans -- up to half the population -- are considered "low income" by the Census Bureau.
Just like in the Depression years, people are losing their homes, or they're losing the wealth that was in their homes. Foreclosures now account for almost a quarter of all residential sales. American families owe $700 billion more than their homes are worth.
Just like in the Depression years, people are without work, or they can't find decent jobs. Unemployment figures don't show the millions of underemployed and the millions who have stopped looking for work. Incredibly, wages over the last decade have increased more slowly than during the ten years of the Great Depression.
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Other comparisons between then and now are equally striking. Inequality has returned to the modern-day high set in 1928. The middle class is rapidly losing its consuming power. Congress is making the same mistake that led to the "Roosevelt Recession" of 1937, focusing on budget-cutting rather than job growth.
Conservatives insist that the poor can't become dependent on government. That's fine, if they have job opportunities. Education is said to be the key. But state education cuts for 2012 are $12.7 billion, federal education cuts of 8% are anticipated beginning in 2013, and the total amount of student loans has reached $1 trillion.
Then wage a war, as we did in the 1940s, but this time against oil, by building wind turbines and solar panels and a smart grid for alternative energy transmission. That would create millions of jobs, and take us far away from a time we'd like to forget.
And it would put America back in the hands of middle-class workers instead of financial executives whose only goal is to get rich. It might even create a new class of folk hero. For a while in the 1930s "Pretty Boy" Floyd was a hero for taking money from the bankers responsible for foreclosures. He'd still be popular if he were around today.