Terrance Heath

Classic War Photograph?

Filed By Terrance Heath | February 22, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Anthony Suau, economic crisis, housing crisis, war photograph, World Press Photo

Well, no. But the image was recently named World Press Photo 2008, and the judges framed it in a war context.

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A picture of an armed sheriff moving through an American home after an eviction due to a mortgage foreclosure was named World Press Photo of 2008 on Friday.

Jury members said the strength of the photo by American Anthony Suau for Time magazine was in its opposites -- it looks like a classic war photograph, but is simply the eviction of people from a house.

"Now war in its classic sense is coming into people's houses because they can't pay their mortgages," jury chair MaryAnne Golon said.

Conservatives have been quick to rail against "class warfare" at any mention of economic injustice or disparity. But even during the weakest economy we've seen in a while, the richest end up twice as rich at they were before.

And how did the rest of us fare? Let's just say, not quite as well.

The rock-bottom line of the economic crisis isn't that people took out mortgages they couldn't pay while shady brokers and rapacious financiers were all too happy to give them out, then buy them up and resell them to some unwitting investor. These are all symptoms of a disease that took hold deeper in the economy.

...Who to believe? How about the Federal Reserve.

Its latest survey of family finances was released last week. It covers the period between 2004 and 2007-before the cascade of economic misfortune rained down hard in 2008. The Fed lays it all out: "Median incomes declined over the 2004-07 period for all groups except childless, single families. ... The largest decline (4.5 percent) was for couples ... with children."

Yup, those very hard-working American families so venerated in political speeches and campaign commercials. The same politicians who use these families as props were willfully blind to the downward trajectory of their lives. Many of them promoted policies that sped this spiral while they lifted up the fortunes of their most fortunate political backers.

How about the period before the last three years? Well, we were (some of us barely) just hanging on.

Three years does not make an economic lifetime. So what was going on before that? "Median income measured in the survey had been relatively flat for all income groups since 2001 after an earlier period of growth before 1998," the Fed says.

So incomes flat-lined for most of the decade, then began to sink. Americans made up for the gap between income and expenses with deficit spending. The Fed report says nearly half of families carried a credit card balance in 2007. The median balance rose by 25 percent during the three years of the survey and stood at about $3,000.

This is what the ledger looked like before the millions of layoffs, pay cuts and freezes and all-around misery now forced upon us. This didn't start with the mortgage and credit crisis. It all began with the wage crisis.

Put another way, many of us are worse off now than we were seven or eight years ago.

Last week the Federal Reserve released the results of the latest Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial report on the assets and liabilities of American households. The bottom line is that there has been basically no wealth creation at all since the turn of the millennium: the net worth of the average American household, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than it was in 2001.

If this is warfare, who's winning?

Meanwhile, more neighborhoods in more cities are blighted by what could be the economic equivalent of the bombed-out buildings from earlier, more conventional wars. One in nine homes in America now stand vacant. That's more than 14 million. (And, no, that doesn't include the 4.8 million seasonal or vacation homes that are supposed to sit empty most of the year.) Put them together and you'd have the world's biggest ghost town.

But it's not a ghost town sitting far off in a desert landscape. It's across the street, or around the corner, and it's brought the cancer of blight our communities that will take years to heal, and an epidemic of crime to cities already facing money troubles that have forced them to cut police department funding.

And if war is an environment in which criminals thrive, this one is no different. From copper thieves and others stripping abandoned homes of whatever owners left behind to swindlers passing themselves off as "foreclosure rescue companies" is and charging desperate homeowners fees they can't afford for help they won't get -- if this is a war, it's not without its profiteers.

Nor is it without its own body count.

In recent weeks, the media has begun to address the burgeoning body count, at least anecdotally. Suicide is, however, just one type of extreme act that has resulted from the financial crisis, and the attendant rise in foreclosures. Stories of resistance to eviction, arson, self-inflicted injury and murder have also bubbled up into the local news. Nationally, the media has paid scant attention to the pattern of these events.

It's impossible to know what personal factors contribute to such extreme acts, but it is a fact that during periods of economic turmoil, the rates of stress, depression and suicide climb.

In May, Kathleen Hall, founder of the Stress Institute in Atlanta, told USA Today's Stephanie Armour, "Suicides are very much tied to the economy."

Rich Paul, a vice president at ValueOptions Inc., which handles mental health referrals, recently told the Los Angeles Times that in the last year, stress-related calls arising from foreclosures or financial hardship had increased by 200 percent in California. Similarly, Dr. Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente's San Francisco Medical Center, reported "a fourfold increase in psychiatric admissions at his hospital during August, with roughly 60 percent of patients saying financial stress contributed to their problems."

Nor is it without its own refugees, as hunger and homelessness are rising in those cash-strapped cities I mentioned earlier, just as local funding dries up for many of the services the homeless -- including more and more families with children, which means more and more schools face a rise in homeless students -- need. (Instead, a hard times evidently harden hearts, the newly homeless are met with slanderous attacks from "compassionate" conservatives and strict new rules that will likely result in many being turned back out into the streets. Election or no, "Dubya's America" is still with us.)

Nor is it without its own resistance movement.

