From dust to bust, America’s poor take on a new type of monster
Seventy years after The Grapes of Wrath, Chris McGreal recreates John Steinbeck’s famous fictional journey to reveal life in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression
Chris McGreal in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Looking back on the past few weeks, Johnnie Levy can see how she was driven to the brink of death and didn’t care.
The sharpest economic downturn of her 63 years stripped Levy of her beloved job as a seamstress and unravelled her world until she found herself sitting in a church hall in the black end of Tulsa waiting to see a nurse with a syringe in one hand and a Bible in the other.
Tulsa has seen its share of poverty and desperation over the years. In the 1930s, it saw a tide of hundreds of thousands struggling west along Route 66 to escape economic collapse in the north and the notorious dustbowl of drought and wind across the Midwest. Whether they had lost their land or their jobs, that flow of desperate humanity – chronicled so devastatingly through the fictional Joad family in John Steinbeck‘s Grapes of Wrath – struggled hard to find enough to feed and clothe their children as they trekked towards an illusory dream of prosperity in distant California.
To travel the old road today – stumbling across crumbling ghost towns and half-abandoned communities, across the sprawling Native American desert reservations, through cities where people work all the hours they aren’t sleeping and still cannot afford to go to the doctor – is to encounter new despair, some of it still recognisable to the Joads.
The banks are once again evicting. Foreclosures plague the parts of northern Arizona and New Mexico traversed by the evicted 70 years ago.
But the monster – as Steinbeck described the financial system – has spawned modern beasts unknown to the Joads, such as the vast multinationals discarding American workers in favour of cheaper labour in Mexico and the health insurance companies that cut off the medical lifelines to the gravely ill.