Who Hid All the Poor People?

Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan recently commented on a strange incongruity in the current economic downturn–everyone she sees seems to be doing all right:

One of the weirdest, most perceptually jarring things about the economic crisis is that everything looks the same. We are told every day and in every news venue that we are in Great Depression II, that we are in a crisis, a cataclysm, a meltdown, the credit crunch from hell, that we will lose millions of jobs, and that the great abundance is over and may never return. . . . And yet when you free yourself from media and go outside for a walk, everything looks . . . the same. . . . [For example,] [e]veryone’s still overweight.

Charlie Gibson of ABC may have the same problem. Perhaps we are just a “nation of whiners,” as Phil Gramm claimed. But Wonkette dissents:

See, Peggy, many average mortals realize that we’re in a bad economy when they “lose lots of money,” unlike you, who will only understand it when 1930s-era hobo anachronisms start showing up on the corner of Park & 79th. . . .[T]he Wal-Mart death stampede this morning is, for what it’s worth, a solid 2008 equivalent to the terrible 1930s stereotypes on which she bases economic well-being.

Peggy is right when she says “the mall is still there.” But people aren’t at the mall, you see! They’re at Wal-Mart, where people shop on “Black Friday” when they’re poor. And they’re all there, all trying to buy the same limited number of cheap goods. It becomes a race, and they’re willing kill people as collateral damage. And yes, “Everyone’s still overweight,” Peggy, because the unhealthiest foods — usually corn-derived and subsidized by the government — are the cheapest and most readily available in this country. . . .

But in defense of Noonan, it’s important to realize how hidden the suffering may be in this downturn. As Drake Bennett notes, the price of clothing and food has gone down relative to what it was in the 1930s:

Unlike the 1930s, when food and clothing were far more expensive, today we spend much of our money on healthcare, child care, and education, and we’d see uncomfortable changes in those parts of our lives. The lines wouldn’t be outside soup kitchens but at emergency rooms, and rather than itinerant farmers we could see waves of laid-off office workers leaving homes to foreclosure and heading for areas of the country where there’s more work – or just a relative with a free room over the garage. Already hollowed-out manufacturing cities could be all but deserted, and suburban neighborhoods left checkerboarded, with abandoned houses next to overcrowded ones.

And above all, a depression circa 2009 might be a less visible and more isolating experience. With the diminishing price of televisions and the proliferation of channels, it’s getting easier and easier to kill time alone, and free time is one thing a 21st-century depression would create in abundance.

Culture also plays a role in “closeting” those hit by hard times. Think about the tactics used to defeat SCHIP last year, when various forces opposed to subsidizing children’s health insurance blamed uninsured kids’ parents for their plight. As Ezra Klein noted, the message was clear: ask for help, and you get smeared. One of the most heartening things about the recent Studs Terkel tribute on “This American Life” was an interviewee’s anger at her son’s use of this type of rhetoric with respect to poor African-Americans out of work. “Your father was looking for a job during the Depression, and he couldn’t find one!” she declares, the searing experience of poverty giving her a lasting sympathy for those on the margins.

One of C. Wright Mills’s greatest insights concerned the threshold of politics–when personal pain becomes a matter of social justice. There will be many voices over the coming years telling those slipping out of the middle class to “tough it out,” to “get more education to become globally competitive,” to make do with less. While that’s all good advice, there are some other sources for the current crisis that need to be examined:

[From] 2002-2006 . . . [h]ousehold income increased a total of $863 billion over the period. $626 billion of the total gain went to the top 1 percent of households. The bottom 90 percent got only $41 billion, less than 5 percent of the total gain.

Resources didn’t just evaporate over the past year or so due to a natural disaster. Political decisions systematically reallocated them. And until the tens of millions of Americans with insecure health coverage, crumbling infrastructure, and housing insecurity “come out” to demand a better deal, we can only expect more of the same.

UPDATE: An explanation for Peggington’s perspective.

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