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How the 2008 economic crisis created a ‘new wandering tribe’ of seasonal workers

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight, the latest selection for our Now Read This book club, Jessica Bruder's "Nomadland" documents a growing phenomenon in the country, and it was the inspiration for the new movie of the same name.

Just this week, the film was the big winner at the British Academy Film Awards. And later this month, it vies at the Oscars with nominations for best picture, director Chloe Zhao and actress Frances McDormand.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: In the new drama "Nomadland," we meet a group of mostly older Americans who've lost jobs, savings and homes in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Several of the key characters are played by real nomads, whose lives were first captured in the nonfiction book on which the film is based:, "Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century."

Author Jessica Bruder spent several years immersed in this life. I asked her to describe what she called a new wandering tribe.

Jessica Bruder: These are people who got caught between flat wages and rising rents, in the failures of retirement finance, in the collapses of the Great Recession.

They are people who realized that, for most Americans, our biggest cost is housing and decided that, if they gave up traditional housing and moved into a van, an R.V., in some cases a sedan, that they could live a life that would be in some ways simpler, traveling from place to place and getting different seasonal jobs all over the country.

Jeffrey Brown: The subtitle of the book is "Surviving America in the 21st Century."

That word survival, how did people manage it?

Jessica Bruder: I remember talking to this woman, Linda May, who is the main character in the book.

And she was telling me that, with so much ageism in the workplace, she was shocked to go online and realize that some of these jobs for seasonal workers were hiring and wanted 50-plus people like her. So, I think a lot of the people I met were using this lifestyle as a hack to get around the economic impossibilities that a lot of Americans are facing today. And that made them incredibly creative and resilient.

Jeffrey Brown: And so you're describing people working in Amazon warehouses, seasonal work in national parks. Tell us a little bit about the workplaces.

Jessica Bruder: People find seasonal jobs that cater to R.V.ers and van dwellers all over the country.

One of these is Amazon's camper force. Amazon hires R.V.ers and van dwellers to help during the busiest season, when they're ramping up for Christmas, and they have this whole program that caters to those workers.

They also work at the annual sugar beet harvest. That's a tough job, bringing in these sugar beets, usually working to pile them up, and spending 12 hours at a time walking on concrete.

There are many other jobs. People work at campgrounds as hosts, bringing in people, hauling out trash, you name it. I know two older people who broke their ribs on that job. So a lot of these jobs seem fun and temporary, but they're pretty challenging.

Jeffrey Brown: Notable in the film is that several of the characters you profiled play themselves in the film. I wonder, have you stayed in touch with them, and what are they saying about it?

Jessica Bruder: Oh, absolutely.

I introduced most of them to the filmmakers. And I remember when Linda May was first on set, she would send me texts with all sorts of photographs, just telling me how it was.

So, we have stayed in touch. And they had a good experience. And I'm blown away by how well they all did on screen. That's been exciting to see.

Jeffrey Brown: You reported this book during the Obama years. The film gets made during the Trump years. It now comes out at another change.

How did the politics of our time fit into the narrative and the story that you're telling?

Jessica Bruder: I think everybody, including people on the road, would be better off if we had a minimum wage that was also a living wage, that would make it possible to provide for whatever kind of housing you're in and your medical bills and everything else.

So I know we're talking about that a lot in this moment. There's the Fight for $15. And, at the same time, I don't know that $15 is enough in some parts of the country. And this is a longstanding battle. And it's something we need to pay a lot of attention to.

Jeffrey Brown: And are these nomads still out there on the roads or perhaps in our cities, in their vans, unseen by many of us?

Jessica Bruder: Absolutely. Still out there. And by all sorts of anecdotal accounts, it's definitely growing.

At the same time, I'm concerned, because anti-van dwelling laws in cities seem to be picking up speed. We're getting more and more of those, the criminalization of houselessness. And these are two trends I really hope we don't see collide.

Jeffrey Brown: And, finally, this is immersive journalism, right? This is how you work. You lived the life. You got a van. You took on many of the jobs yourself.

Jessica Bruder: It was fantastic, not because I thought I was going to magically turn into a van dweller, but by spending that much time up close, I really felt like it helped me understand what I needed to know to do justice to other people's stories.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, the book is "Nomadland."

Jessica Bruder, thank you very much.

Jessica Bruder: Thanks.

Judy Woodruff: And, after tonight's "NewsHour," tune in online at 7:00 p.m. Eastern for a live conversation with Jessica Bruder, where she will answer your questions about the book.

You can find that conversation on our Facebook and YouTube pages, as well as our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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