Friday, March 11, 2016

Inch One Hundred Eight: Hard Times

I just finished rereading The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's powerful Great American Novel. I have read it cover to cover four or five times since I was a teenager. This was my first complete reading in many years.

What hit me hardest this time around was how little has changed. Or, more accurately, how far backwards we have slid in this country.

The Grapes of Wrath is half the story of the Joad family, sharecroppers whose lives are upended and broken by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and half Steinbeck's pointed commentary on the times in which he wrote. The novel came out in 1938. America had not yet climbed out of the Great Depression. Hunger, homelessness, poverty, lack of medical care, xenophobia, discrimination: Steinbeck saw and captured it all.

An evening into the book, I cried out to Warren, "Steinbeck could be writing this for our times!"

Just before beginning Grapes,  I read Eviction: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. It is a searing look at the private housing industry operating in the poorest parts of a city (in this case, Milwaukee, Wisconsin), at the landlords who make money off of the poorest of the poor, at the tenants who scrounge by (or not) in that market. There are no heroes, there are not necessarily villains in the sense of Evil Grasping Landlord. But regardless of your political leanings and your personal views about poverty, it is a book that will leave you shaken.

Steinbeck and Desmond would have much to talk about.

In my community, I continue to see the effects of the Great Recession, which six years later is still doing damage. Our local food banks have grown, the free medical and legal clinics stay busy. The safety net that politicians and administrations on both sides of the aisle hacked to bits only contains the slimmest of strands. More and more juveniles coming through our courts and more and more families in our schools have been homeless at some time in the last twelve to eighteen months. Like Steinbeck, I defy anyone to blame it solely on the individuals without shelter. As he so clearly captured in Grapes, while individuals are responsible for the choices, good and bad, they make, there are factors beyond their control, the economy and the political climate, among them, in which individuals, especially the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised, have no say and over which they have no control.

The Grapes of Wrath come out 78 years ago. John Steinbeck died in 1968.  Here it is 2016, and the book still rings true, still reads hard, and still burns the conscience.

Our country today would make Steinbeck weep. And then he would pick up his pen with even greater urgency and anger and write a new book.


Darla said...

Reading you post gave me goose bumps. Even those of us who are lucky enough to have a bit of a safety net aren't secure. The net stretches thinner every year. What a sad state of affairs. I will have to revisit "Grapes". Like you, I've read it more than once but not for a very long time.

Laurie said...

Interesting you should write about this, as I've been considering reading it recently. I'm not sure how I haven't until now, but you've convinced me to put it on my list.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to try to have an open mind as I read both books. But as someone who has had thousands of dollars of equipment stolen to support a meth habit, don't be surprised if I'm not moved as you were. I do think we have learned a lot over the years as to what works and what doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

April: You are so insightful in so many of your posts. Why did you have to set up a false equivalency in this post with your "both sides of the aisle" comment? I think we all know that the cuts to the poor come disproportionately from one side of the aisle, and will continue until we get the political will to fix that. Blaming both sides with such false equivalencies, even if you want to keep your blog apolitical, won't help to achieve that goal.

April said...

Apolitical? It was the Clinton administration that did heavy damage to the poor of this nation with his welfare-to-work program. And none of the deepest cuts happen without complicity on both sides of the aisle. The poor, especially the children who live in poverty, do not vote and so are not "real" constituents to most of those who sit in the House and Senate. I don't aim to be apolitical, but when it comes to poverty-related issue, I think the blame for government fixes and failures lies with both parties. As a nation, we don't like to think we have poverty, hunger, and homelessness, because that doesn't square with our self-image, so all of the dirty, hard work falls upon the communities, the non-profits, and individual volunteers.

It's hard saving the world, or one's corner of the world, one meal or one bed at a time.

Anonymous said...

I do not agree, and stick with my original comment that you are establishing a false equivalency between the impacts of the policies of the two sides of the aisle. As distressing as I find that in this political context, in these critical times, I truly respect you and your writing way, way too much to turn the comments section of your blog into such a polemical discussion. Sorry for this turn, I won't do it again!

Anonymous said...

Thanks April. I finished Grapes of Wrath. Great book. I feel very fortunate. I too would like to see Steinbeck write a book today. Don't worry, you aren't apolitical. There is a lot more government help today than in the book. The safety net that has been hacked to pieces has become an entitlement system which too many use as a perch. Seems to me, one side of the aisle is printing han'bills and distributing south of the border. Not the business that that would benefit from cheaper labor and more customers, but the "'cause it's the right thing to do side" who then has to share their net with more.
I was in Social Security Office yesterday and of the 60 people I saw, I would only trade place with three (young beautiful girl replacing her card, young Philippian man with college books and Philippian Paasport, and Senior Citizen Woman about to start her golden retirement years)and I have Multiple Myeloma too. I saw Ruthie and Winfield, who should of been in school, and Al and Tommy. Ma and Pa, Grandma and Grandpa. Casy anf Jule and several Rose of Sharons too.