Thursday, April 29, 2021

Nomadland: Film with a View on Poverty


Released 19 February 2021

Having been a fan of Frances McDormand for two decades, I was eager to see her performance as Fern in Nomadland (2020).  She did not disappoint. However, I did not walk away feeling blissful or triumphant. Instead, I was unsettled. 

The film is a blend between fact and fiction. The director, Chloe' Zhao, had a lot of people depict themselves in the film, people who are seasonal workers living in in all manner of vehicles--from campers to converted vans. 

The film shows Fern, uprooted after the factor closes where she lived in Nevada. She ends up living in a van and working seasonal jobs. She's barely managing to get by, so if she has trouble with her van, her job, or her health, she's poised to lose everything. 

Yes, Fern demonstrates industry, creativity, resilience, self-reliance, warmth and compassion. Her character was admirable. However, I kept asking questions about the way the economy in the United States is structured in such a way that laborers like Fern can reach their sixties without savings, equity, or healthcare.  

The National Counsel on Aging reports this:

Over 15 million (or roughly 1 in 3) older adults aged 65+ are economically insecure, with incomes below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. 

I'm not an economist, so I am ill equipped to use the most pertinent facts or useful theories to parse this situation in a thorough manner. I can only make a few observations. 

I am a gerontologist, so I do come across trends in aging.  

Many people who have physically demanding jobs end up suffering a lot of physical complaints that make it difficult to continue working in construction, farming, manufacturing, etc. However, they may not be injured enough to receive disability benefits before they reach the age for qualifying for Medicare and Social Security. And they may not be well prepared to move into a career that is less physically demanding. 

Women experience greater poverty because of discrimination in wages. As a group, women earn .80 cents to each $1 men earn. Also, women tend to have erratic work histories because they go in and out of the work force to care for children, parents, and spouses. Some women also care for grandparents, siblings, or end up raising their grandchildren. 

Women without a college education and women of color face even greater poverty as reported in a 2018 Forbes article

And single black women age 60+ without a college degree have a mere $12,000 in wealth (median figure), in stark contrast to the $384,400 in median wealth among single white women with a bachelor’s degree.

This leaves many older adults in poverty or near poverty by midlife. Those living hand-to-mouth often are unable to purchase homes, leaving them with no equity in late life. 

Fenelon & Mawhorter in their 2020 article published Public Policy & Aging Report describe the less-than-ideal housing situation for more than half of older adults in the US: 

Over half (54%) of renters aged 65 and older are cost-burdened, and nearly one-third spend at least half their income on rent. As with homeowners, cost burdens among renters are more common among older adults than any other age group except those under age 25.

So, yes, Fern works hard, but how did larger socioeconomic factors contribute to her plight? And what can we do--as voters or from positions of influence if we are educators, managers, and employers--to help workers be better equipped by late life? 


Films about Aging

2020 Report on Older Americans



  1. You need to watch the movie, Nomadland, again. Obviously you didn't understand it. Had NOTHING to do with women and poverty. Three times in the movie Fern was asked/invited to change her living conditions. Once by her sister, another by a love interest and also by her friends. The point is, and it is the same with everyone else in the movies is that these people CHOOSE to live that way: in vans, RVs etc. Fern CHOSE to be a van dweller and live a Nomadic lifestyle. The reason why the movie won an Oscar is because so many people can identify with this personal choice. Disgusted with government, big business, taxes etc, by living in a van on BLM land, they avoid all that responsibility. The company Fern's husband worked for provided the housing. So, when the husband died, Fern had no equity. Granted yes, with no rent to pay and his good salary, Fern should have saved more money, but as with most Americans, they didn't save. Most Americans spend, spend, spend. The only thing we can do, as voters or from positions of influence, as you pose, is advise people to save their money. But in this American consumer society, that advice falls on deaf ears. Oh well. Enjoy taking a dump in a 5 gallon bucket. That's about it for Fern's future.

    1. Anonymous: Thank you for sharing your interpretation of this multivalent film.

  2. Dear Anonymous, didn't see the movie, but we both know, there's more than a few "husbands" who crap away their good salaries on booze and broads - with barely a thought about their family's financial well-being. This is precisely why big government has to step in and provide for the (social) widows and orphans. As for Fern not willing to move in with people, while i didn't see the movie, don't have to. Becoming dependent on lovers, friends and even fffaaamily, that can and does turn ugly.

    1. Sue. The situation is complex with many factors, some of which you name do operate some times. I served as a part-time minister to women from my congregation in Wichita, KS where they or their spouses worked in manufacturing airplanes. They lived in cottages built quickly for these laborers, and many of these women were moving into late life with few resources and mounting healthcare costs, and their children were not equipped to help them. Observing their plight first-hand and reading stats about poverty and aging as a university instructor of gerontology makes me hyperaware of the lack of equity these nomads demonstrated. Not all the lack of savings had to do with men squandering their salary. They often just didn't make enough to squirrel away the one million per person (two million for a couple) need for housing and healthcare in late life now that people are living longer with multiple chronic illnesses.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. I removed the anonymous comment about because it took a stance of attacking another commenter. I view my blog as a virtual living room in my house. I am the host, and it's my job to foster an inviting environment. If people want to critique me, that's fine. I have studied rhetoric and participated in speech & debate. But I feel an obligation to maintain civility in the comments. State your opinion, but please do not attack others. Also, very few people actually change their minds after being attacked. It's not rhetorically effective.

  3. I can see this is a movie I need to watch!