Turnips and Cabbage

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Children eating their Christmas dinner during the Great Depression.

As I looked at this picture, I was reminded of this passage from Richard Wright’s Black Boy:

“Christmas came and I had but one orange. I was hurt and would not go out to play with the neighborhood children who were blowinghorns and shooting firecrackers. I nursed my orange all of Christmas Day; at night, just before going to bed, I ate it, first taking a bite out of the top and sucking the juice from it as I squeezed it; finally I tore the peeling into bits and munched them slowly.”
-Wright, Richard, Black Boy, Harper and Row, 1965

Poverty sucks. Previously I posted this picture of a desperate woman offering her children for sale in Chicago in 1948. Three years after World War II, when the military machine had largely mitigated the effects of the depression, and people were still struggling. And people continue to struggle today, in 2013, in America the Great and Terrible – which to far too many seems like nothing so much as smoke and mirrors, while the 1% who control over half our nation’s wealth shout, “Pay no attention to that CEO behind the curtain!”

wizard

They say the recession is over. For the wealthy and those whom our tax dollars bailed out, with no accountability or even gratitude, for the CEO’s and executives and board members who benefited with huge salaries and  bonuses, perhaps it is. But not for the average working american. It’s two years on from that article, and economic terror is still snapping at the heels of far too many in our country. Economic giants like Wal-Mart crow about the “opportunities” and “dignity” they provide people:

“Unfortunately there are some people who base their opinions on misconceptions rather than the facts, and that is why we recently launched a campaign to show people the unlimited opportunities that exist at Walmart,” Buchanan said, noting that 75 percent of Walmart managers started as hourly employees. “Every month more than 60 percent of Americans shop at Walmart and we are proud to help them save money on what they want and need to build better lives for themselves and their families. We provide a range of jobs — from people starting out stocking shelves to Ph.D.’s in engineering and finance. We provide education assistance and skill training and, most of all, a chance to move up in the ranks.”

But as the source article indicates, a single Wal-Mart’s low wages can cost taxpayers around $900,000 per year in food stamps and other government programs because wages are so low, no benefits are paid, and hours are kept to unliveable minimums. Nobody said it better than Jib-Jab:

One would think that a skilled laborer with advanced degrees could at least get a job with Wal-Mart; one might think that they would appreciate wisdom, experience and reliability. Unfortunately, that’s the exact opposite of what is happening. The sad truth is that Wal-mart’s turnover rate is obscenely high; 60% would not be considered abnormal in some stores. Managers expect impossible performance, treat employees like refuse and pay as little as the law allows. Report after report from former Wal-Mart employees refer to constant threats of firing and reminders that they needed Wal-Mart to survive; they will fight unemployment claims to the teeth and make sure their employees are aware of this. As a result, HR is actively looking for people who can’t find anything better and who won’t complain, regardless of how poorly they are treated.

How can a business possibly survive on such a model? How can managers who buy into this mindset live with themselves or sleep at night? I truly have no answers to these questions, but the fact that the situation persists is deeply troubling.

To be fair, I know people who have been with their Wal-Mart stores for a long, long time, have risen through the ranks by dint of sheer perseverance and who are grateful for their employment. I know some people who work at the corporate level in IT, and who say they’ve had it a lot worse elsewhere. But the overwhelming preponderance of tales seem to support what is generally supposed about the big box working environment.

If you’d like a good (albeit depressing) read about what life is like for far too many of us in this country, read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich[1]; she describes what it’s like to try to live on minimum-wage jobs in our country.

nickel

Her tales of shelters, budget motels, cheap food, endless job interviews, and working in demeaning drudgery, only to find that it was seldom enough to live on, will open your eyes to the harsh realities of our economy. Her conclusion:

The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else. As Gail, one of my restaurant coworkers put it, “you give and you give.”

Someday, of course – and I will make no predictions as to exactly when – they are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they’re worth. There’ll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end.

Again in the interest of fairness, here’s another opinion from Charles Platt in 2009; no idea if he’s a shill or not, but add it to the mix. [2]

As a country, we must do better. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to our children. We need to start teaching kids how to think out of the box, how to value humanity, how to run an ethical business, and how to build a world that works for everyone. Richard Wright ended the original version of his autobiography with these words: “With ever watchful eyes and bearing scars, visible and invisible, I headed North, full of a hazy notion that life could be lived with dignity, that the personalities of others should not be violated, that men should be able to confront other mean without fear or shame, and that if men were lucky in their living on earth they might win some redeeming meaning for their having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars.” (Wright, Richard, Black Boy, Harper and Row, 1965)

We must do this.  Otherwise, as John Howard Griffin said in his moving conclusion to Black Like Me, “we will all pay for not having cried for justice long ago.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] You can find it at Amazon or read a pdf of the book here.

[2] What’s it like for Wal-Mart executives at the stratospheric corporate level? Not all peaches and cream, as Julie Roehm discovered; her odyssey makes for an interesting read as well.

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2 responses to “Turnips and Cabbage

  1. It reminds me of the CEO of Papa John Pizza who threatened to increase the price of pizza by 15 cents, and cut the work schedules of the workers, and to blame the new health insurance policies, ( Obamacare )which he said would cut so much into the company’s profits. People stopped patronizing his pizzas, and so he was forced to back off. This CEO has a huge golf course as his backyard, owns so many luxurious yatchs, etc., but had no sympathy for the plight of his workers. Maybe he should fire all his employees and make all those pizzas himself to save on health insurance..

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