America's Economic Gulag

Pollsters and economists inundate us with facts and figures every day. While these statistics are informative, they also are rather soulless. Hidden behind the cold, hard numbers are millions of individual stories. These are the stories of our friends and family members, our neighbors and co-workers -- regular people who are struggling to build a secure future and maintain hope in the wake of the most devastating economic storm in generations.

Olson Zaltman Associates is a market research firm that has worked for dozens of Fortune 500 clients, as well as nonprofit and public sector organizations, such as the AFL-CIO and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In late 2011 and early 2012, we set out to understand the psychological toll that the past several years of economic turmoil have exacted from middle-class Americans.

We conducted two-hour, one-on-one interviews with a diverse group of 28 men and women. Participants prepared for the discussions by selecting a set of images that expressed their thoughts and feelings about the U.S. economy and its effect on their lives. Those visuals, and the words people used to describe them, created a vivid and moving portrait.

A key insight is that people believe the economic downturn has stripped them of their freedom. The promise of freedom is written into our Constitution and is integral to what it means to be an American. But when describing the impact of today's economy, nearly everyone in our study used imagery and metaphoric language that suggested feelings of psychic confinement -- the very antithesis of freedom. For example:

  • "You're locked into the income that you have."
  • "Things are tighter and tighter in my company."
  • "I'm in a hole."
  • "The stress can be immobilizing."
  • "It's like I'm stuck in a corner"

Indeed, the emotions participants revealed to us are strikingly similar to those experienced by prison inmates -- the frustration of not being in full control of one's life, the disappointment and shame of squandered potential, the emptiness of a loss of identity, and the sadness of merely existing rather than truly living.

One such story came from a woman in Pittsburgh, who brought us a cartoon depiction of an anguished character sprawled on the ground, clinging desperately to the leg of an imperious man in a suit. That image was a metaphor for how it feels to be trapped in a job that pays the bills but numbs the soul. As she put it, "Whatever [job] you are able to get, hold on to it and don't leave it. Before it was like, follow your [dreams] and find your calling... You get this feeling of guilt, like you are not succeeding at the level that your parents wanted you to."

Even small choices, like the places we shop, the clothes we wear, and the food we eat, say something about who we are. When finances compel us to make sacrifices, we can feel as though we are surrendering part of our identity. In Kansas City, we met a 61-year-old woman who has forced herself to forgo certain "frivolous" expenses now that she is approaching retirement. One luxury she has given up is fashionable shoes. On one hand, she shrugged it off as no big deal. In the next breath, though, this humble, soft-spoken lady longingly recalled what a beautiful new pair of shoes used to represent for her: "I had a passion for shoes. I couldn't wait to put them on and have people notice. It was like I had accomplished something. That was my high."

What is particularly galling about this metaphorical imprisonment is that most people believe they are completely innocent. A woman in Phoenix tearfully described the anguish of short selling her home after local real estate values crashed. "I've never been late on a payment in my life. We're upstanding citizens. We have jobs. We did everything by the book. We weren't one of those people who bought a house they couldn't afford. I should never have to be in this position."

These feelings of unjust restriction have fundamentally altered how our participants see their country. If America no longer stands for freedom, as it has since the time of the Founding Fathers, then what does it stand for? Many people, regardless of political persuasion, speak as if they are the victims of a shadowy, repressive regime. The rulers are bankers, lobbyists and others who have figured out how to game the system. Meanwhile, the government has abdicated its responsibility to folks who work hard and play by the rules. One participant captured her frustration with the image of a hungry shark baring its teeth. "That's what I'm up against," she complained. "There is no getting ahead. I feel like I'm being attacked. It feels personal. I planned and planned because they told me to plan and plan, and then they pulled the rug out from under me."

In the thick of the gloom, some rays of optimism shone through. A young man in Portland, Ore., spoke for many with his photograph of a lone flower blooming on a patch of frozen, desolate soil. "I'm seeing a bit of hope. I know it's going to get better. It always does."
Nonetheless, "better" is not the same as "good." Despite the encouraging signs we have seen recently, plenty of Americans are still suffering, and even many who are doing fine dread the uncertainty of what lurks around the corner. The wounds of the last few years have been deep and likely have left lasting scars. Although the recovery appears to be gathering steam, the Great Recession may have left us with a more limited view of what is possible for us as individuals and as a nation.

Olson Zaltman Associates' full report, "America's Economic Gulag," is viewable here.