booknotes: new deal & american way of poverty

I read Michael Hiltzik'a The New Deal: A Modern History (Free Press, 2011) and Sasha Abramsky's The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives (Nation Books, 2013) in tandem, leading to a very strange stereovision of America's twentieth-century successes and failures in delivering basic material security to its people. Hiltzik, whose reporting I first encountered last fall around the Obamacare rollout, offers us a detailed case history of the incomplete construction of America's social safety net, while Abramsky details the ways in which even that open-weave net has been slashed and burned since the 1970s. Taken together, the two volumes chart a twentieth-century history of callous uncaring for the economically vulnerable, with a brief burst of effort during the Great Depression, and then again in the postwar era when America's affluence made it seem, temporarily, like poverty could be eradicated without asking the other other half to give up that much, if anything. Did you know that during the Great Depression, relief workers were making the case that giving cash to people in poverty, no strings attached, was the most effective way to stimulate the economy and help them put their lives back together? And we act like we've just discovered that poor people are actually the experts on their own lives. Can you imagine a world where Richard Nixon floated the idea of a guaranteed universal income for every American? Because it existed. Briefly. It's both refreshing to recover these histories of (dare I say it) socialist activism in American life, and also a real downer to realize that in every era political realists tempered their radical inclinations to better the well-being of Americans because they knew they would only be able to win lesser concessions from those who held the political power (and financial resources).

Hiltzik's New Deal is straightforward political and economic history. In a sweeping chronological narrative he charts the Roosevelt administration's efforts to resolve the crises of the Great Depression (banking, housing, jobs, food) from Roosevelt's inauguration through to the eve of WWII. The story he tells is Washington-centric, a tale of New Deal politicians, those in their employ, and their adversaries. Those looking for a more grassroots narrative of the Great Depression and the effect of New Deal policies and programs should look elsewhere -- but Hiltzik does provide a useful sense of the real politik required to push through programs such as Social Security. While those on the left wanted guaranteed pensions for all elder Americans, the program as finally designed -- as we know it today -- tied payouts to lifetime earnings:
The program's near-total dependence on enrollee contributions has been both a blessing and a curse. (Economists consider the employer's payments to be employee contributions under another guise, on the theory that if the employer tax were not levied the money would flow to the workers as wages instead.) Although the contributory element makes the program's financing regressive -- that is, wealthier Americans pay a smaller portion of their income than lower-paid workers to support a program of broad social utility -- it has also helped protect it from political attack by giving its enrollees what appears to be a concrete stake in its survival (251).
In many ways, Saul Abramsky picks up where Hiltzik's narrative leaves off, exploring American poverty and economic insecurity as it has manifested since the mid-twentieth century and the War on Poverty efforts of the ebullient 1960s and early 70s. The American Way of Poverty is a difficult book to read, in that it ruthlessly reminds us that we are all one or two or a series of three, four, five, instances of bad luck of poor decision-making away from material ruin. In a society that has only ever grudgingly supported social safety nets -- and then only for the "deserving" poor. As the rich grow richer, we talk about slashing social security benefits, refuse to extend Medicaid to our nation's poorest regions, and continue to see the socialized guarantee basic material security (health care, food, shelter, education, and work) as the flower-strewn path to slothful dependency.

As someone who believes that a life lived in basic faith that human beings seek to be creative in community with one another (recognizing there will be a few who take advantage of this trust) far outweighs the toxicity of a life lived on the premise that human beings require shock prods and chains to squeeze labor and "productivity" out of their souls, I found Abramsky's reminder of how few Americans share my values possible to read only in small doses. Particularly (ironically enough) the final sections in which he offers solutions for the various problems of endemic poverty: a guaranteed minimum income, socializing the costs of higher education, reinvestment in Social Security, national healthcare, renewed support for unionization, a laundry list of practical steps toward a society oriented toward benefiting all not just the plutocratic few. That such a simple, modest list of steps toward the lessening of human suffering seems politically impossible leaves one with a creeping sense of apathetic despair.

I won't stop at the apathy, of course (I suppose maybe not "of course", but I've imbibed enough lefty theology in my time to believe that a meaningful life involves struggling for justice even when the possibility of success is vanishingly small). But it's shocking every time to re-realize how willing we are to throw some people under the bus so the "right" sort of people can keep on hoarding the resources for themselves. And how we narrate those acts of violence as inevitable, natural, as "freedom" and "choice," as the neutral forces of the universe, simply the way things are rather than the way we've decided things will be. Reading histories like Hiltzik's are a good reminder that our present has been shaped by our past, and that the past is made up of concrete actions taken up by human beings. Human beings who could have made different decisions, taking us along different paths.

