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"I Wonder What The Poor Folks Are Eating:" A Brief History of Poor People
How we got tricked into being "not poor."
Like most Americans, I spent a fair chunk of my life being “not poor.” Never mind that I was making about $12,000 a year as a teacher for most of my 20s. It was just temporary, I told myself. I could use student loans for books, conferences, and professional development. It would all pay off if I just kept working hard. After four grueling years, I finished my dissertation and earned my PhD. I got a tenure-track job, despite constant reminders from my committee that I wasn’t ready and was destined for failure. They wanted me to stay in the program and take out more loans. “You’re serious about your education,” they said.
I skipped my doctoral hooding ceremony. I couldn’t afford the regalia. I didn’t buy a frame for my diploma. They were too expensive. I couldn’t find a cheap one that fit. So it sat in a drawer for years, unhung.
After a year as a professor, something weird happened:
My student loans didn’t budge. I was still living in a noisy apartment with college students. I know what some people are thinking. “She probably wasted her money on unicorn frappuccinos.” I lived in a small town in the middle of nowhere. There were no restaurants or coffee shops to blow my money.
I wasn’t sinking deeper into debt, but I wasn’t saving. Every time I managed to scrape together a couple thousand bucks, some emergency came up. I needed new tires. My spouse needed surgery. My computer died. On and on it went. Some expense always arrived to bludgeon my bank account. I was living the life Barbara Ehrenreich describes in Nickel and Dimed, but I still wasn’t poor.
How could I possibly be poor?
I was educated.
This is the trick that America plays on us. Throughout history, the elite have done such a thorough job of vilifying poverty that almost nobody in this country wants to admit to being poor or needing help. For hundreds of years, Americans have been conditioned to see their financial struggles as a personal moral failing and a source of shame. We’re taught to view ourselves and each other as a burden unless we’re constantly working. We’re also taught to treat consumption as a way of achieving wealth and happiness when it serves the 1 percent, but to deny and downplay our need for income in order to look grateful in public. The elite have even managed to transform education into a commodity, which has shackled Americans to nearly $2 trillion in student loan debt.
They love it.
Like me, my best friend came from a not poor family. Growing up, her dad used to sit back at the dinner table and say, “I wonder what the poor folks are eating tonight.” He spent long periods of time looking for work and taking odd jobs, but he refused to admit he was poor. It led to a few arguments.
My friend yelled: “Dad, we’re poor!”
“No, we are not.”
The last time I checked, her dad’s positive attitude never manifested a job. She was one of three daughters, and they all got jobs to help pay the mortgage and buy groceries. They put themselves through school. Their financial situations never improved. They just managed to stay off the street.
They counted it as a win.
I’ve recently started digging into the history of poverty in America to see where these toxic ideas came from. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Poverty isn’t a moral failure. It’s not an accident.
The rich treat it like a bug.
It’s a feature.
Affluent Americans have always hated the poor. During the colonial era, it was literally a crime to be idle or jobless. Throughout the seventeenth century, towns held public whippings of the unemployed before throwing them in jail. Everyone from governors to preachers warned their flocks against helping the poor, because they might be lying. They banned the use of church funds for public assistance. They kicked out strangers who didn’t have official business. If you didn’t have a job, they rented your children out as servants.
You had to stay busy.
Otherwise, you might turn into a witch.
A while ago, a history professor named Neil Betten uncovered a cyclical attitude toward the poor in America going back hundreds of years. During times of prosperity, tight labor markets led to intense hostility toward the poor and unemployed. Politicians and business owners churned out a steady stream of reports, pamphlets, and manifestos calling the unemployed lazy and corrupt.
The logic went like this: If someone could force you to work, then you were fit for employment. No further questions.
Attitudes toward the poor softened during economic downturns as people in good moral standing fell on hard times. It was dicey to call 10 or 20 percent of the population lazy. That would make them angry and create public discord. Sentiment always turned venomous again as unemployment went back down. Nobody could accept that good people could be poor.
It just wasn’t possible.
During the end of the 19th century, things got worse. Wealth gaps increased. Deprived of slaves, cotton and textile mills started forcing children into hard labor rather than consider the possibility of fair wages to attract workers. At any given time, a fifth of their workforce was 15 or under. Anytime child labor laws got close to passing, factory owners and business leaders ramped up fear that the government was going to take over everyone’s farms. They rioted.
So reforms always failed.
