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Dispatches: Pinched Across America

'What lies on the other side of the Great Recession?'

NEW YORK—For Pinched author Don Peck, it all began when he was reporting on the sputtering U.S. economy showing small signs of life for The Atlantic, where he is an editor.

As he tried to get out in front of the next chapter of what had been a very painful American downturn saga, he heard one message from the sages: It’s not over.

That sigh of relief being heard across the land was premature. It would be years before the economy would revive and during that time Americans would be profoundly affected in ways many never imagined.

And so Pinched became Peck’s path, a journey that sent him to spot and make sense of the changes reshaping the American worker, family life, relationships, and more, and to explain them with a historian’s eye.

The book, subtitled How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It, takes a hard look at the personal, social and cultural changes that resulted from the most severe economic shocks to strike this nation—the depression of 1893, the Great Depression of the thirties, and the Great Recession of 2008 from which our nation is still recovering today—and how they altered the character of society.

“The long-run economic troubles that haunt the nation are not limited to a few disadvantaged places,” says Peck, who lives in Adams Morgan. “Left unaddressed they could produce an unwelcome sea change in American culture.”

Patch’s West Coast Editorial Director Marcia Parker sat down with the author as part of the Patch/Huffington Post Media Group’s year-long Dispatches series of stories, blogs posts, conversations with thought leaders, and videos chronicling the changing American dream across the nation.

Peck’s book is one of those stories. A veteran journalist, Peck has been writing about economics and society for The Atlantic magazine for several years, and admits to being “a little wonkish.” He’s comes to these complex topics armed with a B.A. in government and economics from Dartmouth College and a Masters of Public Affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

Patch: What was the impetus for this compact book with a big message?

Peck:  After the economy stopped its freefall, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, I asked expert after expert what do you think will happen next, and they all said the same thing: The recovery is likely to be achingly slow and cause a lot of untold pain. Then I began reading economic histories, and I began to see the patterns. After having written my first cover story on long-term unemployment in March 2010, I felt I owed it to people to look at solutions too.  Now it’s becoming very real. … New college grads are experiencing just what young people experienced in the depression; it’s been a little bit surreal.

Patch: You advocate for several public policy solutions, from making wage insurance available to creating career academies in high schools to give them exposure to new careers and build workforce skills. Have any of those caught on ?

Peck: We are starting to see more conversation in Washington and elsewhere on these topics. President Obama’s jobs bill does include wage insurance. But we need more communities to become involved. An important goal for me was to propose solutions.

Patch: You highlight several worrisome results of the long-term economic distress, including the growing social distance that has grown between different American cliques and classes. How does that manifest itself today?

Peck: The rich have become disconnected. ... People have focused a lot on the rich, ... the bifurcated society. … Because of the nature of this recession, which has been very uneven … it has largely not affected the higher class. … The result is that it has blunted the urgency of recovery and a national conversation.

Patch: You talk a lot about diminished jobs and how we need to create more middle skill jobs and make lower skill jobs more respectable and fulfilling and secure.

Peck: There’s been a slow decline in middle-skill jobs. In the next decade, a larger proportion of Americans may need to take work in occupations that have traditionally required little skill and have paid low wages. We need to do more to support these workers.

Patch: Why did you explore the impact of two key trends—that during the Great Recession, for the first time in the U.S. history women came to hold the majority of the country’s jobs, and that since the recession fewer prime-age men have been employed than at any time since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking that stat in 1948?

Peck: These shifts underpin why family and community problems are spreading more widely. Women and men are struggling with partners who are no longer breadwinners. Experts I talked with spoke of the long-term implications for our communities of unstable families and marriage as an increasingly fragile institution.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to “Pinched: How The Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It,” published by Crown Publishers, New York:  

What lies on the other side of the Great Recession? Nearly three years after the crash of 2008, the American economy has partly recovered, the market has long since rallied, and Wall Street is back from the dead and newly flush. Throughout much of the country, debilitating weakness lingers on.

This book is about the enduring impact that the Great Recession will have on American life. What we know from three comparable economic calamities—the panic of the 1890s, the Great Depression, and the oil-shock recessions of the 1970s—is that periods like this one deepen society’s fissures and eventually transform the culture.

The social changes that occurred in the midst of these other major downturns lasted decades beyond the end of the crises themselves. The Great Recession will prove no different. The crash has already shifted the course of the U.S. economy, and its continuing reverberations have changed the places we live, the work we do, our family ties, and even who we are. But the recession’s most significant and far-reaching ramifications still lie in the future.

The Great Recession put an end to many unsustainable habits, most notably a decade-long mania for credit spending, fueled by a national housing bubble of epic proportions. But by deflating that bubble—and halting all the optimistic spending that had gone along with it—the recession also laid bare other, much deeper economic trends: the growing concentration of wealth among a tiny sliver of Americans; the thinning of the middle class; the diverging fortunes of different regions, cities, and communities. Indeed, as periods like this one usually do, the recession has accelerated these trends.

Across American society, old, familiar patterns of work, family, and everyday life have been disrupted and remade since the crash. Intense economic forces are remolding the American experience and redefining the American Dream.

• The economic rift between rich Americans and all other Americans is gaping wider as the former recover and the latter do not.

•The fortunes of different places also are diverging quickly. High-powered areas like New York, Silicon Valley, and Washington, DC, are putting the recession behind them. Former oases for aspiring middle-class Americans—Phoenix, Tampa, Las Vegas—have been exposed as mirages. Nationwide, newer suburbs on the exurban fringe appear to be in irreversible decline, and the families living in them are stuck and struggling. As a result, middle-class mores and lifestyles are being transformed—and so are the futures of middle-class children.

• Women are fast becoming the essential breadwinners and authority figures in many working-class families—a historic role reversal that is fundamentally changing the nature of marriage, sex, and parenthood. Working-class men, meanwhile, are losing their careers, their families, and their way. A large, white underclass, predominantly male, is forming—along with a new politics of grievance. Both will shape the nation’s character long after the recession is fully over.

• The Millennial Generation, the largest generation in American history and perhaps the most audacious, is sinking. Many twenty-somethings will emerge from the Great Recession with their earning power permanently reduced, their confidence dimmed, and their ideals profoundly changed.

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