I had a great conversation yesterday with a gentleman, about 90 years old. He’s lived here in Pittsfield all his life. He told me what life was like here during the Great Depression.
Life was hard then. People had vegetable gardens not as hobbies, but as a significant source for food. They had root cellars to store some of the produce over the winter. There wasn’t a lot of disposable income, so many had to make do with what they had, which meant fixing and mending things.
People helped each other. Excess produce went to family, neighbors, and friends. Sometimes, an extra person or two would appear at the dinner table because they needed food. Sometimes, you took in an extra person or two because they couldn’t afford their house.
We spent a lot of time talking about the past. We covered so many aspects of life, such as the iceman, the trolley cars, and “the GE” (GE was this city’s economic engine for decades).
When we think of community, this was it. People helped each other because it was the right thing to do. People shared what little they had because they had a strong ethos that no one should have to go hungry. This was community not as an abstract noun, but lived out as a verb.
This was the time before government programs, such as social security, helped people in need. So, it’s no wonder, then, that we’re facing this philosophical divide in our nation over the role of government. On one side we have people who believe that governmental support has eroded the character-building that came from forced self-reliance and shared responsibility for our neighbors, which built our communities. On the other side we have people who believe that government has a responsibility to ensure that people can live with economic dignity. Both come out of the same impulses that create community.
Neither, however, is perfect. And in reality, community during the Great Depression may sound great, but I’m not sure if people really want to live through those tough times again. While we might whisper “how wonderful” when we hear that a couple of extra people would appear at dinner to have a meal and not get turned away, the downside are the extra people who showed up — was it humiliating for them not to have enough money to eat?
We want to help and we should help those who are struggling economically, especially family and friends. The problem lies with those who don’t have a social network of family and friends where they can turn for support. They may not be people with whom most people would like to associate. They might be from the wrong side of the tracks. They might be people with some mental health issues. They might be people who we have a difficult time accepting as they are. The government becomes, then, the social network that will support them.
While there is a lot to be said for community as described to me yesterday, it is too haphazard. Not everyone has a secure and stable social network. And while government coverage may not be necessary for those who have solid social networks, isn’t it better to err on the side of caution and make sure everyone has a modicum of dignity?
When we proclaim poverty as character-building, we’re being elitist. Yet, giving needy people the stuff to live is paternalistic. Really, how should we think and handle poverty in a way that is neither?