Scenes From an Economic Collapse

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There’s a mental block to comprehending the scale of the unemployment crisis in America right now. You could start with the fact that the official figure, a 14.7 percent national unemployment rate as of April, was the highest since monthly record keeping began in 1948; Goldman Sachs now projects that figure will rise to 25 percent, roughly equal to the highest rate in American history, at the nadir of the Great Depression in 1933. Or you could try to digest the scale of jobs lost (more than 38 million, as of May 21) by comparing it to the entire population of California (39.5 million) or Canada (37.9 million). You could even try to process some of the effects of all those job losses — like the astonishing spike in hunger, with more than 40 percent of mothers of children under 12 now saying (up from 15 percent two years earlier) that their families don’t have enough to eat.

And yet those figures, in their inhuman scale, remain stubbornly abstract. Wherever you live in America, you can see the misery of this economic collapse all around you, if you leave your lockdown to look; but the fabric of prosperity is fraying uniquely in every single city and town. That’s why, in early May, The New York Times Magazine asked seven writers and seven photographers to capture how the crisis looks and feels among the newly jobless in seven different communities. The one shared thread in these stories is that, as always in this country, suffering is never truly shared: Americans with only a high school diploma have lost jobs at more than twice the rate among the college-educated, and for those who lack savings to fall back on — as black and Latino families disproportionately do — a single job loss can hurl a family out of the middle class into the direst effects of poverty, like hunger and homelessness. One young New Jersey woman, now supporting her entire family on a tenuous wage, seemed to speak for a whole nation when she told our reporter, ‘‘I don’t know how long we can keep doing this.’’



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