Posts Tagged ‘Upton Sinclair’

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Food production has been a problem throughout the history of American capitalism.

Back in 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to portray the harsh working conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrializing cities.* However, it seems, many readers were more concerned with his exposure of health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry during the early-twentieth century. Thus, Sinclair quipped: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

A century later, Richard Linklater directed the film Fast Food Nation, which was loosely based on Eric Schlosser’s bestselling 2001 non-fiction book of the same name. Like Sinclair, Linklater focused on the working conditions in the slaughterhouses, to which he added fast-food restaurants—and, like Sinclair, he exposed the role exploited immigrants played in lowering costs and increasing profits in the American food industry.

The farm-to-table movement was supposed to change all that—with happy animals, humane working conditions, and foods sourced from local farmers. However, as Andrea Reusing [ht: db] explains, the authenticity attributed to the preparation and serving of good that is local, organic, and sustainable has increasingly “slipped further away from the food movement and into the realms of foodie-ism and corporate marketing.” Thus

it is increasingly unhitched from the issues it is so often assumed to address.

Farm-to-table’s sincere glow distracts from how the production and processing of even the most pristine ingredients — from field or dock or slaughterhouse to restaurant or school cafeteria — is nearly always configured to rely on cheap labor. Work very often performed by people who are themselves poor and hungry.

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There are, in fact, over 7.5 million food-preparation workers in the United States, who earn less than $10.50 an hour—which comes to less than $21,000 a year. Many of those workers are immigrants, both documented and undocumented.**

Over the course of the past century, we’ve moved from the meatpacking industry to the food-service sector. But the problems identified by Sinclair and Linklater remain: exploited workers and immigrants that are subjected to inhumane treatment during the process of immigration and on the job.

As a chef herself, Reusing follows the lead of Sinclair and Linklater in suggesting that

As chefs, we need to talk more about the economic realities of our kitchens and dining rooms and allow eaters to begin to experience them as we do: imperfect places where abundance and hope exist beside scarcity and compromise. Places that are weakened by the same structural inequality that afflicts every aspect of American life.

 

*Sinclair’s novel was first published in serial form in 1905 in the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason and published the next year as a book by Doubleday.

**Overall, according to a report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative (pdf), the American food system employs over 21.5 million workers, making it the largest source of employment in the United States. Eleven million workers are in the food service sector, comprising more than half of the food chain.

place

The neighborhood you grow up in matters. A great deal. Especially in a highly unequal society like the United States.

Just consider the chart above [ht: ja]. It shows that poor kids (at or below the 25th percentile) who grow up in Baltimore City county—where Freddie Gray was killed—will make, on average, nearly $3,500 less than the national average.

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The same is true across the country, including Cook County, Illinois. There (as shown in the chart on the left), a child in a poor family would make $3480—or 13 percent—less at age 26 compared to poor families nationwide (and they’d be much better off if they were raised in DuPage county). By the same token (according to the chart on the right), if a child in the top 1 percent were to grow up in that same county, they would make $1290 more at age 26 compared with children in families in the top 1 percent elsewhere in the country (but they’d do even better in Kankakee county).

That’s what we’ve learned from the new study by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren. Neighborhood matters. A great deal. Especially in a highly unequal society like the United States.

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But, in all honesty, we’ve known that neighborhood matters for a long time. Since at least 1901-02, when Charles J. Bushnell published his pioneering study of the Stock Yards neighborhood in the American Journal of Sociology (as if to confirm Justin Wolfers’s observation that “sociologists have typically been quicker than economists to embrace the idea that neighborhoods are important”). Which, remember, was the same neighborhood (referred to as Back of the Yards) Upton Sinclair wrote about in The Jungle.

Bushnell’s analysis was particularly compelling because he compared two neighborhoods that butted up against one another on the south side of Chicago: Back of the Yards and Hyde Park (where the University of Chicago is located). What he showed, for example, is that in 1897, 70 per cent of the families in economic distress were found in 27 per cent of the territory, while in 1900 92.5 per cent of the distress was found in 27 per cent of the territory—and that the territory referred to was located wholly within the Stock Yard district. The difference between the two neighborhoods could not have been more stark.