We always have choices. I do hope that, collectively, we can make ones that benefit the vulnerable, the marginalized, the trapped, and dehumanized, so that they too are free to make meaningful choices about their own lives.


unfinished thoughts about putting down roots

The Fens from Charlesgate, Boston
(December 2007)
As we lay the groundwork for locating and moving to a new apartment, and possibly a new neighborhood of Boston, later this year, I've been thinking a lot about what it means for Hanna and I to be putting down roots in this city. We both moved here for graduate school and have stayed for the professional opportunities Boston's cultural institutions have offered. Moving within the city -- out of the apartment Hanna originally selected with her grad school roommate -- feels like choosing or re-choosing the city as a place we want to live in, make a life in.

I find myself inhabiting the city with new eyes and new investment. I'm no longer thinking about it as a space I move through as an observer. Rather, I've become a participant. Although I'm still learning what it means to me to participate in the life of this city that has become our chosen home.

A short list of things I've (we've) been doing that feel like part of that learning process:

  • Walking, biking, taking public transit. Hanna and I are both committed to using the city "at ground level" if we're going to be living in it. We map the neighborhoods by foot and measure our progress in coffee shops passed. While I don't think owning a car precludes one from belonging to the city (clearly many drivers are Bostonians!) not having a car means we're more reliant on public infrastructure within the core urban area, and that space and time get measured differently. By necessity, we need to shop for groceries, pick up our library books, visit our doctor's office, meet up with friends, get our hair cut, all within a three-mile radius and ideally between point A (home) and point B (work). This is a fundamentally different way of experiencing the geography of one's life than when life requires daily driving -- I lived the first twenty-seven years of my life in a car-dependent town, so I've experienced this shift first-hand.
  • Supporting local non-profit organizations. It probably says something fundamental about our socioeconomic backgrounds that as soon as Hanna and I reached a sustainable level of income and could start thinking about charitable donations, the first thing we did was become members of our two local NPR/PBS networks (WGBH and WBUR). It was reflexive: this is what adults do. Yes, National Public Radio is a nationwide network, but each station is local too. We wake up to the local weather forecast and enjoy the broadcasts of America's Test Kitchen (filmed in studios next door to one of our favorite coffee shops!). We currently give (tiny!) monthly gifts to WGBH, WBUR, and Classical New England, all of which broadcast out of the Boston metropolitan area. We've also chosen to provide ongoing support to Black Cat Rescue, our favorite no-kill foster cat program here in Massachusetts and the Greater Boston Food Bank. I'm also starting to get involved on a volunteer basis with our community health center, Fenway Health, which provides nationally-renowned health services to LGBT folks, women, at-risk teenagers, and the elderly of the Fenway neighborhood and greater Boston.
  • Relying on local non-profit organizations. There's a lot of high-level philanthropy around Boston, including at the institution where I work, and I've been thinking a lot lately about the notion of "charitable giving" and the distance it implies between those who selflessly give to those in need. That kind of giving (hopefully with no strings attached) obviously has its place, but I also like the immediacy and intimacy of providing support for those whose services we need now, or in the future: our health center, our public library, the social safety net. I've been doing a lot of research lately into housing programs here in Boston, both grass-roots advocacy organizations and government-funded programming. In doing so, I've have the opportunity to reflect on the importance of using as well as passively supporting social services of various kinds. Even though Hanna and I are (at least temporarily) middle class professionals, it seems important to me to know how my city cares for the marginalized; how we could be cared for if we became marginalized.
  • Learning local history. When in doubt, turn to books! I've been reading, reading, reading up on the history of the Boston area and learning how its past has shaped our present and will continue to shape our future in the decades to come. 
What are the ways that you've gotten to know the place(s) where you (have) live(d)? What components need to be in place for you to feel like you belong to and are invested in a place, a community?


romance & inequality: migraine listening

I was going to write a joint book review this weekend of The American Way of Poverty and The New Deal: A Modern History, both of which I've read in the past month. But then I got socked with a two-day migraine, the kind that comes around about once a season and has me making friends with the toilet bowl, the ice pack, dark, dark rooms, and narcotics.

So writing didn't happen. But to distract myself from the pain, listening did.

I started with this most enjoyable hour of On Point discussing the romance novel industry. It had surprisingly little condescension, and although I would have liked some acknowledgement of non-hetero markets and amateur writers (*kof*kof*fanfiction*kof*kof*), overall it was a thoughtful reflection on the enduring popularity of narratives that center around relationship formation.

