"Do you know why people are suffering so much more during this recession than many did during the Great Depression?" My husband was in the passenger seat, preparing to give me the answer to his rhetorical question, "It's because folks in the 30s used to have back yard gardens, maybe a few chickens, a goat. They grew and canned their own food, so they could weather an economic storm better than we can now."
I winked, "You're just lobbying for us to get some chickens aren't you? It's always about chickens with you."
He frowned, "I'm serious."
He was serious, and I think in honesty, he was largely right. We were more self-sufficient then. We still made most of what we needed here. Everyone had access to garden and a workshop and women still knew how to sew their own clothing. Making soap wasn't just a yuppie hobby, like it is now.
But I think it's only half the story
You see, what was also different then was that people looked after each other. If your neighbor was struggling, you gave him a share of what you had. My grandmother would keep a pot of soup on the stove nearly all the way through the Depression; when the beggars came to the back door, she would give them a bowl to warm and sustain them; they would sweep her stoop or do a small repair in return. The owner of the greenhouse in town would allow men to sleep in the greenhouse at night during the winter, and in return, they would make sure the fire in the stove stayed lit. They might do a little weeding or re-planting if he threw some bread into the deal. You made sure your neighbor's kids had a safe place to stay and got something to eat, while the neighbor was out looking for work. Nobody had very much, but they shared what they had.
That attitude of abundance, the concept that enough is enough, the idea that "I am my brother's keeper" has been lost in the country. What I hear in this country today, especially from the "Tea Party", is: "I Got Mine. Why should I share it with those bums??" Only I wish they stopped at the word "bums". More often it's "scum", "deadbeats", "towelheads", or words that start with the letter N or the letter F. As in "That n***** president is gonna take my hard-earned money and give it to a bunch of other deadbeat n******"
The Tea Party mouthpieces (and make no mistake; the real leadership of the Tea Party can be found in big business, not in the grass roots) are my contemporaries; they did not live through the Depression. They have not learned the lessons about community and compassion that our grandparents did; or if they did, they have forgotten them on their way to the Temple of the Almighty Dollar.
Where does the blame rest? In my opinion, it is in the most unexpected of places: Social Service Programs. Now don't get all self-righteous on me, or accuse me of having gone off my meds; hear me out.
When we stopped having a human connection to the poor in our communities, when we placed the government in the position of intermediary between the Haves and the Have-nots, we turned our nation's poor from people into amorphous objects. We stopped having that very real, human, physical connection to our charity. We lost the ability to place our hand under the elbow of the ones who have stumbled, and in helping them rise, to see ourselves in their faces. We have lost our sense of, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
In two generations, we have lost our compassion.
Do I think the poor would be better off without Welfare, AFDC, Medicaid, etc? Of course not. They are a lifeline. I would no sooner do away with social services than I would my own job.
So how can I praise and blame our Great Society at the same time? How do we keep the good in our lifelines and eliminate the unintended negative social consequences?
We didn't go far enough. (and I hear the collective sign of relief and your renewed faith in my bleeding-heart-liberal roots)
Let's look at countries like Denmark, Norway, or even France. There is, generally, an economic equality in those nations. Perfect? No. But the sense among the populace there is, "I may not have everything I want, but I have most everything I need; we can choose where to live and what to do, we can elect our officials, we can have a strike if things aren't going according to our liking, and nobody is starving and nobody dies for lack of access to health care."
Why don't we have that? Because in designing our social service programs, our leadership in the 30s 40s and 60s -- and more recently, in 2010 -- wimp-ed out. They bowed to political pressure from the moneyed minority. They didn't design policies that said "Them is us". They didn't say "'Universal' means everyone; no exceptions". They didn't design a system that allowed the rich and the poor to share equally in healthcare, transportation, and other common denominators. If you design a system that only benefits the portion of the population that cannot afford to pay for it, of course you'll get resentment. Our social service structure not only maintained the haves and the have-nots, but it deepened and reinforced the differences between them.
We cannot transform the attitude of an entire nation in the blink of an eye. It will take another two generations to re-learn lessons about compassion and community, and I fear that many of us will suffer a difficult journey getting there. But we must recognize that "I Got Mine" isn't sustainable for very long, and we have to push our leadership to finish the good work that we elected them to start in 2006 and 2008.
Which means, like it or not, we have to bring them back to office this year. Because if the party of "I Got Mine" comes back into power, we will have more in common with pre-revolution France than post-modern Norway.
Yeah, I Got Mine. You wanna share?