American Ballad: A Photographic Chronicle of America’s Working Poor
Excerpted from “American Ballad”:
“I went to The Scissors driving by vast walnut groves and endless fields of safflower, tomatoes and rice, to report on a particular kind of poverty in the country right now, and I did so with an amazing, strange American artwork in mind. It was 75 years ago that the writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans published the most lyrical chronicle of the lives of poor Americans ever produced, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and to consider ever briefly some of the notions raised in that landmark book seemed a useful thing to do, and a necessary one in this age of widening income disparity.”
“California’s Central Valley covers some 200,000 square miles, an area larger than nine different states. The official poverty rate in the valley is stunning: one in five residents in many of its counties. In Fresno, the third-poorest U.S. city with a population over 250,000, one out of three residents lives before the poverty line, and of course far more than that qualify as “working poor.” You can see the desperation in the drawn faces of farmworkers walking along the roads, feel it when passing countless dusty settlements like The Scissors.”
I thought about the poverty that Agee saw in 1936, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal gave many poor Americans a lift. In fact, the three Alabama families documented by Agee at first assumed that he and Evans were New Deal agents who had arrived to help. Government was seen by many as a savior. Fifty years later, when I followed in Agee’s footsteps, the mood in the country had changed, as epitomized by President Ronald Reagan’s statement that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The government certainly wasn’t involved in the lives of the 128 people we met connected to the Agee-Evans book. None was on welfare. They were on their own, working in tough jobs for low pay.
What I found in my travels this year is a stark contrast to the top-down approach of the 1930s and the go-it-alone 1980s. This time the energy is coming not from the federal government but from city governments, local philanthropies and a new generation of nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses with social missions.
“Driving back roads in Pennsylvania and Ohio, through former steel industry strongholds, including Johnstown and a string of rusting cities in the Monongahela Valley, I saw the two Americas, rich and poor. Downtown Pittsburgh, ballyhooed as having “come back” since the mills shuttered, glistened. Even Youngstown, emblematic of steel’s decline, has trendy downtown lofts and the “Las Vegas-style” Liquid Blu Nightclub. But always nearby, often within blocks, I found ruin and desperation…”
Dale Maharidge is a professor at Columbia University’s school of journalism. He won the 1990 non-fiction Pulitzer Prize for And Their Children After Them. Most of his books are about the working class.
Matt Black is an American documentary photographer whose work has focused on contemporary rural life in California and Mexico.