About this site

What Went Wrong: The Betrayal of the American Dream is a collaboration between Donald Barlett and James Steele and the staff of the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

In 1991, Barlett and Steele wrote a 9-part newspaper series called America: What Went Wrong.  The series became a best-selling book, one that explained for the first time what had happened to working people in America, and why.

Twenty years later, Barlett and Steele have set out to tell the story of why Americans’ economic lives continue to deteriorate. Barlett and Steele, in close collaboration with project manager Kat Aaron and researchers, producers and editors at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, are writing a new book based on their findings. We are building the website (this very website) that will spotlight many of those stories.  In the book and here online, we will offer the first comprehensive look at the economic, labor and government forces from the 1970s through 2010, four full decades, that have impacted so many Americans.

More on this project

About America: What Went Wrong, the 1991 newspaper series
About What Went Wrong: The Betrayal of the American Dream, the 2011-2012 project

Project Staff

In addition to Barlett and Steele, there's a big team working on this site. Our staff page has the full rundown.

Hyperlocal News Partners

We can’t cover the whole country alone, and we don’t want to try.  We will be featuring stories on economic and financial issues from hyperlocal news sites around the country – the people who are covering specific cities and neighborhoods at a very granular level, day in and day out.  Our current and growing list of hyperlocal partners is below.  Their sites include much more than the stories we’ll be featuring, and we encourage you to check them out, and follow them on twitter.

About the Investigative Reporting Workshop

In recent years, much of the traditional American media, in a drive to cut costs and maintain profits, has slashed its capacity to do investigative journalism. This has happened just as the forces of technology and globalization are combining to make government and powerful private institutions less transparent, and thus, less subject to public scrutiny and oversight.

The Investigative Reporting Workshop, a professional journalism center housed at the School of Communication at American University, addresses this fundamental issue for democracy in two important ways:

  • By conducting significant, multimedia investigative journalism projects on a national and international scale. We are mentoring and enabling the work of a new generation of investigative reporters while also enlarging the public space for the leading journalists of our time to work with us as Senior Fellows or contract writers. To see our work in this arena, including our collaborations with such major media outlets as msnbc.com, FRONTLINE, McClatchy Newspapers and others, visit our investigation pages or our partners page.
  • By researching and experimenting with new models for creating and delivering investigative projects. Our efforts in this arena, from the Workshop iLab, have helped lead to the development of the Investigative News Network and aided and abetted the establishment of several other nonprofit news groups, both in the United States and abroad.

For more on the Workshop, visit the Workshop’s main site.

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.