A new kind of charity organization also emerged during the late 19th century. They did more than simply dispense aid. They manufactured public opinion, pushing the idea that poverty and unemployment resulted primarily from laziness, poor spending habits, alcoholism, sexual perversion, and other moral vices. Their goal became less about helping the poor and more about reforming them.
The late 19th century also saw the rise of “rags to riches” stories, popularized by Horatio Alger, a disgraced pastor who fled Boston under several credible allegations of grooming young boys. His bestselling novel Ragged Dick cemented the idea that poor homeless kids were just lazy and ignorant.
That was easier to believe.
Things got even worse in the 1920s.
Even as psychologists and sociologists began to promote a healthier attitude toward poverty, the general public rejected it. The news media doubled down on the moral failures of poverty and ran even more stories praising business owners and industry leaders, all to counter and silence the emerging evidence that poverty was a social problem, not a personal one. Politicians rejected the idea of government handouts, calling it socialism. Local newspapers shamed welfare recipients by publishing their names and addresses. People were genuinely afraid of being harassed and ridiculed simply for needing money.
As Kerryn Higgs explains in Collision Course, the U.S. economy did experience a slowdown in the early 1920s as postwar demand plunged and people stopped buying things. Americans began expressing a desire to take advantage of advances in technology by working fewer hours and spending more time with their families or pursuing personal goals. Business leaders found that totally unacceptable. They were angry nobody wanted to work 12 hours a day anymore.
They had to crush everyone’s spirit somehow.
Around this time, the elite got together with politicians to concoct the doctrine of endless growth, and then they started selling it to the public. Through the media, they pushed the equation of consumption with happiness. They made it their explicit goal to push consumers to “buy and buy lavishly.”
In 1928, an advertising wizard named Edward Bernays published a book called Propaganda. Bernays explicitly stated that “supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand.” According to him, industries “cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product. It must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda… to assure itself the continuous demand which alone will make its costly plant profitable.” A renowned economist at the time described this movement as “the new economic gospel of consumption.”
In 1929, the head of research at General Motors published an article called “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied,” enshrining the ideology of endless growth. He implored every industry and sector of government to overwhelm their citizens with propaganda encouraging a constant cycle of work and consumption. The essay merely described a strategy that had been well underway for most of the decade. Government and industry worked together for the sake of “progress.” They rolled out the idea of installment payments and consumer debt, so that Americans could buy cars, vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators.
In the 1920s, the American economy grew and grew.
As Tara Button says in A Life Less Throwaway, the 1920s and 1930s also saw the emergence of throwaway culture. Even as they were encouraging Americans to buy more, industry cartels conspired to make their products less durable. For example, light bulb manufacturers engaged in extensive tests to cut the lifespan of their bulbs by half. They congratulated themselves. Now Americans would have to buy twice as many lightbulbs and spend twice as much money. Companies even started calculating how soon their products could fail before consumers would take the time and energy to complain. This practice has only gotten worse…
Historians call this phase in history “the democratization of desire.” Rather than let people relax, the elite conspired to get inside their heads and make them want things they didn’t really need, all for profit.
The richest Americans didn’t just hate the poor anymore. They wanted to keep them poor by trapping them in cycles of consumption.
Yes, the economy really is rigged to keep everyone poor. But we’re supposed to be so ashamed, we never talk about it.
We just pretend…
Americans in the 1920s saw their quality of life improve, but it was financed on debt. According to statistics, about 70 percent of Americans still lived in poverty. Profits soared, but wages either increased modestly, stagnated, or declined. Everyone was simply working and consuming too much to notice.
It didn’t end well.
By the late 1920s, debt drove the banking system into a freefall. Most Americans know the official story of the Great Depression. They don’t know how close the country came to total collapse. Even as unemployment and hunger exploded, Herbert Hoover refused to engage federal aid. He was scared that providing public assistance would turn the country into a bunch of communists and unravel the moral fabric of America. After losing to FDR, Hoover would continue railing against progressive policies. He even compared Roosevelt to Hitler. During this period, self-help writers like Norman Vincent Peale also started piling on new deal policies, predicting it would destroy America’s spiritual core. This time, the attitude toward the poor didn’t soften. A rising number of poor Americans started getting violent.
They raided stores for food.
Veterans set up camps in D.C., and some of them began marching for the early payment of bonuses (pensions). Hoover responded by deploying the military, who wound up killing two homeless vets. The streets filled with tanks, teargas, and smoke. Across the U.S., police and city officials tried to demolish camps and disperse homeless populations. Millions of adults began wandering the country looking for jobs. Children left home and traveled in rail cars, convinced they were a burden on their families. Sometimes, their parents sold them.
