A picture of an armed sheriff moving through an American home after an eviction due to a mortgage foreclosure was named World Press Photo of 2008 on Friday .
Jury members said the strength of the photo by American Anthony Suau for Time magazine Bus Scrolls family photo shoot was in its opposites — it looks like a classic war photograph, but is simply the eviction of people from a house.
“Now war in its classic sense is coming into people’s houses because they can’t pay their mortgages,” jury chair MaryAnne Golon said.
Conservatives have been quick to rail against “class warfare” at any mention of economic injustice or disparity. But even during the weakest economy we’ve seen in a while, the richest end up twice as rich at they were before.
And how did the rest of us fare? Let’s just say, not quite as well.
The rock-bottom line of the economic crisis isn’t that people took out mortgages they couldn’t pay while shady brokers and rapacious financiers were all too happy to give them out, then buy them up and resell them to some unwitting investor. These are all symptoms of a disease that took hold deeper in the economy.
…Who to believe? How about the Federal Reserve.
Its latest survey of family finances was released last week. It covers the period between 2004 and 2007-before the cascade of economic misfortune rained down hard in 2008. The Fed lays it all out: “Median incomes declined over the 2004-07 period for all groups except childless, single families. … The largest decline (4.5 percent) was for couples … with children.”
Yup, those very hard-working American families so venerated in political speeches and campaign commercials. The same politicians who use these families as props were willfully blind to the downward trajectory of their lives. Many of them promoted policies that sped this spiral while they lifted up the fortunes of their most fortunate political backers.
How about the period before the last three years? Well, we were (some of us barely) just hanging on.
Three years does not make an economic lifetime. So what was going on before that? “Median income measured in the survey had been relatively flat for all income groups since 2001 after an earlier period of growth before 1998,” the Fed says.
So incomes flat-lined for most of the decade, then began to sink. Americans made up for the gap between income and expenses with deficit spending. The Fed report says nearly half of families carried a credit card balance in 2007. The median balance rose by 25 percent during the three years of the survey and stood at about $3,000.
This is what the ledger looked like before the millions of layoffs, pay cuts and freezes and all-around misery now forced upon us. This didn’t start with the mortgage and credit crisis. It all began with the wage crisis.
Put another way, many of us are worse off now than we were seven or eight years ago.
Last week the Federal Reserve released the results of the latest Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial report on the assets and liabilities of American households. The bottom line is that there has been basically no wealth creation at all since the turn of the millennium: the net worth of the average American household, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than it was in 2001.
If this is warfare, who’s winning?
Meanwhile, more neighborhoods in more cities are blighted by what could be the economic equivalent of the bombed-out buildings from earlier, more conventional wars. One in nine homes in America now stand vacant. That’s more than 14 million. (And, no, that doesn’t include the 4.8 million seasonal or vacation homes that are supposed to sit empty most of the year.) Put them together and you’d have the world’s biggest ghost town.
But it’s not a ghost town sitting far off in a desert landscape. It’s across the street, or around the corner, and it’s brought the cancer of blight our communities that will take years to heal, and an epidemic of crime to cities already facing money troubles that have forced them to cut police department funding.
And if war is an environment in which criminals thrive, this one is no different. From copper thieves and others stripping abandoned homes of whatever owners left behind to swindlers passing themselves off as “foreclosure rescue companies” is and charging desperate homeowners fees they can’t afford for help they won’t get — if this is a war, it’s not without its profiteers.
Nor is it without its own body count.
In recent weeks, the media has begun to address the burgeoning body count, at least anecdotally. Suicide is, however, just one type of extreme act that has resulted from the financial crisis, and the attendant rise in foreclosures. Stories of resistance to eviction, arson, self-inflicted injury and murder have also bubbled up into the local news. Nationally, the media has paid scant attention to the pattern of these events.
It’s impossible to know what personal factors contribute to such extreme acts, but it is a fact that during periods of economic turmoil, the rates of stress, depression and suicide climb.
In May, Kathleen Hall, founder of the Stress Institute in Atlanta, told USA Today’s Stephanie Armour, “Suicides are very much tied to the economy.”
Rich Paul, a vice president at ValueOptions Inc., which handles mental health referrals, recently told the Los Angeles Times that in the last year, stress-related calls arising from foreclosures or financial hardship had increased by 200 percent in California. Similarly, Dr. Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente’s San Francisco Medical Center, reported “a fourfold increase in psychiatric admissions at his hospital during August, with roughly 60 percent of patients saying financial stress contributed to their problems.”
Nor is it without its own refugees, as hunger and homelessness are rising in those cash-strapped cities I mentioned earlier, just as local funding dries up for many of the services the homeless — including more and more families with children, which means more and more schools face a rise in homeless students — need. (Instead, a hard times evidently harden hearts, the newly homeless are met with slanderous attacks from “compassionate” conservatives and strict new rules that will likely result in many being turned back out into the streets. Election or no, “Dubya’s America” is still with us.)
Nor is it without its own resistance movement.
As resistance to foreclosure evictions grows among homeowners, community leaders and some law enforcement officials, a broad civil disobedience campaign is starting in New York and other cities to support families who refuse orders to vacate their homes.
The community organizing group Acorn unveiled the campaign with a spirited rally on Friday at a Brooklyn church and will roll it out in at least 22 other cities in the coming weeks. Through phone trees, Web pages and text-messaging networks, the effort will connect families facing eviction with volunteers who will stand at their side as officers arrive, even if it means risking arrest.
“You want to haul us out to jail? Fine. Let the world see how government has been ineffective,” Bertha Lewis, Acorn’s chief organizer, said in an interview. “Politicians have helped banks, but they haven’t helped families in the way that it’s needed, and these families are now saying, enough is enough.”
At the onset of the foreclosure crisis, the problem was regarded by some as one of a homeowner’s own making, the result of irresponsible decisions made by families who chose to live beyond their means. But as foreclosures spread across the country, devastating even solidly middle-class communities, the blame has slowly shifted to the financial companies that made questionable loans and have received billions of dollars in federal aid to stave off collapse.
In recent months, a budding resistance movement has grown among Americans who believe they have been left to face their predicament on their own — and the Acorn campaign is an organized expression of that frustration, Ms. Lewis said. Instead of quietly packing up and turning their homes over to banks, homeowners are now fighting back.
None of this is new. We’ve probably numbed to the steady drumbeat of headlines, perhaps just as people in war zones learn to live with (but never get used to) the sights and sounds of warfare — the intermittent bombing, the walking wounded, the shell-shocked, the bombed-out homes and decimated communities, and on, and on. We are well into the housing crisis, with millions of homes foreclosed upon in 2008 and millions more likely to enter this year, and only now do we have a president and an administration with any will to do something — anything — about it.
I’m no photography expert, so if the experts say that their pick for World Press 2008 has all the elements of a compelling war photograph, I’ll take their word on it. Like other war good war photography, you just know it when you see it, because you feel the visceral impact of the pain, fear, and dread in the moment it attempt to capture.
And, like other wars, you can figure out for yourself by just looking around you which side of this one you’re on, and whether you’re winning or losing.
That is, if you know or care that it’s happening at all.