Nomadland – an American Tragedy

This week is anti-poverty week and coincidentally I am currently reading a book called ‘Nomadland – Surviving America in the Twenty First Century’ by Jessica Bruder. It’s about older Americans moving from one low wage job to another in cars, caravans or RVs. It’s a really troubling non-fiction book. I keep wondering how long it might be before some older Australians might find themselves in the same place. Or worse, are the people and problems described in the book already here?

Bruder did considerable research for Nomadland. She spent years interviewing people all over the US – who have been locked out of permanent jobs, out of proper housing, health care and any semblance of a reasonable social security system for people of retirement age. I haven’t finished reading the book and so this article isn’t a book a review, it is only a comment on the issues she has raised in the first half of the book.

Older people who can’t afford to house themselves

Bruder contends there are growing numbers of people (mostly over 55) who are locked in grinding poverty, their only option to go on the road and pick up seasonal work, casual jobs, short term minimum wage jobs that provide no security and no additional benefits. Be aware that in the US, minimum wage is often just that – $8 or $9 an hour. I did the maths, that’s a grand total of $320 – $360 for a full 40 hour working week. That said, many in this dystopian ‘gig economy’ don’t even get to work 40 hours a week. It may be 20 or 30 hours one week, 10 the next or 15 after that. You do the maths; no one can afford to live on those wages.

40% of US wealth concentrated in the hand of 1% of people

The business owners (or in some instances – government entities) appear to have absolutely no obligation to pay working people a living wage and no obligation at all to provide any type of job security. Fair enough when it comes to seasonal work – everyone knows that carrots or tomatoes can only be picked at a certain time in the year. But what about the other jobs? In the warehouses of big brands like Amazon or Walmart? People are kept casual or as individual sub-contractors, whilst the owners of these brands make up the 1% of Americans who own 40% of the wealth. Yes, you read that right. 40% of wealth in the US is owned by the top 1% of people. (FYI – the top 1% of Australians currently own 18% of our wealth).

No job security and definitely no retirement

It looks like job security in many industries in the US has become a thing of the past. Labour is cheap and disposable – much like many of the items that are being sold. Landfill is full of discarded plastic ‘things’. Camper vans are now also filled with ‘discarded’ older people. I am referring to homeless people. Not the stereotypical homeless person without work who sleeps on the streets and seeks food at soup kitchens (by the way, in Australia, this is still only 6% of all people counted as homeless) – but homeless people none-the-less. They travel from one casual job to another, sleeping in their vans and feeding themselves. That’s all. No opportunity to save money for the future. I can’t begin to imagine what these people will be doing in 10 year’s time, when they are 80 or 90 years old. I’m guessing that some of them will be planning to be or hoping they are dead by then. Going from ‘gig to gig’ in your twenties sounds fun. Going from ‘job to job’ in your seventies sounds much less so.

The US needs to be a lesson for Australia

Bruder shares stories from the US that should be a salient lesson to Australia as we head down the same road (pun intended). The increased casualisation of employment, people who spend their entire work lives on minimum wage and many of them not knowing how many hours of work they will be given next week.  They dare not complain – or they may not appear on next week’s work roster. No unions to help them bargain or argue for better conditions. Is any of this starting to sound familiar Australia?

The age pension in Australia

In fact, there are already some people on the age pension in Australia who also cannot afford to house themselves and must keep working to put a roof over their head. Whilst the age pension in Australia is a much stronger safety net than the US has ever imagined or implemented, it is only adequate for those it was designed for – a couple who own their own home. It is far less comfortable for those who have never been able to purchase a home (a growing cohort of Australians) and those who have spent periods out of the workforce, raising children and caring for family members (yes, older women) who find themselves single in older age.

Workers are customers too

Henry Ford is famous for many things, including: building cars using an assembly line and telling folks that they can have any colour car, so long as it was black. A lesser known fact about Ford was that he was one of the first business people to understand that he needed to pay his workers adequately because they were also his customers. Workers who could also afford to buy a Ford vehicle were a double win for him.

Adequately paid workers are a double win for all businesses. All workers are also customers. Exactly how much of that 40% of wealth in the US can reasonably be spent by 1% of the population? Not much – after the tenth property, the private jet, the fleet of vehicles – all human beings only eat 3 meals a day and can only wear one outfit of clothes at the one time. It makes no sense ethically to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few and it also makes no sense economically.

No one gets rich on their own

Let’s also note that not every person can be an ‘entrepreneur’. Business owners are great, they help build our economy, they invest, they produce things, they employ people, they are fabulous.  But they need workers just as much as we need them. Part of the social contract is that some folk get to build industries and wealth, while other folk get to work for them. And those workers get to house themselves, feed themselves and buy the products that are produced. As Elizabeth Warren (Senator for Massachusetts) once said about the USA:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Let’s think about Australia’s social contract before it’s too late

This week is anti-poverty week and we need to think about the contents of our social contract in Australia. People in poverty don’t need charity, they need dignity and opportunity. As we head down the same rabbit hole as the US, cutting wages, increasing workforce casualisation, reducing career promoting opportunities through sub-contracting, burdening our graduates with huge debts before they even begin a career – we need to stop and think about a number of questions:

  1. Do we want all Australians to have access to adequate, secure and affordable housing? Or do we want to concentrate housing assets into the hands of fewer and fewer people?
  2. Do we want to ensure that hard work is rewarded, at minimum, with adequate wages and reasonable job security? Or do we also want a population of discarded older people unable to retire – travelling from job to job?
  3. Do we want to assure all those women who make the lifetime commitment to bring new citizens into our world that they won’t be later penalised for their time spent away from the paid workforce? Or are we ok with the idea that increasing numbers of single (planned or unplanned) women are experiencing homelessness?
  4. Do we want to turn the phrase ‘the poor will always be with us’ into a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or do we want to ensure that those who do live on lower incomes than others have adequate dignity – a home, enough food and the ability to continue to contribute to our civil society, our community and help keep strong our social and support connections?

What do we want Australia? Time may be running out because it looks like the US is already there. After all, they just voted in a President who told them that all their problems have been caused by foreigners.

They haven’t. The truth lies much closer to home.

Felicity Reynolds

CEO, Mercy Foundation

16 October 2017