Then I moved on to Boston and socioeconomic inequality, which has been in the news a lot recently due to the nationwide media attention and due to the fact we have a new mayor (Marty Walsh) assuming office who was elected in part because of his working-class background and pledge to make Boston more affordable for those of us not in the 1%.

And finally, an hour of the Diane Rehm show devoted to gay rights in "law and sports" (an opportunistic conglomeration if I ever saw one!). I can't say I learned anything new during this hour, but did appreciate the articulate presence of the Department of Justice's Stephen Delery (emphasis mine):


And you have the National Organization for Marriage, Brian Brown, the group's president, saying, "The changes being proposed here to a process as universally relevant as the criminal justice system serve as a potent reminder of why it's simply a lie to say that redefining marriage does not affect everyone in society."


Well, I do think, Diane, that, as the Supreme Court recognized in Windsor, the Defense of Marriage Act had real consequences for real people by denying a whole range of benefits to people in the course of many federal programs. Some of these programs are critical to people who need them for health insurance, for example.


And so, if you look at what the agencies have done over the last few months, the same-sex marriages are now recognized for all federal tax purposes, including filing joint returns. Spousal benefits are now available to military service members who are serving overseas. Health insurance is available for same-sex spouses of federal employees.


And citizens who are in same-sex marriages can now sponsor their spouses for immigration benefits. And the list goes on. All of these things are federal benefits, provided under federal law, and the agencies, like the Department of Justice, have concluded, following the Supreme Court, that the marriages that are lawful where they're performed should be recognized for these purposes.
I hope y'all have a good week ahead, and -- health willing! -- I'll be back next Monday with the promised book reviews.


booknotes: the hub's metropolis

Now that Hanna and I are new-apartment-hunting in earnest, my situational interest in the history of Boston's development has come to have immediate real-world applicability as we look across the landscape of our greater metropolitan area for areas that might be affordable yet still within the walkable urban core. My latest reading in this area was particularly enjoyable in this way, as James O'Connell's The Hub's Metropolis: Greater Boston's Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth (MIT Press, 2013) ends each chapter with concrete, extant examples of each phase he writes about. Guidebook-style he describes three-to-five locations or routes whereby one can explore the  nineteenth-century country retreats of the Boston gentry, the postwar automobile suburbs, or the sites of "smart growth" and the greening of Boston in this newest phase of regional planning. O'Connell (and his ever-patient wife) might be the only people whose idea of a good time is to visit surviving examples of 1980s strip malls, but I enjoyed reading about his enthusiasm nonetheless!

The Hub's Metropolis sketches out, in roughly chronological order, the development of the Boston metropolitan region from 1800 to the present day, beginning when Boston was largely confined to the Shawmut peninsula and connected to surrounding villages in only tenuous trading and regional economic relationships. Prior to the railroad, people generally lived within walking distance of where they labored on a daily basis; deep into the twentieth century this held true for working-class families. (Only since the 1980s have the inner suburbs become locations for the impoverished and working poor who can no longer afford to live in the rapidly-gentrifying core of America's largest cities.) One of the most interesting tidbits of information I learned from O'Connell is that the human tolerance for a daily commute has remained more or less static at 45 minutes and urban historians can trace the growth of cities out from business nodes based on transportation options. When people generally walked to work, residences were within 2.5 miles of their places of business. When streetcars and trains, and later the automobile pushed outward from that radius exponentially as workers were able to travel further and further in the same window of time.

Of course, now we're coming full circle in the sense that "walkable urbanism" is the new hip thing. Hanna and I are both committed to finding an apartment within that 45 minute walking radius (for us 2.5-3 miles) from the neighborhood where we engage in our wage-work. Interestingly, we come to such a lifestyle from opposite ends of the spectrum: I grew up in a family where my father was a ten-minute walk from work and seek to replicate that sense of accessibility, while Hanna grew up an hour's drive from most amenities and never wants to return to such an extreme rural mode of life. We currently live in what used to be a streetcar suburb of Boston, about four miles out from the Statehouse on Beacon Hill; our neighborhood of Allston was developed in the early 1900s as the streetcars made it possible for middle- and working-class families to escape inner-city tenements for newer apartment buildings further away from the noxious industries that clustered around the waterfront (or put them within walking distance of Brighton's slaughterhouses and railroad yards). As we start looking at apartments within the old suburbs (Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Brookline, Allston/Brighton) we'll be crossing paths trod by generations of Boston workers before us.


from the archive: reactions to women's lib

For the past several weeks I've been reading through motive magazine from 1962-1972 in preparation for a conference paper I'm delivering in March. I'm looking at the way the magazine employed gender, sex, and sexuality during the ten year period leading up to its break from the United Methodist denomination.

