First off, I have to say, wow is Studs Terkel an American treasure. I don’t think I have ever read anyone that is so in touch with the American experience. Maybe Walt Whitman or John Steinbeck. Besides having the coolest name ever, Studs also has a way with prose that is both folksy and deep. His words flow off the page and my mind gobbles them up like candy.
I’m currently reading “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression”. It was written in 1970, but the edition I am reading was released in the late 1980’s. As with many new editions of old works, this one contains a foreword by Studs. In it, he documents the great divide between the realities of poor people and the headlines declaring stock market boom times during the late 1980’s. I was struck both by how little has changed and how much worse things are now. Back then, all the good manufacturing jobs were starting to leave Chicago for points Chinese. Occasionally, a few jobs would become available and hundreds of people, mostly blacks, would line up for a chance to get that job. Now, the manufacturing jobs are all gone. Nothing is being offered and no lines are formed. We have gone from a country of hope to a country of desperation.
For a good segment of our population, there is no such thing as a good job anymore. The choice is between starvation and eking out the barest of existences. There is still a ladder to climb, but the rungs that can get you from lower class to middle class are missing. If you started below the gap, you’re stuck there unless someone reaches a hand down to give you an opportunity you wouldn’t otherwise have. If you are middle class and you slip a rung, you find yourself suddenly far below where you once were, overqualified for any job that is available and shunned by the keepers of the jobs they are qualified for because of lapses in employment.
These are the people you are fighting against if you are against Obamacare and Medicaid and Welfare and Food Stamps. The people that use these programs are not moochers and thieves. They are human beings trying to get by. These are not socialist programs enacted by people trying to destroy the American way of life. They are missing rungs inserted back into the great ladder of progress that maybe, just maybe, can be used by people to reach up as high as they can to the next rung and pull themselves up to a modicum of safety and security without the need for help from the government.
Robert Reich was on “The Daily Show” this week talking about how he thinks we’re repeating history and are on the cusp of another Progressive Era like we saw in 1901. I hope he’s right because there are still more rungs to be replaced and we owe it to our society to replace them if we are at all to be the moral people we pretend to be.