As resistance to foreclosure evictions grows among homeowners, community leaders and some law enforcement officials, a broad civil disobedience campaign is starting in New York and other cities to support families who refuse orders to vacate their homes.

The community organizing group Acorn unveiled the campaign with a spirited rally on Friday at a Brooklyn church and will roll it out in at least 22 other cities in the coming weeks. Through phone trees, Web pages and text-messaging networks, the effort will connect families facing eviction with volunteers who will stand at their side as officers arrive, even if it means risking arrest.

"You want to haul us out to jail? Fine. Let the world see how government has been ineffective," Bertha Lewis, Acorn's chief organizer, said in an interview. "Politicians have helped banks, but they haven't helped families in the way that it's needed, and these families are now saying, enough is enough."

At the onset of the foreclosure crisis, the problem was regarded by some as one of a homeowner's own making, the result of irresponsible decisions made by families who chose to live beyond their means. But as foreclosures spread across the country, devastating even solidly middle-class communities, the blame has slowly shifted to the financial companies that made questionable loans and have received billions of dollars in federal aid to stave off collapse.

In recent months, a budding resistance movement has grown among Americans who believe they have been left to face their predicament on their own -- and the Acorn campaign is an organized expression of that frustration, Ms. Lewis said. Instead of quietly packing up and turning their homes over to banks, homeowners are now fighting back.

None of this is new. We've probably numbed to the steady drumbeat of headlines, perhaps just as people in war zones learn to live with (but never get used to) the sights and sounds of warfare -- the intermittent bombing, the walking wounded, the shell-shocked, the bombed-out homes and decimated communities, and on, and on. We are well into the housing crisis, with millions of homes foreclosed upon in 2008 and millions more likely to enter this year, and only now do we have a president and an administration with any will to do something -- anything -- about it.

I'm no photography expert, so if the experts say that their pick for World Press 2008 has all the elements of a compelling war photograph, I'll take their word on it. Like other war good war photography, you just know it when you see it, because you feel the visceral impact of the pain, fear, and dread in the moment it attempt to capture.

And, like other wars, you can figure out for yourself by just looking around you which side of this one you're on, and whether you're winning or losing.

That is, if you know or care that it's happening at all.


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Gerri Ladene | February 22, 2009 9:14 PM

I found an interesting an interesting media graphic display over at http://www.veniceforchange.com/ that gives a good visual interpretation of the mortgage crisis and here is a little more on why http://www.larouchepub.com/other/2009/3606scheme_bankrupt_usa.html . I really do not see how anyone could not see this coming. I've watched for years as family farming was attacked by the banking sector, Willie tried to help and the IRS went after him! But as long as bankers made loans in excess of what people would be able to pay back, this effect comes from Financial Markets, Commodities Futures, and all those Financial Instruments that Flim-flam Investment bankers use to take money from working people and put it in the hands of the imperiously Rich and Infamous. Family Farming was a very ominous warning to all of us but it was allowed to happen and hushed. We are now at the mercy of a commercialized corporate run food supply. Can anyone say salmonella? For years WalMart has headed the attack against manufacturing here at home, the once touted by Ol' Sam Walton for selling American made products and fairness to customers and employee's both. His children obviously went the other way. Try and find something actually Made in the USA in Walmarts, not easy! This company alone is probably the most responsible for the loss of the country textile industry. Chinese workers in China will work for $80 to $90 dollars a month in sweatshops producing the same goods. Wonder why we we're borrowing money from the Chinese!

I voted for Change, will all that our newly elected President promised come about? Most likely it will if we don't quit supporting him and start going after those who have helped to put a nation and us at risk. What we all have is a responsibility for is holding those that were elected to positions to protect us from what is happening and not let them use their office for promoting financial opportunities for themselves. Does the term Corporate Lobbyist come to mind? As long as the powers that put us here fail to control the Internet then we still have a chance. I use it every chance I get to lend my support to petitions online, write Congress members and whatever I can. Amazingly I do get responses, I know it all comes from Congressional staff and not the person I wrote too! I Guess I'm fortunate to be employed full time but that still does not exclude me from the Foreclosure beast.

Gee, it feels good to come here and rant for a little bit! Well Brigid has already come and March 20th is just around the corner, Spring is always my favorite season. I doubt that I'll have a garden this year, I'm going to miss that.

Thanks, Terrance, for the resource-rich article.

I was startled to learn that 11% of homes are vacant. Somehow I missed it in the news, or maybe it simply washed over me as has been beginning to happen. Yes, I'm growing numb to the incessant bad economic news we've been getting.

I'm not sure if I would count Rush Limbaugh or Michelle Malkin as compassionate conservatives, but their comments, and the comments of similar conservative pundits, only deepen the problem. It seems a sizable number of Americans just want to say "To hell with you" in reaction to the plight of banks, companies, troubled homeowners, etc. The comments of people such as Malkin and Limbaugh only make things worse by encouraging such attitudes.

We bought our house a little over two years ago. There was one other house for sale at the time on our block. One house was rented out, the others were owner occupied.

Now, two are abandoned. Five others are for sale. Three have become rental properties. With the dramatic shift in the neighborhood, our house is now worth much less than we paid for it - even after we've installed new windows, put on a new roof, put in new insulation and done other major repairs.

This story is the best economic journalism I've read in a long time.

Thank you.