Blaming the victim, circa 1933

This is my third excerpt from David Kennedy’s book, Freedom From Fear:  The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. If you haven’t been following these posts (first; second), I’m exploring some striking parallels (or contrasts) between the Great Depression era and the contemporary economic crisis.

In this case, the parallel consists of a “blaming the victim” response to people’s misery:

The Depression was a wholesale social catastrophe that fell indiscriminately on vast sectors of American society. Yet the belief persisted among many Americans that the needy, new poor and old poor alike, were personally culpable for their plight, sinners against the social order, reprobates and ne’er-do-wells, spongers and bums with no legitimate claim on the public’s sympathy or purse.

Local welfare administrators were sometimes among the most tenacious exponents of that view. They treated welfare applicants accordingly, especially when class, religious, or ethnic differences separated applicants from administrators. […] In North Dakota, where a combination of drought, hail, grasshoppers, and collapsed markets had bankrupted nearly every farmer in the state, [government fact-finder Lorena] Hickok found the state relief committee dominated by officials who “think there is something wrong with a man who cannot make a living. […] They talk so much about ‘the undeserving’ and ‘the bums’.” […]

“Under the philosophy of this ancient practice,” [federal bureaucrat Harry] Hopkins lamented, the relief applicant was thought to be “in some way morally deficient. He must be made to feel his pauperism. Every help which was given him was to be given in a way to intensify his sense of shame.” […]

Contempt for the Depression’s victims, ironically enough, often lodged most deeply in the hearts and minds of the victims themselves. Social investigators in the 1930s repeatedly encountered feelings of guilt and self-recrimination among the unemployed, despite the transparent reality that their plight owed to a systemic economic breakdown, not to their own personal shortcomings. The Depression thus revealed one of the perverse implications of American society’s vaunted celebration of individualism. In a culture that ascribed all success to individual striving, it seemed to follow axiomatically that failure was due to individual inadequacy. […]

“It took me a month [to apply for assistance],” an Alabama lumberman explained; “I used to go down there every day or so and walk past the place again and again. I just couldn’t make myself go in.” A twenty-eight-year-old college-educated woman in Texas, unemployed after eight years as a teacher, spoke the thoughts of many middle-class Americans down and out in the Depression:  “If … I can’t make a living,” she shrugged, “I’m just no good, I guess.”

(pp. 172-75)

As it happens, I read that passage on the same day that I learned about Rick Santelli’s rant. Santelli is a CNBC commentator. The following Talking Points Memo video provides an excerpt from Santelli’s rant, followed by a well-deserved skewering, neatly delivered by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:

Santelli embodies the blaming-the-victim mindset, still thriving as of 2009 — “This is America! How many of you [stock traders] wanna pay for your neighbor’s mortgage?!”

It’s particularly ironic to hear stock traders booing relief for homeowners. Hasn’t the federal government just delivered billions of dollars in relief to financial institutions? I guess stock traders are happy to support financial relief as long as its ultimate destination is their own pockets — but not if it’s going to benefit someone else.

As Gibbs explains, a lot of responsible homeowners are suffering setbacks because their neighbors have defaulted on their mortgages. It’s a systemic breakdown — just like during the Great Depression — which hurts responsible homeowners right alongside of irresponsible homeowners.

btw:  If you’re struggling to understand how the USA got into this mess, there’s a lucid video explanation here, complete with user-friendly graphics.

If you watch the video, you’ll better appreciate Gibbs’s point about depreciation in home values. Falling housing prices is a hugely significant public policy issue (not a merely private setback).


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Zayna
    Feb 24, 2009 @ 13:57:22

    Yes, let’s blame the poor saps who got suckered into sub-prime mortgages…the fault surely lies with them for believing their financial institutions when they are told they can afford to buy a home.

    The truth is, most people have very little idea of what they’re getting into when they buy a home. Understandably, we are more interested in just having a decent house in a nice neighbourhood than we are in how much it’s going to cost overall.

    Is that not the North American dream?

    We make our mortgage payments, pay our utility bills, buy food for our families and try to just live a normal life as possible.

    It’s just disgusting to me that people who are still making money are blaming those who are losing their homes because they’re not making MORE money.


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