Thoughts about poverty and access in the new year.

I got an e-reader for Christmas for airplane rides and days I don’t ride the bike to work and suddenly I am back to reading for leisure. Will teases me that if he knew it meant I wouldn’t play computer games with him as much any more, he would never have gotten it for me. But it’s great! Novels for weekends and plane rides, and scholarly articles and anthologies for bus rides. I wanted to share this bit from Studs Terkel’s Hard Times:

We thought American business was the Rock of Gibraltar. We were the prosperous nation, and nothing could stop us now.  .  .  . There was a feeling of continuity. If you made it, it was there forever. Suddenly, the big dream exploded. The impact was unbelievable.

I was walking along the street at that time, and you’d see the bread lines. The biggest one in New York City was owned by William Randolph Hearst. He had a big truck with several people on it, and big cauldrons of hot soup, bread. Fellows with burlap on their shoes were lines up all around Columbus Circle and went for blocks and blocks around the park, waiting.

There was a skit in one of the first shows I did, Americana. This was 1930. In the sketch, Mrs. Ogden Reid of the Herald Tribune was very jealous of Hearst’s beautiful bread line. It was bigger than her bread line. It was a satiric, volatile show. We needed a song for it.

. . . . The prevailing greeting at that time, on every block you passed, by some poor guy coming up, was “Can you spare a dime?” Or: “Can you spare something for a cup of coffee?” . . . “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” finally hit on every block, on every street, I thought that could be a beautiful title. If I could only work it out by telling people, through the song, it isn’t just a man asking for a dime.

This is the man who says: I built the railroads. I built the tower. I fought your wars. I was the kid with the drum. Why the hell should I be standing in line now? What happened to the wealth I created?

I also highlighted these lines from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods:

“Biggest problem in this part of the world is poverty, Not the poverty we had in the Depression but something more . . . what’s the word, means it creeps in at the edges, like cock-a-roaches?


“Yeah. Insidious.”

Will and I had been talking about payday loan shops, usury, capitalism, and the take-away from my position is that I believe corporations have a social duty which may at time require them to do something other than maximize profits. I think corporations (and persons) must donate some of their excess to people with less, but I believe entities–at least those in certain functional industries–have an additional duty. Hearst giving soup and bread to the destitute is all very well and good but it’s not enough. Systems must work in a manner that does not actively undermine those at the bottom.

That means providing access to their products, services and locations to the working poor. “Food deserts” are a lack of access to well-stocked grocery stores. Exploitative check-cashing businesses spring from a lack of access to banks–both the physical branches and the ability to afford their available consumer accounts. The working poor need attorneys and reasonable, reliable public transportation to courthouses. Why aren’t courts open Tuesday through Saturday? Or noon to 8:00pm?

Doesn’t the system that creates and maintains wealth for the very lucky and already wealthy need more liquidity and mobility at the bottom to maintain itself? Doesn’t that all come back to creating support structures and access? I think it does, but I don’t know.

I suppose I ought to read some more about capitalism and socialism because I believe that capitalism is about creating strong social structures as much as it is about maximizing profit. Will seemed to think I was wrong about that.


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