I read Michael Hiltzik’a The New Deal: A Modern History (Free Press, 2011) and Sasha Abramsky’s The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives (Nation Books, 2013) in tandem, leading to a very strange stereovision of America’s twentieth-century successes and failures in delivering basic material security to its people. Hiltzik, whose reporting I first encountered last fall around the Obamacare rollout, offers us a detailed case history of the incomplete construction of America’s social safety net, while Abramsky details the ways in which even that open-weave net has been slashed and burned since the 1970s. Taken together, the two volumes chart a twentieth-century history of callous uncaring for the economically vulnerable, with a brief burst of effort during the Great Depression, and then again in the postwar era when America’s affluence made it seem, temporarily, like poverty could be eradicated without asking the other other half to give up that much, if anything. Did you know that during the Great Depression, relief workers were making the case that giving cash to people in poverty, no strings attached, was the most effective way to stimulate the economy and help them put their lives back together? And we act like we’ve just discovered that poor people are actually the experts on their own lives. Can you imagine a world where Richard Nixon floated the idea of a guaranteed universal income for every American? Because it existed. Briefly. It’s both refreshing to recover these histories of (dare I say it) socialist activism in American life, and also a real downer to realize that in every era political realists tempered their radical inclinations to better the well-being of Americans because they knew they would only be able to win lesser concessions from those who held the political power (and financial resources).
Hiltzik’s New Deal is straightforward political and economic history. In a sweeping chronological narrative he charts the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to resolve the crises of the Great Depression (banking, housing, jobs, food) from Roosevelt’s inauguration through to the eve of WWII. The story he tells is Washington-centric, a tale of New Deal politicians, those in their employ, and their adversaries. Those looking for a more grassroots narrative of the Great Depression and the effect of New Deal policies and programs should look elsewhere — but Hiltzik does provide a useful sense of the real politik required to push through programs such as Social Security. While those on the left wanted guaranteed pensions for all elder Americans, the program as finally designed — as we know it today — tied payouts to lifetime earnings:
The program’s near-total dependence on enrollee contributions has been both a blessing and a curse. (Economists consider the employer’s payments to be employee contributions under another guise, on the theory that if the employer tax were not levied the money would flow to the workers as wages instead.) Although the contributory element makes the program’s financing regressive — that is, wealthier Americans pay a smaller portion of their income than lower-paid workers to support a program of broad social utility — it has also helped protect it from political attack by giving its enrollees what appears to be a concrete stake in its survival (251).
In many ways, Saul Abramsky picks up where Hiltzik’s narrative leaves off, exploring American poverty and economic insecurity as it has manifested since the mid-twentieth century and the War on Poverty efforts of the ebullient 1960s and early 70s. The American Way of Poverty is a difficult book to read, in that it ruthlessly reminds us that we are all one or two or a series of three, four, five, instances of bad luck of poor decision-making away from material ruin. In a society that has only ever grudgingly supported social safety nets — and then only for the “deserving” poor. As the rich grow richer, we talk about slashing social security benefits, refuse to extend Medicaid to our nation’s poorest regions, and continue to see the socialized guarantee basic material security (health care, food, shelter, education, and work) as the flower-strewn path to slothful dependency.
As someone who believes that a life lived in basic faith that human beings seek to be creative in community with one another (recognizing there will be a few who take advantage of this trust) far outweighs the toxicity of a life lived on the premise that human beings require shock prods and chains to squeeze labor and “productivity” out of their souls, I found Abramsky’s reminder of how few Americans share my values possible to read only in small doses. Particularly (ironically enough) the final sections in which he offers solutions for the various problems of endemic poverty: a guaranteed minimum income, socializing the costs of higher education, reinvestment in Social Security, national healthcare, renewed support for unionization, a laundry list of practical steps toward a society oriented toward benefiting all not just the plutocratic few. That such a simple, modest list of steps toward the lessening of human suffering seems politically impossible leaves one with a creeping sense of apathetic despair.
I won’t stop at the apathy, of course (I suppose maybe not “of course”, but I’ve imbibed enough lefty theology in my time to believe that a meaningful life involves struggling for justice even when the possibility of success is vanishingly small). But it’s shocking every time to re-realize how willing we are to throw some people under the bus so the “right” sort of people can keep on hoarding the resources for themselves. And how we narrate those acts of violence as inevitable, natural, as “freedom” and “choice,” as the neutral forces of the universe, simply the way things are rather than the way we’ve decided things will be. Reading histories like Hiltzik’s are a good reminder that our present has been shaped by our past, and that the past is made up of concrete actions taken up by human beings. Human beings who could have made different decisions, taking us along different paths.
We always have choices. I do hope that, collectively, we can make ones that benefit the vulnerable, the marginalized, the trapped, and dehumanized, so that they too are free to make meaningful choices about their own lives.