July 7, 2021   6 mins

There are hotels on the outskirts of Las Vegas that boggle the mind. You don’t visit them for the in-room Jacuzzi or the world-renowned steak restaurant. You check in because your life has blown up in your face: you have gambled and you have lost.

Lost everything. There is no Jacuzzi and no restaurant and if you want toilet paper, the sign in reception says, you have to pay 50 cents extra a night.

The place I am thinking of was on the edge of the desert, visible from the top of the fancy establishments on the strip if you squinted — not that anyone ever did. It was sand-blown and hot as hell. Breeze blocks and grimy windows. Cars everywhere, some functioning, many abandoned, windscreens thick with dust.

Our interest for a Today programme report was not in money, or lack of it, but the psychology. How did Americans cope with losing? Were they different from Brits? Were they conditioned to see life differently?

Until we were chased away by armed security (there is always money for armed security in these places) we had knocked on doors and found, as you almost always find in poorer parts of the United States, damaged but genial people who like your accent and are happy to talk.

Our main interview was with a family. The wife and two large-eyed kids were watching the TV in the single room they now called home. They had come to Vegas from Chicago, moving to one of the estates that surround the city. Dad had earned a living gambling for a year but made some mistakes. In Nevada when you stop paying your electricity bill you stop getting electricity. Pretty much that day. Same for water. Even before mortgage foreclosure, they needed to get out of their fetid, utility-less home.

But it was all going to be fine. He would find work. So might she. The couple managed wan smiles and hoped, earnestly, that we might have a nice day. He warned us before we left to be careful on the traffic crossings: “Lotta folks here not paying too much attention to the road, with their troubles and all…”

Somewhere deep down, almost all Americans feel guilty if they mess up. The European sense of guilt, post-religion, is incomparable. Most of us accept failure as inevitable and intuitively understand decline. Americans do not. And the further you fall in America the guiltier you personally are for the condition you are in. The reason of course is the cult of meritocracy: the all-American sense that hard work and talent gets you to the top, even when, pretty obviously, it often does no such thing.

And the lower down the scale you are, the more guilt you feel. A book called The Tolls of Uncertainty: How Privilege and the Guilt Gap Shape Unemployment in America, by Sarah Damaskea sociologist at Pennsylvania State University — is the latest to find, and be frustrated by, this phenomenon.

Damaske interviewed 100 people recently unemployed in Pennsylvania and found it was the working-class women — right at the bottom of the pile — who made the most sacrifices, because they felt they should. Their men were more feckless and their relationship with wider social networks, or the state, more tenuous. There was nobody else. It can be like that in America.

The biggest sacrifice, of course, is to go without health insurance to save money. Damaske writes:

“Repeatedly, I saw the women make the choice to insure their families but not themselves …  Women were more likely to go without necessary doctor visits, medicines, or medical treatments. Just over half the women said they were not treating conditions such as heart problems, asthma, and diabetes in order to prioritize family needs.”

The men, the blighters, kept their insurance. And the higher up the social scale they were, the more they kept for themselves. The author is surprised but I fear she’s spent too long in the sociology senior common room. A more grounded view of poor America — Chris Arnade’s Dignity comes to mind — will reveal that the conceit of American meritocracy is in part predicated on reducing the life chances, the self-esteem, the very soul of the poor. Arnade’s point is that a system that prizes economic success and education at the expense of community, integration and pride will have this effect: “those at the bottom,” he writes, “are guaranteed to feel excluded, rejected, and most of all humiliated.”

How frustrating it is, then, to be a reformer, a social democrat, a fan of European solutions to American problems. Damaske mentions Germany for its employment security, but Americans of a certain ilk look wistfully at Sweden too: all that solidarity and a flattened range of incomes. Bliss. But try as you might, people in the USA just won’t budge. They love the idea of it, but they don’t think it can be for them. When something as basic as health insurance is controversial (why should I pay for someone else’s illness?), getting Americans to give up on the individualism that has always been part of the national myth is a mug’s game.

But The Tolls of Uncertainty, for all its shock at things that really are not shocking, comes at a fascinating time in the history of American precariousness. Is this the moment that the European dream finally stumbles into reality?

On the face of it, this is indeed a happy time to be a campaigner for a gentler approach to American unemployment. Big government is back in the Biden era. So is support for childcare and for higher wages. Unionisation is on the agenda in several states. Heck, even paid maternity leave is being talked about.

The trouble is that the system, which teeters again and again on the brink, always seems to come good. In April 2020, soon after the pandemic forced the U.S. into almost total lockdown, the unemployment rate reached 14.8%, the highest documented since data collection began in 1948. Now it’s back near 6%. In fact, it is doing so well that an organisational psychologist called Dr Anthony Klotz has coined a new phrase: The Great Resignation. A quarter of American workers tell researchers they are looking for a new job when the pandemic threat is lifted. This is a positive thing, says Klotz: “The economy is seemingly doing very well. There are lots of job openings out there. So, if you’re an employee, that’s empowering for you because you have options.”

Restlessness is an American virtue. People like to change. So it’s nice that they have options — but so do their employers, which is not necessarily so nice. Many moons ago I was courted by the American broadcaster CNN with a decent offer to leave the BBC. (They wanted cannon fodder to send to Bosnia and I seemed up for it.) But it came with a catch in the contract: “CNN may dispense with your services, at any time, for any reason, or for no reason.”

Reader, I stayed with Auntie. But that clause is almost universally part of the American employment scene. It guarantees precariousness and you could argue (the author of Tolls of Uncertainty certainly does) that it hinders companies because it reduces employee retention and loyalty. Plenty of Americans would disagree, though: they see the current balance — employees free to go and employers free to fire — as a fit with their internalised sense of responsibility. An equilibrium: nobody owing anybody anything at the start of the day and at its end.

What does Joe Biden make of that argument? The President has hugely focused attention on the bottom rungs of the American ladder — with a singleness of purpose that few expected. And yet his strong sense of the needs of blue-collar America is tinged with that folksy meritocratic myth that that causes sociology professors to tear out their hair. “Instead of workers competing with each other for jobs that are scarce, employers are competing with each other to attract workers,” Joe Biden said approvingly the other day. Higher pay. More opportunity. Get ahead. Let the market do the work. And if you fall behind then there will be more help, but in your head you will still be a failure.

The most telling passage of The Tolls of Uncertainty comes at the end when Sarah Damaske is trying to get a woman called Tracy to tell her what her ambitions are. If she could have any job, what would it be?

Tracy doesn’t know. She doesn’t really care. She wants something with good pay.  The idea of betterment, ladders, glass ceilings, corner offices, is gobbledygook to many Americans at the bottom of the pile. The author manages a slightly reproachful explanation: “Tracy had not had a life that let her have such imaginings. She’d always needed to work ‘for the money,’ and that didn’t allow her to indulge in some fantasy with me about what she would want to do.”

Too right. I imagine Tracy raising her eyes to the ceiling when professor Damaske’s Toyota Prius had left the Dunkin Donuts parking lot: “What was she on?

There is, after all, another Great Resignation in the American psyche: people are resigned to their inability to make progress. The upper middle classes have successfully sealed themselves off (through college and inherited wealth and marrying only each other), so there is little real mobility on offer. For many Americans getting by is quite enough, thank you very much. They are not agitators for change.

It’s a state of mind that sees the world as infinitely malleable and your inability to make an impact on it as your fault. You didn’t listen in school. You are too stupid, too weak to make difference. Even if Joe Biden gets to reform American employment over the next few years, that mindset will remain. It is, for better or worse, still the American Way.

Justin Webb was the BBC’s North America Editor and presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four.