Monday, May 28, 2012


All day community sing, Pie Town, New Mexico, c. 1940; photo: Library of Congress, US Farm Security Photographs.

Millions upon millions of Americans have been forced into poverty since the advent of this Endless Recession, more millions every year it goes on, and strangely, despite the Occupy Movement and many thousands of NGOs serving the Poor, and hundreds of thousands of churches, and many tens of millions of concerned and generous Americans, there is no general outcry about the impoverishment of so many millions of Americans so quickly and so thoroughly as has been the case.

The official poverty rate today hovers around 15% or 16%, a historic high since the mid 1960's and it is growing. Like the unemployment rate, the "true" poverty rate is probably substantially higher than the official rate (the poverty rate is derived from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey's Annual Social and Economic Supplement; the unemployment rate is derived from the Census Bureau's monthly Current Population Survey for the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Homelessness is at a historic high as well, even as millions and millions of homes sit empty due to the banking and foreclosure crisis -- that goes on and on and on endlessly as well.

The Masters of the Universe have decided this situation is just right; they want no changes that might cost them anything, and they will have their handmaidens in government thwart any movement from below to adjust matters.

As we've seen over and over again, any serious effort to highlight the plight of the increasing numbers of Americans in poverty or to petition government for redress is met with ever harsher and violent repression.

The absence of a general outcry at the impoverishment of Americans may be due to official repression. On the other hand, many Americans don't have an intellectual, moral or emotional problem with increasing poverty -- as long as it doesn't touch them. As long as the problem of poverty is someone else's problem, what's to worry, right?

This attitude is yet another of the many legacies of the Reagan Era, and unfortunately, it's an affliction of Washington, DC that simply doesn't respond to persuasion or pressure from below. Reaganism took the place of Progressivism a generation ago now, and it doesn't look like the culture and the mindset of present day DC is capable of considering the consequences of poverty and of its policies that increase poverty. Even today's so-called "progressives" don't seem to get it.

I was chatting with my neighbor the other day. He's an older man, has had a couple of strokes, but he's doing very well all things considered, he is quite spry and able to get along well enough. He notices how poverty is increasing all the time, and how nothing is being done to reverse it. There are no jobs, especially for the young. So many people are homeless. Cutbacks everywhere, and the cost of living keeps going up and up and up.

He says that he learned to live simply a long time ago; because of his simple lifestyle, he hasn't been exposed to some of the economic struggles that so many people are going through. He doesn't need or want that much in the material world.

Some of the young people could learn from him, he says, but they won't listen. I say, "Well, you know, they have to learn for themselves; you can't really tell them."

"Yes, but so many want all these things that they don't really need, that no one really needs," he says, "and when they're too poor to afford it... If they could learn to live simply, it wouldn't matter. Not so much anyway."

How are they to do that? How is anybody to do that? This is the dilemma that so many Americans have been facing for years now: how to transition from a wildly over-consumptive lifestyle to one that is easier on resources and on oneself?

Withdrawal is one way, one that has deep historic roots in the American land and psyche. Withdrawal is at the foundation of some of the English colonization efforts; the Puritans, after all, were a "withdrawal" sect, as were many others who came to America for religious freedom (for themselves, not for anyone else, of course).

Historically, there have been any number of withdrawal sects since the Puritans; many aspects of the Westward Expansion of the 19th Century could be characterized as forms of withdrawal -- especially the Mormon trek to Utah and elsewhere in the West.

There was a very active back to the land movement during the Great Depression despite the Dust Bowl and all the other hazards inherent in trying to pioneer on marginal lands.

Of course, the rebellions of the 1960's gave rise to a plethora of urban and rural communes, ashrams and other forms of intentional communities, a surprising number of which are still around, all premised on living simply and withdrawal from the materialist and consumerist culture.

The original Franciscan movement was predicated on voluntary poverty and withdrawal from the violent and materialist society of its own time; many of its critics pointed out how easy it was for rich men's sons (and soon enough, daughters too, with the establishment of the Poor Clares) to "leave it all behind," but it wasn't so easy for someone who never had anything to begin with to do so. Someone who has endured poverty for a long time will not necessarily be so kindly disposed to the adoption of poverty by someone who has lived in luxury all their lives.

The issue of hypocrisy doesn't go away simply because one who is privileged declares one's sincerity in living "poor". One way the privileged can demonstrate sincerity is to withdraw from materialist society. The Buddha as an example...

One of the ironies of "living simply" -- that is to say, consuming fewer resources -- is that it can be very expensive. Various forms of energy conservation, for example, can cost individuals and households extraordinary amounts of money. If they don't have the upfront cash or credit, what are they to do? Even with various subsidies, reducing resource consumption can still be an extremely expensive path to take and often is only realistically available to the well-off and rich.

Part of the path of Withdrawal is to find ways to get away from the necessity for relative wealth in order to live simply and well. The pioneers and refugees in Pie Town cut their own trees, built their own log cabins and dug-outs, grew their own food, and insofar as they could, they lived as simply as possible -- without all the modern conveniences such as electricity and running water, for example. Basically, they substituted their own labor for the consumer goods and services that most people relied on. It was not an easy life by any means, nor was it one that very many of the Pie Town pioneers could endure for very long. Not so much because it was so tough at the outset - though it was that. Inability to endure this primitive life for very long had perhaps more to do with the fact that there was little or no hope for improvement; the situation did not get better. In many cases, the situation got worse. Pioneering ideals don't last very long when, for example, the weather doesn't cooperate, crops fail and you're going hungry because you can't grow anything to eat, or when you or your children are sick and there's no medicine or doctoring and you don't know what to do.

Thus many communities that withdraw from materialist society don't try to start anew from scratch, they utilize the surpluses and overabundance of the materialist society around them to create an alternative, an alternative which may or may not be a stop-gap on the road to something else again.

What happens when the surplus runs out?

That's a point that Americans have yet to get to. As a rule, though, people are highly adaptable to whatever conditions they find themselves in. If at some point in the future, the surplus of materialism is all used up, then people will adapt to their new conditions, whatever they may be.

The key is for there to be some kind of transition.


  1. Nice post, thanks.
    The county government where I live did a survey during the Winter to "count the homeless." Do you want to guess how many they found? ZERO. It's funny how many people are showing up to the free meals the churches provide but absolutely none of them are homeless. I guess if the government can "prove" there isn't a problem then they don't have to do anything to fix it.

  2. I'm aware of a number of similar incidents in which a local government sets out to "count the homeless" and discovers few or none, while the Census Bureau might find 1500 or more and acknowledges an undercount.

    Sometimes it goes the other way. Local government or NGOs may count a lot of homeless while an official census may find few.

    In other words, there really aren't any accurate numbers of homeless, partly by design, partly by neglect, and partly because the homeless themselves are sometimes reluctant to be included in an official count.

    Definitions are often a problem, too.

    But the fact is that in most places all the civic and nonprofit resources available to those who are suffering the most from the Endless Recession are being strained to the max; many have had to cut back services in the face of growing need. Now that hundreds of thousands or millions of long term unemployed are slated to lose extended benefits, the situation is only going to get worse.

    Much worse.

  3. The early Buddhist monks used to use burial shrouds for their clothes. Nowadays there are enough Buddhists that the monks can rely on receiving robes as donations.