Monday, November 29, 2010

Continuing to Harvest Shame

I was sent a link to the 1960 CBS' Edward R. Murrow's documentary 'Harvest of Shame' several days ago. I've heard and read a little about it, but had never seen much more than a very brief clip.

Over the Thanksgiving holidays I took some time to look at it.


Incredibly riveting.

Although it was 50 years ago, the depth of poverty. The hopelessness on the faces of adults - and children. The bleakness with which they had to regard their present, let alone their future.

Originally shown the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, Murrow's and CBS executive Fred Friendly wanted to show Americans the intractable poverty and despair of the seasonal migrant workers who harvested the bounty they just consumed.

Looking at this work a half a century later there are some incredible parallels. Some things that have not changed which we should not countenance in our midst today...
  • There was the insistence that any work is good work, no matter the wage, no matter whether that work provides enough to feed one's family
    The sentiment that 'the market' determines the wage and that market 'uncertainty' as the rationale for treating workers unfairly.
  • Warnings against government interference in the industry.
  • Complaints that immigrants (foreign workers in the documentary) depress wages and contribute to the substandard quality of life for - in this case - migrant workers.
  • The assertion that abjectly poor migrant workers were 'happy' in their circumstance.
  • Warnings against the tyranny of unions (ironically, its a GOP government official who sees unionization as a solution to the migrant workers plight).
'Harvest of Shame' sparked legislation to aid migrant workers and to improve prospects for the education of their children. But I could not help but wonder how it is that 50 years later we have such a hard time making the connection between the danger of poverty, its impact on our fellow citizens and its impact on the rest of our society.

It's easy to pretend that if there is no intervention, no repair of broken systems, no access and no opportunity, that the rest of us can live unaffected. Unfortunately, that's a state of denial which we cannot afford.

Fifty years after 'Harvest of Shame', those migrant workers are a metaphor for today's poor. It is still true that uneducated, undereducated, untrained and unskilled low wage workers represent an untapped workforce potential for emerging new economies. Their depressed wages prevent them from being the consumers of goods and services that strengthen the economy. Their condition backs the rest of our culture into a credit based 'prosperity' (the rest of us only have so much cash) to buy more goods and services.

But most importantly, we are robbed of the social capital that healthy, hopeful, families represent. We never benefit fully from their contributions to our culture, our civic life and our national well being because their daily living is focused on survival at its most basic level.

In short: we are all diminished.

The recent near collapse of our economy has caused many of us to believe that we can tend to our own lives and that of our families with no concern for others. Interestingly enough, Harvest of Shame reminds us that the quality of life on which we all depend and which most of us take for granted, comes at the expense of people whose lives don't count for far too many of us.

It also reminds us of something of which we really ought to be ashamed: there was a time when someone thought that we could be moved to care about that. I'm not so sure how true that is these days.

You can watch the entire documentary here.

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