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Dale Maharidge’s Chronicles of Widely Ignored U.S. Working Poor Inspire Music of Bruce Springsteen

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Dale Maharidge, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, inspired Bruce Springsteen to write the songs “Youngstown” and “The New Timer” with his first book, “Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass.” Maharidge’s most recent book, “Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression,” is a reported retrospective on his 30 years of covering the working poor and chronically unemployed. He and photographer Michael Williamson traveled more than half a million miles around the United States, reporting the story of how workers’ lives have gotten steadily worse. We speak to Maharidge about his work and how it came to inspire some of Springsteen’s most notable socially conscious songs. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Youngstown” by Bruce Springsteen, from his album The Ghost of Tom Joad, the song inspired by, well, our next guest and the book he wrote. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. This is Democracy Now! Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we turn to an issue that usually receives very little media coverage: the working poor and chronically unemployed. A new report released today by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates the U.S. will likely continue facing high unemployment until 2020. It notes the U.S. needs to add 21 million jobs just to reach pre-recession unemployment levels of about five percent. Earlier this week, the government revealed the nation’s official unemployment rate has jumped back up to 9.1 percent. The nation is facing its worst unemployment slump since the 1930s. CBS News reports about 6.2 million Americans — 45 percent of the unemployed — have been jobless for more than six months, a higher percentage than during the Great Depression.

To discuss this, we’re joined by Dale Maharidge, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist. His book, Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass, inspired Bruce Springsteen to write the songs “Youngstown” and “The New Timer,” which we played just before the segment. In 1996, Springsteen told CBS News he thought the book was so important.

CBS MORNING NEWS: What do you think people should get out of this book?

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Well, that’s — you know, I guess it’s a portrait of the country that people have a tendency to turn away from, you know, because it’s painful. You know, it’s painful. And it’s painful, and it’s frightening. And I believe it’s frightening because, if you read the book, you will say — you don’t say, “That’s not me.” You say, “That’s me.” You know, there’s something in all of the people that they’re writing about in the book, you recognize yourself. And to me, that was the power of the book. You know, it just told — it just told people’s stories. But that’s what — that’s what art does. It tries to give everybody a sense of their commonality, you know? And then — and keep people from turning away, you know, from the harsh things. And so, the book is — it’s just a tremendous voice for issues and for people that very often get ignored, you know, or are considered expendable, or whose lives or dreams are in some fashion swept aside. So that was — that was what the book did for me.

AMY GOODMAN: That was singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen. Well, we’re joined now by the journalist whose work inspired Springsteen’s music. Dale Maharidge has written for Rolling Stone, The Nation, Mother Jones, among other publications, also teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is called Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression. It’s a retrospective on his 30 years of covering the working poor and chronically unemployed. He and photographer Michael Williamson traveled over a half a million miles around America telling the story of how workers’ lives have gotten steadily worse. The book presents a human face to what’s happening to millions of Americans left on the sidelines.

Dale, welcome to Democracy Now!

DALE MAHARIDGE: Great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s a really beautiful book. Talk about these latest figures and what this means.

DALE MAHARIDGE: Last week they announced that there’s 54,000 new jobs the previous month. And I’m not joking: 25,000 of them were literally McDonald’s jobs. That’s the kind of work we’re seeing coming in. Many of the people in the book aren’t homeless. They’re working. You go to their houses at their suburban-looking cul-de-sacs. You go inside, and you see their refrigerators empty.

A precipitating factor in many, many of the cases is healthcare. There’s a woman in the book, Maggie Fonseca, a single working mom in Austin, Texas, works for the State of Texas. She does part-time work as a waitress. She does tax returns some of the years. She bakes cakes. She has two daughters, and she’s barely making ends meet. And it all began when her first daughter, Mary Frances, was born with a congenital problem, and her health insurance didn’t cover it. Over and over, we see that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And yet, you have the reality that, in 2008, when the financial collapse occurred, we were told the entire financial system of the world was in danger of falling apart, and the banks and the businesses recovered within a year. Within a year, you have basically companies fresh with cash, banks putting out record bonuses again. But that hasn’t gotten down to the rest of America.

