It is one of those curious coincidences that are nonetheless powerful when they occur. This month marked the 75th anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The now iconic novel recounts the tale of the Joad family’s trials as they sought to escape the Oklahoma Dust Bowl for the potential, but ultimately relentlessly cruel, prosperity of California. The book won the Pulitzer Prize soon after its publication, became a quick and perennial bestseller, produced a similarly classic film and emerged as one of the most acclaimed American texts of the 20th century. Despite its power and praise, The Grapes of Wrath has also earned the ire of many since its publication and now is on lists of most frequently banned books in the United States. Its subject, poverty, and its often searing and unflinching lens into the avarice and greed of which humans are capable (in this case, when taking advantage of the already destitute), is intense and for some individuals at least, fearsome and unpopular.
Meanwhile, January marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty. The poor he had in mind as emblematic were the same individuals whose plight so moved his predecessor, John Kennedy: those living in rural Appalachia. Johnson undertook to assist those “good people,” as he labeled them on a tour of the region in early 1964. The visit began a sustained effort to rid the nation of horrific destitution. In soaring rhetoric that surely fit his high aspirations, the President called on the nation to unite to eradicate the scourge of privation: “For the first time in our history, an America without hunger is a practical prospect and it must, it just simply must become the urgent business of all men and women of every race and every religion and every region. We have declared unconditional war on poverty. Our objective is total victory.”
Johnson’s War on Poverty resulted in passage of the Medicare and Medicaid programs as well as the Food Stamp program, the school free-and-reduced-price meals initiative and many more efforts aimed at assisting the poor. These together helped to lift hundreds of thousands out of poverty, provided hope for countless others and ameliorated the suffering of millions more. But for all of the good they have done, these national initiatives ultimately did not eliminate poverty or hunger in Appalachia or elsewhere in our otherwise rich nation. Now, however, the spirit of comity, hope and unity the President sought to unleash, and on which he relied to create the programs begun in its name, are under nearly continuous attack from a furious conservative movement that portrays those initiatives as the products of an overreaching government and argues that each deprives individuals of freedom of choice, or saps their will to work or both.
As I have noted in recent columns, Representative Paul Ryan has served recently as the Republican Party’s spokesperson in sustained (and partly successful, regarding food stamps) calls for reducing or eliminating these initiatives. The party has also worked assiduously to prevent expansion of Medicaid under the aegis of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, in the name of making sure that citizens bear the “real” risks of their situations as they confront daily privation, and not see their incentive to seek employment compromised by supposed undue social support. The contention underpinning this ongoing campaign is that individuals should confront the vicissitudes of the market alone and if they falter in so doing for whatever reasons, the responsibility for that outcome must be counted theirs alone. Their fellow citizens owe them little or nothing in their adversity. They are imagined to be the sole architects of their fates.
This same assumption has been the basis of many criticisms of The Grapes of Wrath. The book has been burned and banned on the grounds that it calls for communism because it dared criticize the behavior of predatory commercial actors. Such has been viewed as “Un-American” in critics’ minds because the behavior of the market and market interests should be beyond question. Any interrogation of such assumptions cannot be countenanced and therefore its agent—in this instance, a book—must be silenced. Interestingly, as with today’s GOP claims, the harshest criticisms have often been leveled at those experiencing suffering, while little or nothing is said or acknowledged about how the relevant conditions that created the poor’s penury arose in the first instance. To the extent those are acknowledged, they are considered the responsibility of the individual afflicted. To suggest the economic structure or its actors might bear a share of responsibility, as Steinbeck did, is to raise the unthinkable, in this view. Such heresy must therefore be stopped before it can spread.
As it happens, New York Times reporters currently are revisiting many of the localities whose poverty so moved President Johnson 50 years ago and are finding that many residents remain quite poor. There is surely much less outright hunger and physical suffering in McDowell County, West Virginia today, for example, than in 1964, but the market has not been kind to that jurisdiction or its citizenry in the period since the President’s visit. Now, as then, coal is the county’s only real source of employment and jobs in mining have declined for decades with continued mechanization, and now also fierce competition from other fuel sources in the global marketplace. Indeed, fewer than 1 in 3 remaining McDowell County residents are in the labor force and many who are not suffer from prescription medicine addiction. Put simply, there are few jobs for which to compete and little hope among many who continue to make the area their home that their situation will change. Republicans decry this reality and argue it demonstrates the failure of the War on Poverty, saying that instead of helping those it aimed to serve, it has instead discouraged them from seeking employment.
Most dispassionate analysts are less inclined to blame the government’s assistance efforts for the county’s woes or those now suffering as the architects of their own continuing adversity. These scholars instead see McDowell County’s continuing poverty as the consequence of long-term global economic change coupled with inadequate public and private willingness to invest psychologically and economically in possible alternatives to dependence solely on coal. In short, the ongoing crisis is not a failure of the poor because they are culturally lacking, as Ryan has recently suggested, or the result of assistance efforts that deprived the impoverished of their willingness to work, as Republicans also contend. Instead, the core reality confronting this area’s population, like that of many other rural jurisdictions across the United States, is the changing market for the commodity the region offers and Appalachia’s inability to generate economic alternatives to assume the place of that product. Without capitalist interest to locate in the area’s difficult geography, with its unevenly developed infrastructure and workforce, no new alternatives to coal have emerged for many of these communities. As coal-related employment has continued to decline, the result is hollowed out towns and counties. Residents who remain are increasingly dependent on public support to stave off utter deprivation. Many have fallen prey to drug addiction, a sign of the collapse of their traditional social support structure as well as of their relative hopelessness.
None of the origins of this complex constellation of factors can fairly be said to be the result of public efforts to fight misery and deprivation. Indeed, such initiatives continue to represent the only hope and sustenance for many residents. However ideologically convenient it may be for those who wish to attack government to say so, public efforts to combat destitution are not the cause of poverty in Appalachia or elsewhere. This raises the question of why so many people wish to pretend this is so, even when it results in additional or deepened direct suffering for those so maligned.
I am not sure I can supply a definitive answer. What seems clear is that this is a difficult and enduringly important concern in a polity so devoted to the market as our own. It goes to the heart of whether we shall be a self-governing nation or one that pays obeisance instead to a romanticized vision of the market as panacea and imagined substitute for democratic governance. Governments must create the conditions for markets to function and must regulate them to ensure they operate freely and fairly. When they do not, as in the Joad family’s experience in Steinbeck’s fictionalized account of what were very real experiences for hundreds of thousands, a democratic government must hold those committing injurious acts accountable, not blame those victimized. A self-governing citizenry can and should debate actively how to balance ensuring space for market innovation and monitoring it for excesses and injustice. Nonetheless, it is folly to pretend that citizens or their representatives can evade their governance responsibility by worshipping a non-existent market ideal or by attacking efforts to assist others as a matter of (gravely misplaced) principle. These stands can only result in still more suffering while also degrading the possibility of democratic governance. The real exigencies of poverty are complex, and a mature people can and must address that reality and not pretend that those experiencing privation are its singular agents.