One of the precipitating events leading to the break was a special issue put out in March/April 1969 on what was then referred to as the women's liberation movement. The issue proved so controversial, not least because the word "fuck" appeared in one of the articles, that the May 1969 issue was embargoed and the editor, B.J. Stiles, was asked to step down. This weekend at Boston University's Mugar library I read through the letters to the editor that poured in in response to the "women's" issue, and I thought y'all would enjoy reading some of the reactions the motive staff saw fit to print in the October and November issues the following fall.

They were introduced by Joanne Cooke, staff member and guest editor of the women's liberation issue:
Response to our March-April issue on women was overwhelming. At first it seemed to reveal a great split among our readers, but on closer examination we saw as much similarity as difference.

Everyone who wrote, whether they had burned the issue or bronzed it, believed they did so as an affirmation of the same basic values: belief in and respect for human dignity, belief in individual responsibility for actions and mutual responsibility for and to one's brothers and sisters, belief in the right (and duty) to 'vote' and to make one's voice heard, belief in the right (and duty) of individuals to join together to organize and to coordinate their efforts to achieve a common goal, and rejection of the Playboy Philosophy as an attitudinal and behavioral guide.

Curiously, almost all the letters were addressed, 'Dear Sir' or 'Gentlemen,' in spite of the fact that the issue was written and edited by women. Response ran about 60-40 in our favor, but only 24% of our supporters and 11% of our detractors were subscribers. Sixty percent of those responding favorably were women, while sixty percent of those responding negatively were men.
Twenty-ear-old Jessica J. Powers (Glenside, Pennsylvania) wrote in to complain that the disgruntled feminists were ruining it for everyone else. I'm particularly fascinated with her construction of women as either mothers and "lovely, loving women" or bread-winners/fellow-workers. At the level of cultural narrative, at least, it seems women couldn't be both:
I love my femininity and womanliness and I am proud of my sex. I like to have men open doors for me, hold my chair, help me with my coat. … I find that any woman who has a valid opinion about pertinent issues will find acceptance if her opinions are, in fact, valid. … If you achieve your goals in liberating the women of this country [, our] children will no longer look to us as their ever-loving mothers but rather another bread-winner. Our husbands will no longer look upon us adoringly as feminine, lovely, loving women but rather a fellow-worker … Please, in your quest, remember those of us who love our womanhood. Don't ruin it for us.
A.J. Gunther from Dynnyrne, Hobart, Tasmania, concurred. I'm particularly impressed by Gunther's ability to suggest a solution to the problem he presents ("they both take on the home chores") in the context of completely dismissing it as a possibility for home life:
In this crazy world of computers, wars, and crass commercialism, it is up to the women to put human values first. It is the wife's job to meet her husband morning and evening, to share some things in common, and to provide beauty and comfort in herself and in the home. … If Mrs. works at being a woman of the world all day … When she comes home after a day in the world outside—unlike Mr. who can relax from his job—she goes into high gear to tackle the T.V. Dinners and household requirements. Unless they both take on the home chores, something has to give—what?

