Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century
By Jessica Bruder (2017)
W W Norton
This book is about America’s new underclass, elderly middle class Americans who (after losing their jobs, pensions and savings in the 2008 global economic crash) work at minimum wage jobs and live in vans, RVs and sedans. Spending a total of three years researching this subculture, author Jessica Bruder lived in her own van for awhile and worked as an Amazon CamperForce employee get to know some of the individuals she profiles.*
While Bruder identifies a number of industries that deliberately exploit older Americans, Amazon is clearly the most hated by elderly “vandwellers.” To avoid hiking wages, Amazon annually recruits homeless seniors to staff their warehouses in the three to four months leading up to Christmas. The program, which pays $11.50 an hour plus mandatory overtime, requires them to work ten hours a day or longer and walk an average of 15 miles, in temperatures ranging up to 90 degrees (100 degrees in some warehouses). Stress injuries are so common in CamperForce employees that the company installs vending machines dispensing free over-the-counter painkillers in many warehouses.
Ironically taxpayers subsidize this exploitation, as Amazon receives Work Opportunity Tax Credits for every employee they hire receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or food stamps.
While Bruder acknowledges the warm fuzzy feelings that can occur from helping each other out during a crisis, after three winters it became hard to ignore the genuine hardships faced by this exploited underclass. These include the struggle to keep warm in a van or camper in sub-freezing temperatures, vehicle breakdowns they can’t afford to pay for (in some cases while still paying off vehicle loans), coping with illnesses and work injuries with no health insurance coverage,** difficulty renewing renewing a drivers license with no permanent address, a growing number of local laws criminalizing homelessness and new US Forest Service policies that discourage people with no fixed address from “camping” free in federal forests.
Last, but not least, is the troubling question of where elderly vandwellers go when they become too frail to work. With most of them earning a monthly average of $424 Social Security income (following their $100 Medicare deduction), they have no hope of paying rent anywhere in the US.
*The book seems nothing like the Academy-award winning movie, at least according to a review I read. See The Amazon Warehouse as Disneyland
**Vandwellers who spend their winters in southern California, Arizona and New Mexico frequently go to Mexico for dental procedures, pharmaceuticals and eye glasses that are a fraction of what they would pay in the US.