Stories of Survival from the “Fear Economy”

Mark Sagor


American WinterI usually write about the experience of working. Today I want to write about the experience of not working and the plight of the unemployed.

HBO’s heart wrenching documentary, American Winter, offers a compelling primer on the life-changing consequences of being without a job in America.


The film documents the daily personal struggles of 8 families in Portland, Oregon who are losing their grip on a middle-class life in the winter of 2011. It’s a hard fall that takes many of the families by surprise.

“American Winter” challenges facile stereotypes about families who find themselves without an income and needing public assistance. The people in the film are hardworking and caring individuals who encounter setbacks (a job loss, a health issue, a handicapped child) that trigger their descent into poverty.

Life becomes a daily battle to regain a foothold in the world where there is heat, electric power and food in the refrigerator. They have become one of our 46 million citizens living in poverty, the highest number of poor in America since we began keeping these records.

We are all too familiar with the statistics about the growing numbers of long term unemployed and our elected officials continue their ideological debates about the role of government in promoting job growth and whether we should extend unemployment benefits.

I can only imagine how hollow and heartless these discussions must appear to the families that are falling apart economically after losing a job.

We are also familiar with the myths about the poor who find themselves in dire economic straits and needing help: they are lazy and prefer taking to working. You will understand the cruel inaccuracy of this stereotype if you spend an hour with the 8 families featured in “American Winter.”

Sadly, many of the families also have the psychological burden of guilt piled on to their financial troubles. A sense of failed responsibility fuels their shame about not being able to provide their children with the material necessities of life. The most painful burden they bear is seeing their kids’ growing fear and hopelessness.

Many people who still have jobs are also being hurt by this high unemployment environment which economist Paul Krugman has labelled the “fear economy.”

Professor Krugman reasons that: “When the economy is strong….[employees] can leave if they’re unhappy with the way they’re being treated and know that they can….find a new job.“ However, the risk of quitting is much greater when unemployment is high and the data show that employees are much less likely to quit during economic slumps.

In the fear economy, the unemployed wake up every day to battle with desperation and many of those with jobs face the fear that comes with being a few paychecks away from a dark house and an empty refrigerator.

We can see the unemployed as the undeserving “other” or we can choose to believe that we are all Americans and we’re in this together. Professor Krugman, who has a Nobel Prize in economics, contends that there is extensive quantitative evidence that extending benefits to the unemployed is a sound and practical public policy.

If you watch “American Winter” I think you will find many qualitative reasons to agree with him.