Time for relationships, time to listen, time to make a real pie. It is no coincidence that the divorce and delinquency rates are directly proportional to the freedom of the 'liberated' working wife. … It is an even wiser woman who realizes that her role in the home is the first and most important job—the cultivating of human relationships in an atmosphere of love.
And in defensive terms that would be perfectly at home on Reddit today, Harold O. Harriger from Lubbock, Texas, assures motive that his woman most certainly isn't an angry feminist lesbian ... although she might morph into one if he allowed her to read about this women's liberation stuff:
Deep, dark forebodings beset me as to what might happen if my Rebecca got hold of the issue; poor lass—four kids, 100% female, and swears she wouldn't trade me as a playmate for the best Lesbian in town. Just doesn't understand the situation, I guess.
Of course, saner voices such as those from a female seminarian, Mrs. Susan Whitledge Nevius (President, Boston University Theological Students Association), also weighed in:
Certainly the 'four-letter words used in the March-April issue were not out of place, especially with the excellent explanation given for their use on page five in the editorial. … Certainly the Methodist Church and its officials have more important things to do than hassle over 'four-letter words,' especially when male chauvinism is so rampant in The Methodist Church itself. When our denomination has been ordaining women since 1956, how can it still make recruiting films called 'It Takes a Man'? Why do most of the official forms still ask for 'wife's name' instead of 'spouse's name'; and why does the Discipline continually refer to 'the minister and his wife' rather than 'the minister and spouse'? Why is no recruiting for the parish ministry done among women? I did not even know that it was possible for a woman to be a parish minister until I got to seminary. However, seminaries are no exception, for it is my seminary experience so far that has convinced me of just how deep the prejudice against women is.
And a chaplain from Michigan State University, Keith L. Pohl, who (likely unwittingly) undercuts his praise by referring to the women who assembled the issue as "girls":
As most 'red-blooded' American males I should respond to the March-April issue of motive with resentment and indignation. However, good sense does on occasion win over the emotion of male pride, and superior journalism deserves to be recognized... Thank the girls for a job well done, and I continue to look forward to each issue as usual.
I do find particularly fascinating how even some who began their letters on a fairly even note of acceptance found that they needed to distance themselves from those women represented therein:
You presented two sides of the picture. 1) the career woman who has heard 'When are you going to get married?' once too often and 2) the Lesbian who is a human being but has had to live as something less than a whole human being because of a stereotype built out of misunderstanding and fear. “You did not present the third side of the picture: We women who are proud to be wive and mothers, who know that we have an important job to do, a job that no one else can do for us, we women who have dignity in the role that we have 'chosen.' … We are the women who were liberated long ago … liberated from envy, self pity, bitterness and guilt because we respect ourselves as human beings with an important job to be done. (Donna R. Brancy, Sparta, New Jersey)
The women's liberation issue and the letters in response to it are, actually, the very first instances since 1962 that I have seen the word "lesbian" appear in the magazine ("homosexual" is used in the few instances prior to this when same-sex desire is referred to).

Women's liberation and Lesbianism were, of course, but two nodes on a nexus of threats facing the American family during the Cold War period. Sharon R. Swenck, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond, Virginia) raises another:
We are reminded that if the communists can destroy the structure of our homes, their job of destroying our society is well on the way to establishment. Being a wife and mother is a lovely and beautiful life and just whom do you want to 'Liberate' and for what? Shame on the Methodist Church for allowing such a publication. May God help us all is my prayer.
Still, more than the question of women's role in society, it was the use of the word "fuck" that really seemed to get under the detractors skin:
The college students of our church have brought to my attention the March-April 1969 issue of motive. They are honest, modern, exposed college and university young people. They view the current issue as being plain, raw pornography. Their question is a simple, sincere one: 'Is there any place left where we can get freedom from the trash that is spelled out in the four-letter words that little boys and girls learn to write on the toilet walls?” (Ramsey Bridges, Minister, Cross Lanes United Methodist Church, Charleston, West Virginia) 
And people were, of course, always willing to haul out the "tone" argument:
Too many of the articles in the issue of motive were angry, self-defeating, and, as B.J. Stiles suggested, 'anti-male.' To put the male ego on the defensive and to impose on the male population an abundance of guilt is to perpetuate the set-back in openness and understanding acceptence for which women have been paying the price since the feminist movement days” (Beth E. Rhode, The Hunter College Protestant Association, Inc., New York, New York)
And even though this letter was written in praise of the issue, I'm honestly uncertain what Mr. Bill Garrett of Nashville, Tennessee is talking about -- or how it relates to women's lib:
 The current issue on 'The Liberation of Women' focuses on an issue which is of growing concern to the whole younger generation. Facets of the issue include (1) the demythologizing of that language phenomenon known in the minds of many adults as 'the four-letter word,' (2) a willingness to deal openly with our society's hang-ups, perversions and misunderstandings about sex, (3) an awareness of the total-environment orientation of much of life today, and (4) the basic need for handles and/or role models to begin creating and finding meaning in the midst of conflict and ambivalence.
And finally, in December 1969, a letter which is succinct in its condemnation:
Do any of you people connected with this magazine even faintly know what it means to be born again or to be saved? … This issue looks like it was put together by a bunch of sick people and women who hate men!
I applaud Mrs. Gus Rivalto (Memphis, Tennessee) for working in the evil feminist trifecta of ungodliness, lesbianism, and man-hating in a brief two-dozen words.

Hope you've enjoyed this stroll through a thin slice of my 50+ pages of research notes! In a couple weeks more it'll be time to stop with the reading and start with the writing (gulp). If you're in Boston and interested in the history of religion, check the conference out! See you there (maybe). And I'll be posting the conference paper here after the presentation.