Longform on the Issues: Inequality in America

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WNYC asked Longform to pick great stories as background reading for our 30 Issues in 30 Days series. These are stories that help illuminate and humanize the important issues this election year. Part Three of 30 Issues looks at those in foreclosure, returning veterans, the safety net, and other questions of inequality. See all the guides here.

For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks.


Could It be That the Best Chance to Save a Young Family from Foreclosure is a 28-year-old Pakistani American Playright-Slash-Attorney who Learned Bankruptcy Law on the Internet?

Wajahat Ali | McSweeney’s | Jan 2010

A firt-person account of a recent law school student’s venture into the world of predatory lending.

I devoured every bankruptcy book I could find, and then turned to my associate legal counsel, Google, for more (free) information on bankruptcy law. Somewhere along the way I read an article predicting a rise in foreclosures due to the disastrous economy, and realized the rate of Chapter 13 bankruptcies was going to increase exponentially as people desperately tried to save their homes. I also discovered that agents and brokers who’d made hundreds of thousands in the once booming but now hemorrhaging “loan refinancing market” had magically transformed into “loan-modification consultants.” So the subprime-mortgage brokers who had actively preyed on unsophisticated people by convincing them to sign “too good to be true” loans—which later defaulted, thereby capsizing the housing market—were now demandingmore money from these same clients in order to modify their loans and allow them to avoid pending foreclosures.




Aimee Phan | Guernica | Mar 2012

A fiction writer buys a house, and learns some tough lessons about the ownership society.

After receiving numerous mailings touting the benefits of HAMP, we visited the local HUDagency armed with the required pile of paperwork: copies of our last three years of income tax returns, paystubs, bank statements and utility bills, cautiously optimistic at the possibility of financial relief. After looking at the condo’s devaluation and our monthly expenses, the HUDofficer seemed confident that we could lower our principal balance, and negotiate a more reasonable monthly rate. We would no longer have to worry about our ticking time bomb adjustable mortgage rate. Instead, Bank of America rejected our remodification request, since we were current on our payments. Due to our combined incomes, they believed we could technically continue to make our monthly payments—and even afford to pay more. Of course they didn’t consider our deflated home value or the fact that we had another dependent, and had to eat..



Amber Waves of Green

Jon Ronson | GQ | July 2012

The financial life of six American men on very different rungs on the ladder.

Maybe Ellen's right. Maybe it would be bad to have your own plane. But for a second, Dennis flashes into my mind, with his own imagined perils of having more money. I remember that Karl Marx line about religion being the opium of the people—his idea that the elites keep the masses subdued with illusory visions of heaven. But Dennis and Ellen have both suggested to me, surely fallaciously, that greater fortune might lead to unexpected sadness. In America, it seems, one's economic standing can be its own kind of opium.



Nickel and Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich | Harpers | Jan 1999

Ehrenreich’s original piece on inequality that led to her influential book of the same name.

It strikes me, in my middle-class solipsism, that there is gross improvidence in some of these arrangements. When Gail and I are wrapping silverware in napkins - the only task for which we are permitted to sit - she tells me she is thinking of escaping from her roommate by moving into the Days Inn herself. I am astounded: How can she even think of paying between $40 and $60 a day? But if I was afraid of sounding like a social worker, I come out just sounding like a fool. She squints at me in disbelief, "And where am I supposed to get a month's rent and a month's deposit for an apartment?" I'd been feeling pretty smug about my $500 efficiency, but of course it was made possible only by the $1,300 I had allotted myself for start-up costs when I began my low-wage life: $1,000 for the first month's rent and deposit, $100 for initial groceries and cash in my pocket, $200 stuffed away for emergencies. In poverty, as in certain propositions in physics, starting conditions are everything.



Pressing on the Upward Way

Monica Potts | American Prospect | June 2012

Life in Owsley County, Kentucky, one of the poorest in the United States.

Sue felt like whenever someone from Owsley County went out into the world, the world went out of its way to poke them in the eye. One professor, who spoke at an orientation seminar, encouraged the freshman class to rub out their accents. “It’s all right to be from Eastern Kentucky,” he told them, “but you don’t need to sound like you’re from here.” Eastern Kentucky University was supposedly in the same region as Owsley County, but as far as Sue was concerned, that hour’s drive into the rolling hills of the Bluegrass was on the other side of the country. The limestone runoff from the Appalachians enriched the Bluegrass, making it ideal for tobacco, horses, and bourbon. Even the soil, it seemed, took what it wanted from the mountains and made itself rich.



Walter Reed and Beyond

Staff Reporting | The Washington Post | 2007

A multi-part investigation into life at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The series led to Congressional investigations and the resignation of WRAMC’s chief. Walter Reed closed in 2011. Read the full series here.

The common perception of Walter Reed is of a surgical hospital that shines as the crown jewel of military medicine. But 5 1/2 years of sustained combat have transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely -- a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients. Almost 700 of them -- the majority soldiers, with some Marines -- have been released from hospital beds but still need treatment or are awaiting bureaucratic decisions before being discharged or returned to active duty. They suffer from brain injuries, severed arms and legs, organ and back damage, and various degrees of post-traumatic stress. Their legions have grown so exponentially -- they outnumber hospital patients at Walter Reed 17 to 1 -- that they take up every available bed on post and spill into dozens of nearby hotels and apartments leased by the Army. The average stay is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years.


Brian Lehrer Show producer Jody Avirgan is also a contributing editor to Longform.org. Is there a story that we missed? Comment below or .

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