Documenting a national feeling

Monday, February 7th, 2011 

America: What Went Wrong? is nearly 20 years old, but that question Donald Barlett and James Steele first posed in 1991 remains a bold one – America, what went wrong? It’s a direct confrontation of the American dream – the idea that we’re a nation of unlimited opportunity for all, where hard work and playing by the rules will get you ahead.

And Barlett and Steele were not delicate in the way they confronted the millions of readers who eventually read their newspaper series and following book.

In the fall of 1991, most media outlets were reporting how the recession that had struck the country would soon pass. But, Barlett and Steele warned readers, life wouldn’t get better for many Americans without sweeping changes in law and regulations because the game was essentially rigged against middle-class America.

“In the absence of such action, the future will remain bleak for the middle class,” they wrote in the introduction to the book, adding: “The fact is you are adrift in uncharted economic waters.”

The 70,000 words that followed grabbed the reader by the lapels and shook them. This was not the typical news report. It was aggressive and pointed. But every harsh conclusion Barlett and Steele reached was backed with thousands of data points and hundreds of personal stories, collected from across the country.

And readers embraced it.

Thousands of letters poured into the Inquirer’s offices, the vast majority positive, with readers looking to thank Barlett and Steele or share their own stories. Many wrote they already had felt the war against the middle class, but seeing it in print opened their eyes to the extent of the decline – and to the realization that they weren’t alone.

“What a wonderful series! Not in the sense that it sounds, but that somebody finally put it in black and white what most Americans knew was happening but had to be shocked to see it written,” wrote a Philadelphia resident in a letter sent shortly after the series began.

“I think it just shook people that it had all been collected together in one place and it all made such good sense,” said Linda Austin, the executive director of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, and a former Philadelphia Inquirer business editor who went on to lead several other major newspapers. “It was like an unassailable logic, the instances they presented – what other conclusion could you reach? There were policy decisions being made, and corporate decisions being made that were eroding the stature of the middle class.

“They were so far ahead of their time,” Austin added. “This was the clarion call. It really is the beginning of at least the public mainstream recognition of the phenomenon.”

Eileen Breen, of Glenmoore, Pa., also heard that call.  As a 33-year old mother of two young children, Breen wrote Barlett and Steele to say the middle-class life she thought she had achieved was getting more elusive every day and nobody seemed interested in helping people like her.

“I always thought it would get easier was we got older, instead it gets harder and harder,” she wrote. “I hope your article gets people interested in their government enough to get out and vote.”

Recently, Breen, now 53, recalled writing the letter, and her fear as a young mother that life wasn’t getting easier the more hours she put in.

“Silly me,” she said.

Breen said the stories told in the reporting echoed what she saw in her own life.

“I never really wrote many letters, I can probably count them on my hand, but that one really ticked me off,” she remembered. “And now, here we are again. It’s really not much better. It’s worse.”

And, Breen said, she’s looking forward to the next installment. Life has not gotten much easier.

“I'm one of 12 kids, and we worked hard all of our lives, most of us have worked one or two jobs,” she said. “We were raised middle class. We are middle-class – we were taught to work your way, never ask for anything, and we never got anything – you're either too rich or too poor to get handouts.”

That attitude hasn’t paid off for everyone in her family, Breen said. Two of her siblings are considering bankruptcy. Her two children are now 21 and 24. In 1991 she was struggling to pay their day care costs. Both have recently moved back home because the economy is so tough.

“This is so unbelievable we’re getting squeezed out,” she said. “I never thought in my life it would get worse.”

Breen is not alone in that sentiment – it is getting worse for millions of middle-class Americans. Which is why it is time for a new installment, according to Maxwell King, Barlett and Steele’s editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time the series first ran.  The divide between rich and poor is wider, the middle class is continuing to struggle and the connections between corporations and the government that is supposed to regulate them is closer than ever, King said.

“Everything we discussed in America: What Went Wrong? is now bearing fruit,” he said.

At time time, Barlett and Steele were vilified for taking a stance on the state of the nation. Unlike many other reporters, then and now, they were willing to form a damning conclusion. But what made the work so successful, and what separates it from much of the opinion or advocacy journalism that is published today, was the voluminous data that backed every pointed conclusion.

“From the very beginning I argued it wasn’t opinion. It was journalism, it was conclusionary, but it was classic, fantastic first-class investigative journalism, because every time they reached a conclusion, they could support it,” said King. “When at times the writing was confrontational, it was always when they had unearthed outcomes that were really, really disgraceful, and so in presenting those, I think they used a tone that shared their feeling with the reader that they found it be disgraceful.”

Barlett and Steele’s ability to combine voluminous amounts of data and stories of individuals, normal Americans who readers could recognize, was powerful.

“They’re both amazing, amazing reporters in terms of smoking out information, and finding data,” said Austin.  “But they also know how to wrap it into a story which resonates with the audience. It’s kind of a killer combination.”

What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.


Back Story

The authors talk about What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele talk about the project, and why they decided to revisit a book they wrote two decades ago, in a series of video clips produced by the Workshop.

Nation's Story

Who pays the taxes?

Who pays the taxes?

We feature charts, maps, photos and other visualizations that reflect the state of the economy as part of our What Went Wrong project. This column chart shows the growing disparity between what individuals and corporations pay in taxes. In the 1950s, the difference was 22 percent. Recent figures show the difference is 62 percent.

Rags to rags: Economic mobility hard to come by

New Pew Center on States report confirms that moving up the American economic ladder is difficult, even though most people have more income than their parents.

Homelessness takes it toll on Florida's youngest

Florida, as a center of the housing boom, still struggles to recover from the Great Recession. Financial stresses and widespread foreclosures have placed families in precarious situations, resulting in a spike in child homelessness. Susannah Nesmith reports in the Broward Bulldog.

Older workers face challenges in Silicon Valley

An advanced degree and experience in the tech sector should be a ticket to a job in today's economy. But older workers in the heart of the new economy, Silicon Valley, are finding their resume is not the issue. Aaron Glantz reports in The Bay Citizen.

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Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.