Nomadland Exposes the Middle-Class Rip-Off

Forty years of Reaganism and trickle-down economics have left America pockmarked with refugee camps and people hanging onto life by their fingernails

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The award-winning movie Nomadland is every bit as brilliant as the reviews, but it’s also, for this era, a hell of a wake-up call. 

Chloé Zhao’s film is a brilliant drama centered around a central character named Fern (with a stellar performance by Frances McDormand), struggling to survive after the loss of her husband, job and home.

In addition to it being a great movie, at an only slightly deeper level it raises vitally important questions about how we’ve structured our economy and social safety net in America. 

As a kid growing up, almost every weekend my brothers and I would accompany our parents across small-town Michigan looking for new Salvation Army and Goodwill stores. Mom and Dad collected “antiques,” principally small things like buttons, postcards, stamps and a whole variety of small figurines and glass from the late 19th century to the mid-20th.

Their plan was that when Dad qualified for retirement, they’d buy an RV and travel around the country going from flea market to flea market, antique store to antique store, selling the things they’d purchased years earlier. 

Sometimes they found incredible deals: books or postcards or small glass plates that the second-hand store was selling for a dime or 25 cents but was actually worth five or ten dollars. Other things, like Hummel figurines, they simply bought and collected because they figured they’d appreciate in value over time.

If Dad hadn’t been killed by the lies of the asbestos industry, they could’ve pulled it off. Because he’d worked at a union shop for over 40 years, he had a good pension to supplement his Social Security and a health insurance supplement to his Medicare that would both continue until the day he died. 

And, unlike the movie but like my parents’ fantasy, there are people living comfortably in vans and RVs around the country who are not hanging onto the edge of the last decades of their lives by their fingernails; they’re living the middle-class retirement my parents dreamed of, or even better. Some are even still young and working.

They’re the lucky ones.

The unlucky ones sleep in Walmart parking lots or on the public streets around America’s towns, migrating south and west during the winter, and back north and east during the summer. They find part-time work in Amazon warehouses or sell their blood or clean toilets.

And there are now a lot of people stuck in this 2021 version of homelessness. Nomadland is a movie about a few of them.

The last house Louise and I lived in here in Portland was on a main thoroughfare-type of public street and near a park, and about twice a month over the past year or two we’d wake up to find an ancient, battered RV parked on the street in front of our house. Every week it was a different one. More than once, after they left, we’d have to clean up the trash they left in our front yard, or hose down their sewage from the street.

Nomadland, and the nonfiction book of the same title on which it’s based, does an absolutely brilliant job of capturing The Grapes of Wrath type of lives some of these Americans find themselves living, and the kind of resilient, caring and compassionate communities people form when down on their luck.

And, it also raises an important set of questions that are almost entirely missing from public discussions about the movie.

Why are these people living such marginalized lives? 

Why, in the richest country in the world, can’t we provide for people when capitalism fails and factories or even, like in Nomadland, entire “company towns” shut down and die off? 

Why have we let our Social Security benefits be so badly eaten up over the years by inflation that they no longer provide a secure cushion for people as they age (not Fern, but some of her friends)? 

Why, for that matter, did we tolerate Reagan (with his 1983 “saving” of Social Security) raising the Social Security retirement age to 67 and putting an income tax on the benefits, while explicitly insulating people with multi-million dollar incomes from having to pay a penny of Social Security tax on the vast majority of their income?

Why can’t everyone in America have complete and comprehensive healthcare at no cost, like people in the majority of the other countries of the developed world? Why, instead, when we lose our jobs like Fern did, do we also lose our healthcare and other fallback supports?

If, after watching Nomadland, you’re looking for a palate cleanser, check out Michael Moore’s Where To Invade Next? He travels around the world looking at countries that actually put into place social policies usually first advocated here in the United States, but have been blocked for generations by conservative politicians.

When people in Europe lose their jobs, or their factories get shut down, nobody loses their healthcare. Nobody gets kicked out of school because they can no longer pay tuition. 

Rarely do people lose their homes, and in most advanced countries the social safety net catches them long before they hit the kind of rock-bottom that has become a norm in the United States.

In the nonfiction book that formed the basis for the movie, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century author Jessica Bruder writes: “Tales of money trouble were rampant. Sometimes I felt like I was wandering around post-recession refugee camps, places of last resort where Americans got shipped if the so-called ‘jobless recovery’ had exiled them from the traditional workforce.”

Forty years of Reaganism and trickle-down economics have left America pockmarked with refugee camps; some of them homeless tent cities, others clusters of RVs and vans, and many simply people sleeping rough on the street.

And while not explicitly raising these questions in a political or economic context, one can’t help watching this brilliant piece of movie-making without wondering, for weeks after, just how the hell America’s working class got so badly ripped off over the past two generations.

And wondering when we’re finally going to do something about it.

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