Bleak House

Rochester NY house.jpg

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

A foreclosed home in Rochester, New York, 2012

“They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?”

—Bing Crosby, “[Brother, Can You Spare a Dime](” (1931)

Some of us notice them, while others don’t seem to, even though there are 46.5 million of them according to the latest census and they are everywhere if one cares to look. A tall man in his late fifties, whose portrait might have once hung over the boss’s desk in some company office, packing grocery bags in a supermarket with grim efficiency; a meek-looking old couple in a drug store waiting their turn at the cash register with a bottle of generic ibuprofen and a box of tissues, who, upon learning the price for each put the tissues aside and pay with small change for the painkiller; a handsome, middle-aged father, unshaven and looking unkempt, waiting with his small son for a school bus outside a modest home in the suburbs; the tired and resigned look of fast food workers and store clerks in a mall, some of them young, but many of them middle-aged and even older, most of them being paid minimum wage for their work and needing an additional job, food stamps, or some other form of government assistance to support their families; a soup kitchen in New York with people who could be one’s relatives waiting patiently in line.

Anyone who averts his eyes from the hopeless lives many of our fellow citizens lead and tells himself and others that these men and women only have themselves to blame, is either a fool or a soulless bastard.

Not that those who still call themselves middle class are in great shape either. As one travels around the country, one is struck by how poorly dressed many Americans are and how run-down their cities and towns have become. Everyone knows what bankrupt Detroit looks like, but there are many other towns whose air of complete defeat is just as palpable. I once asked a taxi driver in one such place what people do there and he gave me a long list of all the big name manufacturers and businesses that have closed their doors over the past decade or two, confessing that he had no idea how his neighbors managed to make ends meet. I’ve no idea either.

Even for people with impressive past work experience and a range of skills, finding a job that pays a wage one can live on and that comes with healthcare benefits has become extremely difficult. It’s especially hard for young people. It’s been years since I’ve heard of any of my graduate students getting a decent job. Working as a waiter or a waitress in a trendy restaurant where tips are good is often the best they can hope for. For many others, it’s much worse, of course. Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty,” the richest country in the world no longer cares if millions of its less fortunate citizens live or die.

Rochester, NY 2012.jpg

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

Rochester, New York, 2012

If one needs proof, one can start with what happened to food stamps in Congress, the so-called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that goes to 47 million Americans every month, almost half of them children and teenagers. Some of those benefits, approved in 2009, will be terminated on October 31. With fuel prices expected to increase this winter, this means, for many families in cold states, choosing between staying warm and having enough to eat. According to The Boston Globe, former US senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire said that the stimulus was never intended to be a permanent source of money. “All stimulus funding was to be temporary,” said Gregg, an immensely wealthy man and now the chief executive of a banking industry group. John Cochrane, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, also opposed the stimulus, arguing that it advanced the false assumption that “completely wasted federal spending helps the economy.” Worries about people who need help are a legitimate concern, he said, but food stamps discourage people from finding better jobs because recipients are worried they’ll lose the benefit. “At some point,” he said, “you have to be a little bit heartless.”

Of course you do. Just consider the effort of the Republicans in the House to overrule the Affordable Care Act, a legislation ratified by the majority of elected representative of the people and signed into law by the president. Bettering the lives of anyone but the wealthy, as we know, has ceased to be a concern of the Republican Party. But millions of Americans are on the brink of buying affordable health insurance and freeing themselves from a worry that makes their lives utter misery; the concerted effort backed by some of the richest men in this country to deprive them of that chance may be without precedent for sheer malice. Indifference to the plight and suffering of human beings of one class or another by some segment of the population is a universal phenomenon, but spending millions of dollars to deepen the misery of one’s fellow citizens and enlisting members of one political party to help you do so is downright vile. It must be motivated as much by sadism as by the political calculation that if these uninsured were to get insurance, they would give the Democratic Party a governing majority simply out of gratitude for letting them see a doctor.


Organized, by what The New York Times calls “a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III,” the backers of the government shut-down are ensconced in organizations like Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Works, Club for Growth, Generation Opportunity, and Young Americans for Liberty, their names as fake as those of Communist front organizations in the 1930s and 1940s and as venal as their forerunners. These groups spent more than $200 million last year to spread disinformation and delude the gullible among the populace about the supposedly catastrophic harm giving health care to the uninsured would do to the economy. Using them as a model, Americans should look out only for themselves. We have forgotten what this country once understood, that a society based on nothing but selfishness and greed is not a society at all, but a state of war of the strong against the weak.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in