Books

The America that Wealth Forgot

Sarah Kendzior, in her book of essays, The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America, claims that economic crisis is the new normal.

A robust stock market and record low unemployment are often highlighted by politicians and media outlets to remind Americans the economy recovered since 2008. Sarah Kendzior, in her book of essays, The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America rings the alarm that the American economy has not rebounded for 80% of Americans that hold only 7% of the nation’s wealth. The essays were originally published by Al Jazeera between 2012 and 2014, which is concerning, since every essay could be released now and be just as relevant — proving the stagnation of what Kendizor calls our “post-employment economy.” Kendzior points to a surging underemployment rate as professionals and laborers work multiple part-time or contractual jobs at poverty wages in place of full-time careers. She repeatedly claims that economic crisis is the new normal.

The book’s 36 essays are organized thematically within sections such as “Media” or “Race and Religion.” Developments in higher education and the humanities are a surprising focus of this text. Kendzior presents the economic cases of adjunct professors and writers to illustrate the exploitation that now routinely occurs across industries. Since the essays were initially written and presented over two years, reading them all at once can cause her claims to become repetitive, but also hard to refute.

Congressional Budget Office, “Trends in Family Wealth, 1989 to 2013” (published August 2016) showing U.S. Holdings of Family Wealth 1989 to 2013, that the top 10% of families held 76% of the wealth in 2013, while the bottom 50% of families held 1%. Inequality worsened from 1989 to 2013 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

People are devalued, she claimsnot educational subjects or professional fields. Kendzior notes that one could chase the “practical” computer science degree instead of creative writing but that choice won’t change an economy that is broken. Graduates with STEM degrees are enduring record joblessness and only 55 percent of 2011 law graduates landed full-time jobs. Academia faces the greatest erosion in employment opportunities with 76% of professors working without job security and for poverty wages. Margaret Mary Vojtko is the most famous case Kendzior presents. Vojtko taught French at Duquesne University as an adjunct for 25 years and died in abject poverty. Since 2009, academic disciplines have lost 40% of their seats. Adjunct faculty and fellowships have replaced them. A tenured professor and an adjunct can teach the same courses, publish in the same journals, yet only the adjunct is paid approximately less than $20,000 annually.

“Pay your dues and don’t complain;” “it worked out for me,” are common pieces of advice from a professor to an adjunct or a staffer to a freelancer, Kendzior highlights, but “personal success does not excuse systematic exploitation.” Asking writers, artists, and recent college graduates to labor unpaid at any stage in their career translates personal wealth into professional credentials. Today, she proposes there would not be another Helen Thomas, who as child of immigrants, took a paid job as a copy girl at a paper and worked her way up to the White House press corps. Now, Kendzior argues, meritocracy is for sale.

The OccupyMN protest which occupied the Government Plaza in Minneapolis in October 2011 (photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)

“Mistaking wealth for virtue is the cruelty of our time,” states Kendzior. When social stigma drapes over professional immobility and lost opportunities, bad luck is perceived as bad character. In the essay “The Millennial Parent” Kendzior observes that Americans born approximately between the late 1970s and the late 1990s are often declared lazy and narcissistic despite enduring the worst economy since the Great Depression. Kendzior’s sober observations of the formation of character labels and their impact echo work by Martha Gellhorn, a writer employed by the Roosevelt administration to record the human stories behind the government statistics during the Depression. A selection of those stories published in the book “The Trouble I’ve Seen,” showed that prolonged unemployment deemed someone a “chiseler,” “derelict,” or “unworthy.”

In “Expensive Cities are Killing Creativity,” Kendzior writes “people are biased against creative minds,” because the experimentation often results in failure and people crave success. Leaning on testimonies from visual artists Molly Crabapple and Martin Brief, writers James McAnally and Jessica Olien, she crafts the claim that when artists make an experimental misstep they risk plunging into poverty. Credentialism and sanctioned work are the basis of economic survival, which, in many costly American cities uniquely put pressure on artistic process and outcomes. Ultimately, Kendzior rejects spaces that exploit ambition and makes the case for alternative, and inexpensive, terrain.

Kendzior’s prose is sharp and consistent whether the essay is data dense or an opinion piece. She maneuvers through big issues with a pace and clarity that makes unpalatable topics fascinating, and unfortunately, relatable. However, the anxiety she triggers throughout the essays will not be resolved in the epilogue. Her strained optimism states that exposure to these issues is one step toward equality and resolution. After 256 pages of telling readers that boot straps no longer allow one to pull oneself up, but instead tether down, her tentatively positive predictions at the book’s conclusion is the first time she is unpersuasive.

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior was published by Flatiron Books.

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