A Dickens tale

The tales of Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen and other Victorian writers are set in a time of great inequality. The late eighteenth and nineteenth century were characterized by extreme wealth handed down from one generation to the next. Novels of the time contrasted the lives of the idle rich with the abject poverty of those who were born poor and were doomed to stay poor. Many writers used their novels to raise public awareness of the simmering unrest created by the great political and economic inequality of the time.

For much of history, wealth and power has not been something earned as much as inherited. The wealthy classes hung on to the land and money of their families. Wealthy classes also held political power and made all the rules. The poor remained poor. They did not have access to a good education. They were kept in their place by lack of genteel manners, shabby clothes, ill health, malnourishment. The poor did not own the means of their own support or the places they lived. They were at the mercy of their landlords and employers. Like Charles Dickens’s own father, they could be jailed for owing more money than they could repay, leaving their families even worse off. Life for most people was unbearable.

The result of the extreme disparity of wealth of the Victorian era was one of two things. In France, the peasants revolted and beheaded the king. In Russia, the Tzar and his family were executed and the Bolsheviks took over.

Others didn’t revolt, they left. My own family and tens of thousands of others packed up what they could and moved to the United States. This country was seen as one where everyone had a chance to prosper. There was land which the poor could own and farm. There were resources that needed to be mined. My ancestors saw a chance to escape the tyranny of poverty and landlords. They did not come in search of political or religious freedom, their reasons were simply economic. They were tenant farmers and fishermen with no opportunity to ever own their own home or farm in spite of being educated and hard working. They were constrained by the class to which they were born. They weren’t looking for a better government or a place to practice Lutheranism. The came looking for land and a chance.

I grew up believing that if I got a good education and worked hard, that I could have a higher standard of living than the generations before me.  I was taught at home and in school that it didn’t matter if you were born rich or poor. I was taught that it was up to you to change your situation in life, that you could do it if only you tried.

The American Dream was true for many people. The same class struggles and inequalities, however became evident again during the “Gilded Age” of the 1920s. Wealth became concentrated in the hands of industrialists and bankers instead of lords, dukes and earls. Along with wealth, political power followed. Rules were made which favored the wealthy and made it possible for assets to be kept from one generation to the next. The disparity between those who worked in factories and farms and those who owned mines, land, banks and factories reached record levels. Then the bubble burst and the Great Depression followed. The poor became desperate and some of the wealthy joined their ranks. The depression spawned programs which gave returning solders an opportunity for education, safety nets for the poor and the elderly, minimum wage laws and a New Deal. The years that followed the depression of the 1930s were years of prosperity and a growing middle class. The American Dream blossomed.

In the 1960s the salaries of corporate executive officers (CEO) were on average about 42 times that of the average worker. That has risen to a ratio of 350 to 1 in 2010. While no one argues that the boss of a major corporation should be paid the same as the average worker in the company, the disparity in compensation creates a new kind of class system.

We still believe that in this country, we have the same opportunity to achieve the American Dream. However, research shows that upward mobility in this country is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. Just as in Victorian England, being born poor in America today almost guarantees that you will be poor for the rest of your life. As the disparities between those who have wealth and those who don’t becomes greater, the ability to better one’s self decreases. Research indicates that if my family had stayed in Norway, my children would now have a better chance of climbing the socioeconomic class ladder than they have in this country.

Why is the growing disparity of wealth important? Is the growing discontent of the lower classes simply envy of those who have worked hard and been successful? Is wealth really generated by individual initiative and hard work? Is extreme wealth an entitlement? What things should a just and compassionate society guarantee it’s citizens? Should everyone have the right to a fair living wage in return for full time work? Should everyone have the opportunity to earn enough to have a reasonably good life, to put food on the table, buy shoes for the kids, heat their home? How much is enough? What things should we provide for as citizens and taxpayers that benefit the common good? Or, should we all really just be on our own?

Teddy Roosevelt, our twenty-sixth president, said, “This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live.”

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains