The New Economy: Unemployment and the Return of the American Hobo

By Sheldon Greaves

Two young boys hopping a freight train, circa 1935-1930.

A few years ago I read somewhere about a trend in the “gig economy” in which people who had been reduced to living in their cars or RVs roamed the country by the thousands; homeless, nomadic workers driving from one temporary job to another. It painted a tragic picture; underpaid, overworked, often lacking health insurance, men and women, many of whom ought to be enjoying retirement but were working in warehouses filling orders for Amazon (“Camperforce”) or stocking shelves in a big-box store.

It sharply reminded me of the Great Depression, another time when mobile workers moved from place to place across the country in search of work. Thinking about this I realized that what we were seeing was the return of the migrant worker apart from the seasonal farm worker, i.e., the Hobo. Also called Tramps, Bums and other less charitable names, these men were the displaced detritus of the Great Depression who wandered the country looking for any jobs that would help them survive and, if there was any left over, to send home to their families. It was a dangerous life; travelling by hopping freight trains or hitchhiking on the highways wasn’t the safest way to get around. Many hobos were maimed or killed in accidents travelling this way, or were victims of violence. Loren Eisley’s wonderful memoir All the Strange Hours recalls his days as a young hobo with all of the dangers and troubles that went with being a hobo. They also faced hostility from towns naturally suspicious of outsiders, especially if there wasn’t any work even for the locals.

Hobos on a freight train.

But the hobos also became a part of American folklore. The music of Woody Guthrie, who spent quite a bit of time on freight trains himself, helped to make the plight of these unemployed workers known to the rest of the country. Government programs found ways to harness this pool of labor and skill, pouring it into vast projects, many of which continue to contribute to national economy today.

There was, however, another side to hobo life. It became a sort of counter-culture, a rebellion of sorts against a social order that had unfairly cast aside decent, hard-working people for the sake of profit. Hobo life in some cases became a form of dropout culture, mainly, I suspect, as a way of embracing what apparently could not be avoided. An old professor of mine, who spent some of his youth as a tramp, recalled how some of his tramping companions actually knew more about science and literature than his college professors, but preferred tramping as a better way to enjoy God’s creations. Dropouts indeed.

I have been fascinated by American dropout culture as a response to moments when society becomes economically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually intolerable and so, like a few Biblical figures, one leaves, going out of bondage, but into the wilderness for whatever it may bring one. Historically, I’ve noticed that from Roanoke to the 1960’s and 70’s, the dropouts generally seemed to have a point, even if it wasn’t clear at the time. Sometimes the dropouts used their unique viewpoint to inform changes for the better, or became part of grander projects as happened with the government work projects of the New Deal.

So it is with some bemusement that I have noticed an interesting trend when it comes to the mobile temp workers, hobos with RVs or living out of their cars. Over the last seven or so years a small body of literature has emerged celebrating the homeless, wandering worker. Getting out of debt is a common reason for ditching less settled living, and as a rejection of consumerism (Ironic, given how many of these mobile temp jobs are serving precisely that consumer economy). The whole thing has a Small is Beautiful/Voluntary Simplicity vibe to it. Three of the six or so book titles of the last few years even reference “living in a van down by the river” in homage to a classic SNL skit.

So which is it? Is the new hobo a national tragedy in slow-motion, or rebellion against consumer culture, a new manifestation of the All-American dropout? I think it’s too early to tell. This may be nothing more or less than trying to make the best of a bad situation. I hope it’s more than that.

Famed American author and philosopher Eric Hoffer, himself a long-time migrant worker, had some remarkable insights into the responsibility of a nation to do right by such men and women. In his essay, “The Role of the Undesirables”, based on his own experience in government work camps in the early 1930’s. He draws some interesting and telling comparisons between the “human junk pile” that made up the bulk of his fellow workers and the early American pioneers–themselves undesirables from Europe–who built the nation. He points out that these pioneers craved change, much like the RV hobos of today. Hoffer writes: “…the quality and destiny of a nation are determined to a considerable extent by the nature and potentialities of its inferior elements.” He further argues that the quality of a nation is likewise manifest by how those at the bottom rise to the top. And that, I submit, is the problem. Is there an endgame to the RV hobo life that involves a chance to settle back down, to enjoy some of the fruits of one’s labor in security and dignity? Certainly a life on the road can be exciting. I find the idea compelling myself. But the other kind of mobility–upward mobility–has all but ceased to exist in this country. I cannot yet say whether these economic rebels of the road are truly making a new way of living, or accepting the unacceptable.


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