Sharecroppers in southern states begged for food and assistance. In most cases, governments denied them aid for the same reason Hoover did. They worried it would create an attitude of entitlement.
It’s hard to read about it.
Essentially, businesses colluded with the government to convince poor and middle-class Americans to buy cars and fridges on credit. They gave Wall Street endless loans to speculate on stocks. They extended debt to farmers and encouraged them to keep growing food, so they could take out more loans. They nurtured a decade of reckless spending and cultivated endless consumer desire. When it all fell apart, they withheld aid out of a misplaced sense of puritan morality.
They worried that helping poor Americans would make them lazy.
It was better to sit around and let them starve.
That was the right thing to do.
Contrary to what many Americans think, even Roosevelt’s new deal policies couldn’t pull Americans out of the mess that Wall Street had created. Poverty still remained widespread after the second world war. So business leaders added something to their mix of propaganda. It was called self-help.
The interesting thing about the self-help industry is that they didn’t even come up with their own name. They stole it from the Self-Help Cooperative Movement, a network of factory workers and farmers during the 1930s who got together to trade labor and food. Con artists like Norman Vincent Peale and Napolean Hill appropriated the term to repackage old ideas:
Money makes you happy.
Working makes you money.
Poor people are lazy.
The corporate appropriation of self-help primed everyone for a new wave of pro-consumer propaganda that got Americans buying things again. During the 1950s, the American government began transforming itself into a ruthless superpower. It was better to bully other countries and extract wealth from their poor in order to create a middle-class. For once, Americans could afford a home and a car without going into debt. The decades running from the 1950s through the early 1970s saw some hardwon advances in social justice. The government even declared a war on poverty and started working to address systemic inequalities.
That lasted until the early 1980s.
In Evil Geniuses, Kurt Andersen does a good job of condensing the socio-political history of our current situation. Essentially, CEOs and yuppies started getting more and more greedy. They found a champion in Ronald Reagan, a president who spent eight years undoing labor unions and deregulating industries. His successor, George Bush, took it further. Although it makes Democrats angry to admit this, Bill Clinton carried forward the neoliberal agenda. He and George Bush II presided over the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.
Without decent jobs, a large swath of Americans were left only with a sense of deep shame and anger. When millions of people are broke and jobless, but too ashamed to ask for help after a century of generational abuse, that drives them a little nuts. They’ll believe anything that restores their dignity.
And so, here we are.
There has been a systemic assault on poor people for the last four decades. The entire point is to drag us all the way back to the 1920s, when Americans worked all the time and spent all their money on gadgets, only to wind up poor and then blamed for it by the very architects of their desire. They probably wouldn’t mind if we rebooted public whippings of the unemployed, too.
They’d bring it back just for fun.
There’s a point to all of this. If we’re going to make progress on any progressive agendas, we’ll have to remove the social stigma from poverty. We’ll have to stop blaming poor people for their problems and bulldozing their camps, as if that makes the problem go away. (Affluent liberals do it, too.) We’ll have to admit that corporations do invest an enormous amount of energy encouraging consumption and marketing junk to poor people, then act like blameless victims when they tank the economy. We have to make it clear that there’s no shame in not having enough money, that it’s not a personal moral failure.
We’re going up against four centuries of social programming.
It’s not going to be easy.
Today, poor people are gaslit from every possible angle. They’re told to buy more to help the economy. They’re told to save. They’re told to invest. They’re told to work harder. They’re told to get more rest. They’re told to ask for a raise with confidence. They’re yelled at when they ask for a raise. They’re told money won’t make them happy. They’re told money will make them happy. They’re told to go to college. They’re told they shouldn’t have gone to college. They’re told to take out loans. They’re berated for taking out loans. They’re told to try to get good jobs. They’re told they should settle for lousy jobs. Their bank charges them fines for not having enough money. Bankers tell them there’s too much money floating around, so they have to raise interest rates and trigger mass layoffs.
They’re told they work too hard.
They’re called lazy.
They’re forced to deliver packages during tornadoes. They’re locked inside freezers. They drop dead on warehouse floors. They’re told to step over each other’s corpses to meet delivery deadlines. They’re told to pee inside bottles. They’re denied air conditioning. Their corporate bosses tell them to get on food stamps to save the company money. Their corporate bosses try to get them kicked off food stamps. On top of all that, they’re told to be grateful.
They’re not poor.
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