lessons from our past

102_dconrad_02bThis week, researching poverty and family situations in our current economic state, I came across a fairly current collection of stories published by the AP and reported in various blogs. Stories of families devastated by economics beyond their control. American former workers and would-be workers, with degrees and certificates and resumes and dreams and plans and families and hopes. And then, at the end of the reporting, the inevitable commenting.

  • “My plan would make it illegal for able-bodied, working age people, who have received government assistance within 12-months of an election, to vote… you should not be voting and deciding for the rest of us how things are to be ran.””
  • “Get a 2nd or 3rd job and shut up.”
  • “Life aint always easy, man up and get after it.”
  • “Ditto on all the pics of FAT freeloaders! I’ll start feeling sorry for them when they look like a starving child from a 3rd world country.”
  • “Lazy and not too smart, is also an epidemic in this country.”
  • “If they want welfare they should have to read Atlas shrugged every year.” (from a guy known only as Sleazy Hippo.)

But I’m also watching the PBS Ken Burns documentary on The Dust Bowl. Four hours of insight I didn’t have before (plus stunning photography) into the 1930s in the Oklahoma panhandle and the southern plains. I had followed Route 66 as a historical road trip/adventure, and learned a few things along the way. I read a good bit of The Grapes of Wrath, until the damned turtle took an entire chapter to cross the road and lost me (I was in middle school). (I promise to try again.) I knew generally about the dust, the poverty, how hard the depression hit the area. What I didn’t know was that it was a disaster made of human greed and over-reach. Plowing up millions of acres of grassy plains turned out to be a bad idea. It worked out ok as long as there was a wheat market, but when that crashed and the farmers quit planting, then the fields were unprotected. Unrooted. There was nothing to keep millions of acres of dirt from blowing away.

Like the dot.com boom, or the housing/mortgage boom. Or other highs in our nations’s history that were followed shortly by bust. As with most of those things, the most vulnerable, the ones feeling the most pain when it is done were the ones with the least control in making it happen.

Roosevelt initiated the WPA, among other things, to help spur the economy, to put people to work, to save the country from ruin. He was criticized as a godless liberal, of course, and the workers were criticized as lazy people leaning on shovels and waiting for a hand-out. (Disclosure: my family has in its history both WPA employment and public assistance.)

Ken Burns quoted the letters of a resident of the place and time, Caroline Henderson, who wrote to Henry Wallace, the secretary of agriculture:

“If mere dollars were to be considered, the actually destitute in our section could undoubtedly have been fed and clothed more cheaply than the work projects have been carried out. But in our national economy manhood must be considered as well as money. People employed to do some useful work may retain their self respect to a degree impossible under cash relief…If we must worry so over the ruinous effects of ‘made work’ on people of this type, why haven’t we been worrying for generations over the character of the idlers to whom some accident of birth or inheritance has given wealth unmeasured, unearned and unappreciated?”

Human dignity counts for something. And I wonder, with all the infrastructure needs our country is experiencing, and the need for jobs we are experiencing, why haven’t we launched a full-scale WPA again? And why do we continue, in every generation, to blame those who are poor?

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About Deb Conrad
I’m Deb Conrad, pastor, teacher, photographer, writer, antique-lover, cat-mom, wine-drinker and old-house-seeker. I have a bike by Burley and knees by Stryker. I play guitar marginally, bowl when I can. I live in Flint, Michigan, with previous lives in SC, NJ, PA, MD, Washington DC, TX, CA and KY. I founded and still help run UrbanSpirit, a poverty education center in Louisville (link below), where I meet interesting people and try to do what I can to change the world. I'm pastor of Woodside Church in Flint, a groovy place if ever there was one.

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