As the sun was shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting, a voice was saying
(Might have been Woody!)
"This land was made for you and me!"
-- As sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary
Just after Martin Luther King Day I wrote a brief piece about Dr. King, Woody Guthrie, and poverty. I had intended to write a longer piece on poverty, but was sidetracked and instead wrote a very angry piece about the truth of what the Bible says about wealth vs the prevailing right wing political theology of prosperity. I often write with a focus on economics. This makes it very easy to outline the practical aspects of what I am saying but it can obscure the emotion that motivates it. I don't want the fact that I am a pedantic geek to give anyone the idea that I don't care.
As I noted in the original piece, Guthrie wrote during the Depression and his work was filled with a biting anger at the state of poverty in which many Americans found themselves. Guthrie was also angry at the wealthy, whom he felt were so concerned with protecting and increasing their wealth that they made the plight of the poor worse. The fact that many of the poor of the Depression had not been poor before the Depression made him even angrier. The wealthy and the powerful were not only hardening their hearts against the poor but also against their former neighbors and friends. This was not just greed or lack of compassion. This was betrayal.
This not the Great Depression, but it is the worst economic disaster to befall the United States since. Journalists and op/ed writers alike have taken to calling it 'The Great Recession.' The most fundamental difference between Great Recession and Great Depression is in the economic status of the victims. During the 1930s, many wealthy and powerful people were reduced to penurious vagrants because they were the people to whom the stock market catered. The middle and working classes were collateral damage. The poorest Americans were least affected, their circumstances had not been much better before the Depression. Our current economic plight is very different: the middle and working classes have taken the bullet for the wealthy. Many who have not lost their houses or their jobs have seen their retirement benefits reduced to pennies on the dollar because those benefits were invested in the financial markets that took the hit.
Guthrie was angry about something else too. There were poor Americans before the Great Depression and poor Americans after it. Poverty did not go away because the Depression ended. This still has not changed. Poverty was with us before the Great Recession and it will be with us after. Poverty is a problem that needs to be addressed independently from the economy. Simply getting the economy back on track will not make things better for everyone. Robert Reich has noted that economic recovery on Wall Street does not mean things are better for the rest of the country. Even Reich fails to mention that there are many people whose quality of life will not change in a meaningful way even after the economy has made a complete recovery.
Bill Clinton came into office during a recession and left office with the budget in surplus and the economy strong. Yet this made very little difference for many people whose quality of life was made much worse by the gutting of the American social safety net that greatly facilitated those budget surpluses. A strong economy does not buy groceries or pay rent for a family of four in Butler, TN.
'The Great Society' envisioned by Lyndon Johnson included victory in the 'War on Poverty.' One can argue that this was utopian dreaming with no chance of true success if one wishes, but one cannot justify the slow transformation of Johnson's 'War on Poverty' into the modern right wing war on the poor. The poor number the vast majority of the victims of both crime and the criminal justice system that is supposed to protect them from criminals. Access to the full protection of the law and full enjoyment of one's constitutional rights become difficult when one cannot afford a lawyer to defend those rights. There is a whole industry of pawnbrokers, paycheck advance loan offices, and other loan sharks (legal and illegal) who profit from American poverty.
I do not pretend to know the solution to the problem, though there are certainly programs designed to address other problems that would definitely help. Meaningful reform in areas of health care, employment law, education, and criminal justice would go a long way toward helping the poor without bringing back 'The Great Society.'
As a critical realist I know the problem of poverty cannot be completely solved. Laws of economics mean that there will always be poor people. That doesn't mean we should like it and not do the best we can.