Lori Sturdevant: It's rarely a luxury to be in need of charity

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2011 - 3:58 PM

Still, there exists an age-old sense that the poor must prove that they're worthy.

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One of my favorite Minnesota Christmas stories involves a plague of locusts of biblical proportion and Gov. John S. Pillsbury, the state's longest-serving 19th-century chief executive.

In 1876, Pillsbury was the first-term governor of a state whose southwestern quadrant had been ravaged by hordes of munching insects for four straight summers. Life had become tenuous for pioneer farmers.

Pillsbury toured the region to convince himself that the suffering was real and not of the victims' own making. His 19th-century mind-set precluded aid to the "undeserving."

It also ruled out turning to government for direct relief, lest the poor depend too much on the public trough.

Once assured on those counts, Pillsbury's conscience demanded action. On Dec. 20, 1876, he issued a "State of Minnesota Executive Department Appeal" widely circulated to the state's pastors, civic groups and citizens inclined toward Christmas charity.

Please give, he pleaded.

He went on at great length to argue that the locust victims deserved help.

"I have visited many of them in their homes, and verified by personal intercourse and observations the worthy character of the sufferers," he wrote.

"Most of the improvident and unscrupulous persons ... have been forced to absent themselves, and those who remain are among the very best people in the state."

Thus assured that the needy were worthy, Minnesotans responded with great generosity.

Pillsbury rented two warehouses and personally oversaw the sorting and shipment of food and clothing to 6,000 families.

The next year, the locusts receded. (That's a story for another column.)

That's a Christmas story with a requisite happy ending, produced by the extraordinary generosity of ordinary Minnesotans -- and if that's all it was, I wouldn't have mulled it as often as I have in the past year.

It's also a window on deep-seated American ideas about poverty, labor and the role of government.

In frontier Minnesota, hard work could rather reliably produce self-sufficiency. Suspicion of the poor as lazy or profligate arose easily when land was cheap or free, the population was exploding, and harvests of timber, grain and, eventually, iron ore were abundant beyond imagining.

Pillsbury evidently knew his Christmas appeal had to overcome that suspicion to succeed.

But already in 1876, the state's economy was shifting from agrarian to industrial -- most notably in and around the Pillsbury mills at the Falls of St. Anthony. Average workers' fates increasingly were not their own to control.

Though that change accelerated in the 20th century, it was slow to penetrate thinking about the poor. It seems not to have fully soaked in yet.

"Our notions about who's deserving of help and who isn't are rooted in the notions about individual effort and individual success or failure," said Joe Soss.

He's the Cowles Professor for the Study of Public Service at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School, and the coauthor of a new book, "Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race."

Even as the ranks of America's poor and near poor swelled in the past three years, many held to the American Dream ideal that anyone can rise above poverty through hard work and clean living.

"It's become almost a Catch-22," Soss said.

The reasoning: "You're undeserving if you haven't worked hard enough to lift yourself out of poverty. If you had worked hard, you wouldn't be poor. So if you're poor, you must be undeserving."

Add to that political rhetoric that casts welfare as an "illegitimate taking" from honest, self-sufficient people by "welfare queens," and American charity can get mighty strained.

But the Great Recession could be opening eyes to a new reality about work in America. Soss elucidated:

"The basic issue with poverty today is that jobs in this country do not support families in ways that allow them to have livable lives.

"If you are a poor woman with low skill levels, the jobs available to you do not offer enough wages to support the people in your family, don't come with child care so you can make it to the job, don't provide health benefits to allow to you take care of your kids, and don't acknowledge the situations that happen when you are responsible for taking care of others.

"We've spent a lot of time talking about mothers not being job-ready. We don't talk enough about jobs not being mother-ready."

That critique of work applies not only to jobs available to the poor. Increasingly, it's a middle-class lament.

"The problems that we have arise first and foremost because our institutions are not designed to accommodate people's lives. We haven't adapted," Soss said.

But that doesn't mean we can't, he added.

"Tougher times make people more likely to understand that poverty isn't just about individual choices. ... A lot of people are susceptible to thinking differently right now."

Maybe that's so especially on the day when Christians sing about kings bringing lavish gifts to a child "humbly born in a stable rude."

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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