DALE MAHARIDGE: We had welfare for Wall Street. I really think we need a Works Progress Administration, 1930s model job program. Among youths up to age 28, unemployment is 37 percent, and it’s actually 50 or 60 percent in the inner city, in Latino and black neighborhoods. It’s abysmal. It’s horrible. We’re losing a generation. If only a percentage, maybe 10 percent of those trillions, had been put into a jobs program to put these kids to work, learning skills — my uncle was in the Cs, the Civilian Conservation Corps, in the '30s. He built walls and bridges, which we use still today. They're still in use. And it gave him a lifelong skill. He wasn’t lost because of the Great Depression. We’re not acting as we should for these people today.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to this forthcoming documentary that’s based on your book. It’s called Finding Someplace Like America. In this clip, you talk to Jim Alexander. Jim had worked in a salt mine in Port Huron, Michigan. After he was laid off, his family lost their home to foreclosure.

JIM ALEXANDER: We found ourselves displaced, out of a house, out of a car, lost my car, lost the apartment. And income stopped. I thought, “Oh, wow! We’re in a world of hurt here.” That whole experience toughened us up. My thoughts back then were — you know, I was getting pretty desperate at a couple points in time — that I probably would have used a firearm to secure food, but I’d never shoot anybody. And my whole attitude in the last 30 years has changed about that.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jim Alexander. Talk about how his life changed over three decades.

DALE MAHARIDGE: The Alexanders, when we found them, had no food. They were in a tent in Texas. He had lost his job yet again, because the layoffs had come to Texas. They had gone there for the good times, and those good times ended. And he was a Vietnam vet, and he was desperate. And he was going to rob a store to feed his kids. And he didn’t. Thank heavens he didn’t have to do that. But the journey from then to now, he feels like he screwed up. And this is very typical among a lot of American workers; 1930s and today, the parallels are similar. It’s like, “What did I do wrong?” And Jim didn’t do anything wrong. He’s a hardworking guy. And his son Matthew ended up getting laid off in 2001, and he joined the Michigan National Guard early in 2001. You hear what’s coming: 9/11 happened, he was called up. And every two years now, he has to go fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. He has four kids. And so, these people are still living with the effects of what happened to them darn near 30 years ago.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in this clip, you talk to a former steel worker named Ken Platt.

KEN PLATT: We’ve been in a hole so long here, we don’t even know it sometimes. It’s amazing. They want millions. They’re trying to get millions to tear houses down. You know, it’s just like the destruction of the city has become a major industry.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, tell us about Platt and what happened to Youngstown.

DALE MAHARIDGE: Ken is very lucky. He got a job at the Butler Institute of Art. He learned computers. In the early '80s, he went into computers. Most guys weren't like him. He tells me about the guys he knew who committed suicide or ended up homeless. There’s a huge swath of people. Most of his friends are living with their parents in their fifties and sixties, with their elderly parents. And so, he’s a survivor. And his son works in the steel mill now, and he’s worried about getting laid off. The last time I talked to Ken — well, actually, Michael was in Youngstown just about three weeks ago. They raised his healthcare again, and he was going to not be able to afford it. And so, he’s a success story, but yet he’s struggling. His family is still struggling. It really hasn’t changed. The recovery that came out of the '82 recession didn't exist for the people of Youngstown.

AMY GOODMAN: Back to Bruce Springsteen, who was inspired by your work to write “Youngstown” and “New Timer” after reading your 1985 Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass. This is Springsteen introducing “Youngstown” to an audience, how he often introduced the song at his concerts.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: I was just about finished with songs for most of the Tom Joad record, and I was staying up at night and had a little insomnia, went downstairs into my living room and pulled a book off the shelves. And it was a book called Journey to Nowhere, and text by a fellow named Dale Maharidge and photos by a fellow named Michael Williamson. And what they did was they traveled across the country in the mid-’80s by train, hopping box cars all the way across into California and up into Oregon, and they were sort of chronicling what they were seeing happening out there at the time, you know, as we were kind of all sitting home and hearing about “Morning in America.” I was hearing from a lot of folks that I was seeing, people that work in these different food banks, and they report in the book that there were more people coming in that needed those services than ever before, that there were people coming in who had never been in before and were people who had previously, you know, held good jobs, had supported their families.

And all I — you know, I finished the book in one night, and I put it down, and I remember thinking, well, I’m a guy, like I know one thing. I know how to do one thing. And what would happen if you’re doing — you’ve done something for 30 years and something that’s built — built the buildings that we live in, built the bridges that we cross, people who have given their sons to die in the wars for this country, who end up thrown out like yesterday’s newspapers? So, you know, what would I say to my kids if I came home at night, and I couldn’t feed them or I couldn’t — if they were hurt, and I couldn’t help them or I couldn’t make them safe, insure their health, you know? I don’t know. It strikes to such a central part of who you are. This is called “Youngstown.”

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that was Bruce Springsteen, who wrote the foreword to Someplace Like America. How did you meet, after he just picked up your book off of his shelf and read it one night?

DALE MAHARIDGE: I got a phone call, said “Bruce wants to meet you guys.” I was teaching at Stanford University then, so went to the Mountain View — Neil Young’s Bridge benefit. And we met Bruce. And the first thing I asked was, “How did you find the book?” He said, “I bought it when it came out in the store.” What you just heard about him talking about in Youngstown, we were in Youngstown when Bruce was playing there. And he wanted to see the “Jenny” blast furnace. It was still standing. And I said, “Look, Cargill owns it. They’re arresting everybody.” I knew somebody who was arrested a month before, sneaking in. He said, “Let’s go.” So we snuck into the Jenny blast furnace, spent an hour and a half in there talking about politics and life. And we made it out without getting arrested. And I talk about this in the book. And I didn’t ask Bruce to write a foreword. I sent him the manuscripts. It was a private conversation. I said, “Bruce, is it cool?” The next thing I know, one of his managers, Barbara Carr, calls and says he wants to do the foreword.

AMY GOODMAN: You inspired a lot of his songs. “New Timer,” let’s go to that for a minute.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: [singing] He rode the rails since the Great Depression
Fifty years out on the skids
He said, “You don’t cross nobody
You’ll be all right out here kid.”
Left my family in Pennsylvania
Searchin’ for work I hit the road
I met Frank in East Texas
In a freight yard blown through with snow

From New Mexico to Colorado
California to the sea
Frank he showed me the ropes, sir
Just ’til I could get back on my feet.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bruce Springsteen singing “New Timer.” You spent all those years going around the country, riding the rails, sleeping in homeless encampments. How were you received? Because, obviously, often people feel, when they see journalists or strangers coming into their midst, that someone is out to exploit them one way or another. How you were able to win the confidence of the people you were trying to write about?

DALE MAHARIDGE: I did something that was very rare in America now: I listened. I like listening to people’s stories. And when you listen, and you really care, which I do, people — you can’t fake that. And that’s what I try to do in the book, is I try to show America to Americans, because we’ve got to start a conversation now about what kind of country we want to be, because it’s not going well. We have a war on workers for 30 years. If we listen to their voices, which I do, and Michael does with his photographs — he’s a listener, too — that will get the conversation started. But we’ve got to go there. Otherwise, we’re going to go nowhere.

AMY GOODMAN: The situation today — I wanted to end with Ben Bernanke and his comments, the Federal Reserve chair warning U.S. economic recovery is advancing at a global pace with a full turnaround still years away. He spoke to a conference of bankers Tuesday in Atlanta.

BEN BERNANKE: U.S. economic growth so far this year looks to be somewhat slower than expected. Aggregate output increased at only 1.8 percent annual rate in the first quarter. And supply chain disruptions associated with the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are hampering economic activity this quarter. A number of indicators also suggest some loss of momentum in labor market in recent weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ben Bernanke. That was Atlanta, following the figures showing U.S. added only 54,000 jobs last month, the fewest since September. The nation’s unofficial unemployment rate has increased to 9.1. End with this comment.

DALE MAHARIDGE: If he’s talking that way, he’s got to be really scared. The best we can hope for now is a Japanese-style stasis. That would be a good outcome at this point in America. So if Bernanke is talking that way, worry.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will link to your site. Your book is Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression, photographs by Michael S. Williamson, truly remarkable foreword by Bruce Springsteen. Dale Maharidge is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author, professor at Columbia Journalism School. He’s written for Rolling Stone, George Magazine, The Nation, Mother Jones, the New York Times op-ed page, among others.

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