Beck's Good Old Days
Ryan Grimm and Arthur Delaney have written a must-read essay about what the world that Glenn Beck wants to recapture was really like --- they go back to the 1890s and revisit stories of how people lived before social security:
The woman "could not give street and number, but could 'fotch' the agent to her place," according to a case study labeled "Aunt Winnie" in one of the organization's annual reports from near the turn of the century. "Old age, with a heavy load on top and a strong wind blowing, made the walk a trying one. At last the 8x10 cabin was reached. In it was a stove in many pieces held together with wire, a bedstead with rags for mattress and rags for covering. From the leaky roof the floor was wet through and through."
Aunt Winnie, the report said, had no income save the 50 cents she made every two weeks for taking in the wash. In summertime she raised herbs and greens, but in winter she "suffered for food and fuel." Her children had all been sold away to slavery, and a nearby niece was too poor to offer any support. Her neighbors helped, providing money for the stove and cot, and a "colored friendly visitor was found to carry broth and other comforts to her." The neighborly charity wasn't enough to persuade the agent, who was essentially a private sector version of a social worker, that the old woman should be on her own.
Aunt Winnie, whose story is preserved in the archives of the Historical Society of Washington, had been sent to an American institution that was by then some 300 years old and went by a variety of names: the county farm, the poor farm, the almshouse or, most often, simply the poorhouse. She would probably have been surprised to learn that more than a hundred years later, after the virtual eradication of elderly poverty, a powerful political movement would materialize with the mission of returning to the hands-off social policies that made the poorhouse the nation's only refuge for the jobless, the aged, the infirm and the disabled.
That movement's most outspoken proponent is Fox News host Glenn Beck, who doesn't merely pine for the pre-New Deal era in general, but regularly prevails upon his audience to recognize the particular genius of some of the period's presidents, whose ideologies of inaction he holds up as the American ideal.
Democratic President Grover Cleveland is one such hero. When Beck and guest Joseph Lehman were discussing the proper roles of welfare and charity this summer, Lehman noted that one "extreme [position] is, you've got welfare only as a last resort and all assistance is private."
It wasn't too extreme for Beck. "And this is where we actually were a hundred years ago," Beck said, rightly thinking -- or not -- of people in Aunt Winnie's situation.
"We used to be here. In fact, Grover Cleveland has this excellent statement. In 1887, President Cleveland said, 'Though the people may support their government, the government shall not support the people,'" Lehman responded.
"That's great," said Beck.
Please read the whole article. It's vastly important that people understand just what "austerity" really means. Elderly Americans used to know all about it. And then we became civilized. At least for a while.
I realize that I will be flayed for being hyperbolic by even linking to this. There is no chance that the US will ever revert to that level of poverty, right? It's unthinkable. But people live with that level of poverty in many parts of the world right alongside a smug upper class which manages quite easily to ignore them. There is nothing to say that it can't happen here. In fact, compared to the rest of the industrialized world, it already has
Update: Dday's thoughtful post on this piece is also worth reading:
During the Great Recession, we’re sadly seeing a slow return to those Gilded Age, pre-New Deal policies, as what remains of the safety net staggers along. Social Security is under attack from deficit frauds like Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Unemployment insurance, food stamps and welfare have weathered blows for years, especially as their costs rose when demand for their services increased. A new Republican Congress will demand more cuts, squarely on these and other social programs, or will threaten to destroy the full faith and credit of the US government.
It’s important to look to history to see the inevitable consequence of these backslides. If Democrats follow Republicans down the deficit rabbit hole, especially if they break faith on the bedrock promise of Social Security, we’re sure to see a return of the poorhouse, and the cruel belief that the people contained therein are somehow inferior, somehow given to rejecting self-sufficiency, somehow lazy, somehow defective. That belief has already crept into discussions about the 99ers, or the long-term unemployed.