Black Suburbia: From Levittown to Ferguson at the Schomberg Center (New York Public Library)
April sees the eightieth anniversary of the start of the On-to-Ottawa Trek. We’d rather not wait to mention and think about the parallels between what caused the trek and where we are in 2015, they are that powerful. The trek was a social movement born of the immense difficulties of the Great Depression in western Canada. A large body of unemployed and disaffected men gathered and moved by rail toward the capital, orchestrated largely by the Communist Party of Canada, in order to protest their treatment at the hands of economic forces.
Just what a dramatic potential challenge to the austerity economics of the Canadian government the trek represented is largely forgotten. The tepid efforts of the federal government to do much for the unemployed beyond the provision of a system of labour camps offering a wage of twenty-cents-a-day provoked anger in many Canadians. The Tories botched their handling of the trek, which culminated in political scandal and the Regina Riot with two dead and over one hundred arrests. The next federal election saw the governing Conservatives punished with the loss of ninety-five seats.
Comparing the state of men labouring at twenty-cents-a-day to the interns and low wage workers of right now shouldn’t require much effort, whether you are the government or a working person. In fact, there would seem to be a continuity. Instead of railway boxcars we have, perhaps, the Internet drawing the ninety-nine percent together in a common cause; the fight against harmful impersonal economic forces that look set to overwhelm society.
The historian in us was drawn this week to black and white photos of men riding boxcars eastward. At first they seem like tokens of another world. Within minutes the same Twitter feed that brought us eighty years into the past delivered these two items.
Unpaid labour fits into Harper’s plan: Mallick
Employers embrace the warm glow of paying their staff enough to live on. The Walmart effect and the example of certain London local councils has led to pay rises for many. But poverty wages elsewhere could be hard to shift
image: On-to-Ottawa trekkers boarding rail cars in Kamloops, BC. Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons
Henry Ford’s $5 day was introduced on January 5th 1914. The $5 day was a form of shock capitalism that was good for everyone. Ford sought to reduce labour turnover in his plants and by upping wages he got that and a whole new swathe of the population that could afford to buy the product they were helping manufacture. The $5 day was controversial for its apparent generosity to workers even though it was rooted in Ford’s sense of selfish self-interest. Either way, it represented real progress for working people. Yet, a century later in an age of renewed struggle for living wages few seem to remember the $5 day.
This day in labor history: January 5, 1914
A major indicator for child poverty is the number of charts made to describe it. Twenty-five years ago then NDP leader Ed Broadbent introduced a motion in Canada’s parliament to end child poverty. It passed unanimously. Right now, child poverty is up in Canada. Where did we go wrong? The economy is bigger than ever though we’ve had a stupid war or two and lots of neoconservatism since 1989. Here’s four more charts for us to ponder.
Child poverty is up in Canada even after vowing in 1989 to end it
Mr. Broadbent in 1989:
This cold week of Remembrance Day 2014 included the voice of Harry Leslie Smith, 91. Smith experienced the Great Depression and World War II, firstly as a child, then as a working person and soldier. The difficulties and losses of those years are attached, in a book Smith has written, to the progress made after 1945. Harry’s Last Stand describes its author’s fear that the erosion of the security and quality of life for middle and working class people is disastrous in ways all too familiar to his generation. Young people coming of age in an era of austerity and inequality face diminished prospects according to Smith. His words are delivered gently but carry very serious things.
And the very same week, what appears other than a brutal report on child poverty in Toronto? This is why social safety nets were invented and need to be fought for. This is exactly what Smith is talking about.
image: old-style Swedish street light by Petey21 via Wikimedia Commons
Where the anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union speech announcing his government’s foray against poverty was recognized there appeared a tremendous mixture of responses. Included is a sense of sadness and regret. Understandably so. Most observers view the war on poverty as a failure while acknowledging the good that it did. Coverage strikes us at suburban-poverty.com as much lighter than it could have been. Surely the Americans have enormous things to gain and learn from reflecting on this anniversary? That is happening in places and certainly President Obama spoke to the spirit of 1964 this week.
America was a colossus that year and though facing a Cold War and still upset by the assassination of President Kennedy there appeared to be a genuine belief that an array of federal programs would enlarge America’s prosperity. Poverty seemed fixable and the country felt both obligated to try and, more importantly, that it was up to the task. Americans were probably entitled to think that way in a post-World War II environment that from the standpoint of today seems remarkably uncomplicated. And what more noble idea for a country that saw itself as a good example to the world, was flush with power and prosperity, than to bring up the level of its own people?
Now we see stupefying political deadlock in Washington and it is hard to think other than that America has gone backwards in terms of social conditions. Indeed, skimming the reader commentary attached to online coverage of the anniversary is depressing and sometimes disgusting. Neonconservatives have used the anniversary to attack the very notion of a social role for government of any kind. The shouting and vehemence of entrenched opinion drowns out reality at times. Long term unemployment benefits and food stamps are on the chopping block in the US. Never have so many in America lived in precarious circumstances and outright poverty.
The War on Poverty seemed to work, seemed to be enlarging prosperity right into the 1970s. Less so from the mid 1970s into the 1980s. Post 2008 has seen a surge of poverty and social difficulty in America. If it is so hard to hang onto existing programs or secure modest increases in minimum wages in the age of the so-called one percent then how will a new war on the new poverty be launched? The very idea of a president articulating a specific goal and then backing it up in a timely fashion with a package of legislation seems otherworldly now.
War on Poverty anniversary sparks renewed commitment to the effort
Catholic News Service
War on poverty: what went wrong?
The War on Poverty: Not Just a Liberal Campaign
1-in-3 People Experienced Poverty From 2009 to 2011
Wall Street Journal
Google Street View Captures Stunning Images of American Poverty Too
New American Picture – VICE
image: LBJ via Wikimedia Commons
How pleasantly ironic that something deeply identified with modernity can find itself now the subject of eligibility for conservation in a museum. The Wall Street Journal reports the intention of including a toaster among the exhibits…
National Museum of Suburbia
Arts Council of Johnson County
image: Serge Melki via Wikimedia Commons
If we can’t spend Labour Day wallowing in the past then what good is it? Besides, there’s a lot to be learned back there. When considering suburban poverty and how we got to be where we are it’s hard to ask for a better starting point than a particular item in the archives of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. From late 1954, this News Magazine feature examines the state of housing in the entire country. The music and voice over evoke the seriousness of war time. Sure, there is a Levittownesque optimism but there’s also a grim tone regarding affordability and the extent of the costly undertaking of keeping the working families of a growing country properly housed. The persistence of 1930s-style poverty wherein “housewives struggle against decay and filth” is openly acknowledged, too. The latter did much to drive the exertions required to build suburbia and is easily forgotten in 2011. Two approaches to housing Canadians are seen. Public housing – urban redevelopment in Regent Park – and private suburban housing in Don Mills. The latter was among Canada’s first couple of planned suburbs.