But, Bushnell also observed,

it is significant to note the fact, indicative of the vaguely apprehended and poorly organized conditions of life in our large cities, that the very community which is thus helping to support the agency which is trying to rescue the people of the Stock Yard district from the effects of their bad sanitary and economic conditions, is at the same time, perhaps without recognizing the fault, sending its garbage over into the Stock Yard district to make its sanitary and economic conditions worse.

It is not just that conditions and outcomes were different in the two neighborhoods; the poor conditions in the Stock Yard district were caused, at least in part, by the fact that the residents of Hyde Park were using the Stock Yard district as their dumping ground.

And that’s the lesson we learned then but seem to have forgotten now: not only that neighborhood matters, but also that—”perhaps without recognizing the fault”—we continue to create and treat our poorest neighborhoods as both a source of enormous wealth and a dumping ground for the detritus of the tiny minority who manage to live elsewhere.

In other words, the solution to the slim prospects of children in poor neighborhoods is not to somehow encourage their families to move into better neighborhoods. What we have to do, as a society, is eliminate the very fact that neighborhood matters—in Baltimore, Chicago, and elsewhere—by transforming the economy that creates such unequal neighborhoods in the first place.

Map of the day

Posted: 9 April 2014 in Uncategorized
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jungle

In Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (which I’m teaching this week in the labor section of the course on Commodities: The Making of Market Society), Jurgis manages to land a job at the South Works steel mill, after Juozapas, Teta Elzbieta’s crippled child, while looking for food in the local dump meets a woman whose fiancé happens to be a superintendent in the mill.

It was quite a story. Little Juozapas, who was near crazy with hunger these days, had gone out on the street to beg for himself. Juozapas had only one leg, having been run over by a wagon when a little child, but he had got himself a broomstick, which he put under his arm for a crutch. He had fallen in with some other children and found the way to Mike Scully’s dump, which lay three or four blocks away. To this place there came every day many hundreds of wagonloads of garbage and trash from the lake front, where the rich people lived; and in the heaps the children raked for food—there were hunks of bread and potato peelings and apple cores and meat bones, all of it half frozen and quite unspoiled. Little Juozapas gorged himself, and came home with a newspaper full, which he was feeding to Antanas when his mother came in. Elzbieta was horrified, for she did not believe that the food out of the dumps was fit to eat. The next day, however, when no harm came of it and Juozapas began to cry with hunger, she gave in and said that he might go again. And that afternoon he came home with a story of how while he had been digging away with a stick, a lady upon the street had called him. A real fine lady, the little boy explained, a beautiful lady; and she wanted to know all about him, and whether he got the garbage for chickens, and why he walked with a broomstick, and why Ona had died, and how Jurgis had come to go to jail, and what was the matter with Marija, and everything. In the end she had asked where he lived, and said that she was coming to see him, and bring him a new crutch to walk with. She had on a hat with a bird upon it, Juozapas added, and a long fur snake around her neck.

 

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The problem is, the mill is too far for Jurgis to return to the boardinghouse in Back of the Yards during the week, so he travels home only on the weekends. 

The steel-works were fifteen miles away, and as usual it was so contrived that one had to pay two fares to get there. Far and wide the sky was flaring with the red glare that leaped from rows of towering chimneys—for it was pitch dark when Jurgis arrived. The vast works, a city in themselves, were surrounded by a stockade; and already a full hundred men were waiting at the gate where new hands were taken on. Soon after daybreak whistles began to blow, and then suddenly thousands of men appeared, streaming from saloons and boardinghouses across the way, leaping from trolley cars that passed—it seemed as if they rose out of the ground, in the dim gray light. A river of them poured in through the gate—and then gradually ebbed away again, until there were only a few late ones running, and the watchman pacing up and down, and the hungry strangers stamping and shivering.

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