We know, and we have known for a very long time

Recently I finished re-reading the Steinbeck masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. Re-reading books is an old habit of mine, from childhood days when I used to run out of books to read. Like most people I know, books pile up by the bed these days, half- or un-read as deadlines loom and children are ferried about the countryside. Re-reading is rarer, a forgotten pleasure. It is easy company. There is no urgency. You know what happens. The book is an old friend to be curled up with at night in the sure knowledge that the prose is comfortingly exquisite, the finale the same.

A few weeks ago my daughter, frustrated with her homework on the equally grim Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men, decided to clean out the shed instead. She is that kind of person. I can think of no better way to pass a rainy weekend than in bed with a good book. My daughter and her metabolism start climbing the internal walls, silently and not-so-silently screaming for physical action. Hence the shed project, in which The Grapes of Wrath was re-discovered and thence re-read.

I had not forgotten much of this “terrible, indignant” book, as it is billed. Every pivotal scene was seared on my memory as it emerged – the crushed skull of the ex-preacher, Ma’s cold resistance to praise-the-lord flagellants, the Native American mechanic who befriends Tom Joad, and that final scene. In the end, which we know is neither end nor new beginning, the Joads stumble away from the flooded lowlands and across a starving family of two in the barn on the hill to which they flee. The once plump and simple Rose of Sharon has been pregnant throughout the book, until her starving bub is born lifeless in the midst of flooding rain that washed away the work. On hearing the crying boy, who tells how his whose dying lied about not being hungry, Rosasharn shares the one sustenance she has to give with the starving man. It is love, and human dignity, it is gift and spirit and sharing to the ultimate end, but it is terrible, too terrible to contemplate. This, says Steinbeck, in the closing pages: this, in the most powerful nation on earth.

Of course it could never happen here. This fucking refrain makes me screamingly angry. Wall-climbingly, hair-rippingly, arm-wavingly furious. Yes, it could. In fact, it is. Jesus said the poor will always be with us, I heard an arrogant man of god intone tonelessly on the radio this afternoon. He was one of those complacent conservative types from some wealthy diocese or bishopric or whatever its called, the Sydney one which is home to needle-eye squeezing camels, and which lost tens of millions of parishioner dollars in the 2008 global financial crisis. I assume the god-fearing merchant bankers knew their tithes were being gambled on the stock market, and did not care. What with the tens of millions of tax payer dollars rolling through the place in the form of massive government contracts to outsource the essential social services that are the responsibility of the state.

This corrupt and Christian-less rort allows the non-tax paying church to profiteer from the taxpayer while risking its actual income to enrich itself. Or not, in the case if the poor management and judgement exercised in the greedy noughties, indistinguishable from the greedy neoliberal radicals of the nineties. It is also how the government is obscuring our march toward radical US-style “free” marketeering ideology and, thus, government policy.

The poor will always be with us, intoned the man of god. Yes, yes they will for as long as people like you commandeer huge portions of available assets. And make no mistake, the wealthy few, the neo-liberal government and this man of god are all cut from the same cloth. But surely, said the interviewer to the man of god, a state stipend is about human dignity? Must we force the unemployed to go cap in hand to a religious organisation?

And there it is. We are not simply dumping the poor on the street. We are providing a safety net. We do not let people starve in this country. We fund, with taxes, religious organisations to perpetuate and reproduce the crashing failure of the charity model, which is designed to not let Jesus be wrong, and ensure the poor are always with us.

I am talking every category of poor, it does not matter whether we are talking homelessness or disability or Aboriginality or homelessness. Poor is poor, and poor means worse health, higher rates of imprisonment, greater need of urgent and unaffordable dental care, worse education outcomes. The evidence is in. We do not need to prop up more research communities or caring industries or government departments: poor is poor, and goods and services cost money. Either the tax payers provide essential services to those who can not afford them, or they suffer. Where the state under-invests in health and education, and over-invests in force (police, guns, tasers, batons, prisons, wars, ‘defence’ personnel and their eye-wateringly expensive equipment and perks) the problems compound. Even viable solutions like public dental clinics, cost more than the initial fix would have been, once this compound decay sets in for, would have been.

This, the state says, is the fault of the poor. It is not. It is the fault of economic management so bad it beggars belief that its architects are still able to take to the microphones and spout words like ‘economic management’. Those touts have little to no understanding of basic economic relationships, relationships such as that between investment and return on investment, or confidence and expectations, or credit and trust. This is not conspiracy. No conspiracy is required. They all respond the same because they all think the same. Not one has ever been hungry. But they will tell you they have been poor. The code word, the one to look out for, is struggle. I have known struggle, a complacent suited white man in the pink of health will assure an uncritical media representative, failing to mention that it was a pre-selection struggle or some other effort, equally meaningless to anyone but the club. They have never known night after night with a sick child (if they had, we would have heard about it), or no money for school excursions, or shame so intense it renders you immobile. You can be sure they have not struggled with the decision as to whether to share their dead baby’s milk with a grown, starving man. Well, nor did Rosasharn. As Steinbeck tells it, she did not struggle with that decision at all.


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