Poverty of Common People

One of my current projects is writing a book about my 19th century ancestors – their circumstances in the old world, conversion to a new Christian denomination, ocean voyages to the new world, and journey on foot, via wagon trains and handcart companies, across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. They were among the first generation of settlers in the Utah territory.

As background for this project, I am educating myself in the politics, economy, and religious movements of the 19th century. Toward that end I recently read Common People, a 2014 book by Alison Light. There she traces her British ancestors back five or six generations.

The author is a literary biographer, best known for Mrs. [Virginia] Woolf and the Servants (2008). Light, who grew up working class herself, documents that poverty was a common condition of her ancestors. Some were downright destitute, forced to live in workhouses. The dire conditions of the time were especially hard on women, who had scant employment options. Light tells us that many female servants being put out of work drove them into prostitution as an alternative to destitution or the workhouse.

Common People also demonstrates the pitfalls of packing too many family names, dates and places into a history book. An excess of prosaic details can and does obscure the historical picture Light wants to paint.

Besides expanding my knowledge of 19th century Britain, Common People captivated me by similarities to our present moment. The book put me in mind of two ways to view economic history, which I might term “ascendant” and “cyclical.” The cultural context of my Baby Boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) was that the American Dream of having a comfortable middle-class or better life was virtually assured if one graduated from high school (college conferred more benefits, black skin conferred fewer benefits), was honest, and worked hard. Our parents had a higher standard of living than did their parents, and we expected to achieve a standard of living higher than our parents. We blithely assumed this ascending trajectory would continue, with dips and bumps from the occasional recession. Life was harsh for our ancestors, it is better for us, and it will be even better for future generations.

Dwelling on the periphery of society in my youth was this outlier group known as hoboes. Averse to settling down and holding a steady job, they chose to opt out of the bourgeois American Dream. Hitching rides in railroad boxcars was their preferred mode of transportation; pork and beans heated over a campfire, we imagined to be their preferred meal. Hoboes were a far cry from the destitution found in every major American city today.

The combination of living in a modern urban metropolis like Seattle and studying 19th century economics and social disruption in books like Common People, can lead one to conclude that history is cyclical rather than ever ascending. The Baby Boom generation, instead of being a step on the rising axis of prosperity, may represent an apex of America’s economic history. The Gen X and Millennials generations, as well as the ones that will follow them, are generally experiencing economic decline and suffering a myriad of downstream problems. They live on the downward slope in a recurring economic cycle.

The single biggest factor disrupting 19th century Europe was the Industrial Revolution. It drew a large portion of the population away from rural agriculture-based lives to factory work in urban environments. This wreaked havoc on society, particularly the lower classes. There were slums with extreme poverty, notorious workhouses, transience and homelessness. Results were tragic for many of these uprooted people. On the Continent the consequent poverty and dissatisfaction contributed in 1848 to a wave of independent revolutions. Though England did not undergo a revolution, poverty and dislocation blighted the land. In 1867 Karl Marx, influenced by his observations of the brutal factories in Manchester, England, published Das Kapital. Forty years on, in 1905, came the Russian Revolution, followed by communism’s failures around the world.

The United States is today undergoing a period of great disruption, on the scale of the mid-19th century in Europe. Causes are de-industrialization (the unwinding of the Industrial Revolution that caused so much disruption 150 years earlier), globalization and rising inequality.

Many of Light’s descriptions of poverty of her Victorian ancestors could just as well be written today. I live in downtown Seattle, where you would have to be blind and frozen-hearted not to see daily the countless examples of distress due to de-industrialization and globalization: sleeping in doorways, begging for money, shoplifting at Target, Walgreen’s and Bartell Drugs, riffling through garbage cans in search of half-eaten food or something salable on the street. Those forces also caused the election of a populist (in rhetoric, not deed) demagogue as our President. The homeless I encounter daily are a far cry from the romanticized hoboes off in the periphery of my youth.

Poverty, or to frame it positively, economic opportunity, has been the leading cause of immigration to the United States. Seeking religious freedom and escaping political and ethnic persecution were other motivators. Poverty was certainly the condition of most of my ancestors who emigrated in the mid-19th century from the U.K. (including one branch from South Africa). On every side they had recently converted to Mormonism, a new Christian religion founded in the U.S., and accepted its leader Brigham Young’s invitation to emigrate to Utah.

Happy people don’t migrate. All my ancestors came from humble circumstances and some were crushingly poor, such as those working in coal mines in southern Scotland and factory mills around Manchester. Their enthusiasm for America was a compound of degrading poverty and uplifting religious faith. Even though the Statue of Liberty was erected after my forebears had already arrived here, the grand lady’s invitation, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” would have resonated with them.

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