Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath showed us the way people, trying to better themselves, can be forced to get into unending debt as a result. This was what happened to the Joad family, and as such, they found themselves being exploited by those with wealth. The Great Depression forced them to become migrant workers, picking fruit at such a low pay they found themselves growing deeper and deeper in debt the more they worked. To be sure, during the Great Depression, many of those who still had farms of their own were in debt to banks, and so could not afford to pay proper wages to their workers. The whole economic system was broken, and as it was broken, it led to all kinds of injustices, but the greatest injustice is that it relied upon those who were poor to serve everyone else, meaning the whole system was one which exploited the poor and put the burdens upon them instead of those who had resources of their own. Those who had money, those who possessed wealth, were able to use it to get richer, justifying themselves by saying people were free to find better work if they could. Of course, such work was not available, and more and more people suffered as they were pitted against each other. Thus, Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, was able to present a glimpse of the situation that many faced, showing, through their example, the problems of the system as it had become and why it deserved condemnation:
Steinbeck’s wrath, however, isn’t directed at the weather, but at those who abuse power. Banks chase farmers out with debt, and businessmen exploit migrant labor and disband unions. Steinbeck’s America paired governance and capitalism while the majority labored for the sake the powerful’s profit. (Steinbeck was unapologetic about certain socialist views, and the book’s nominal hero, Tom Joad, says he’s “bolshevisty”.)
Migrant workers, sharecroppers, and the like, were an exploited class. Indeed, the more their exploitation was supported by society, the more it turned them into virtual slaves. Not only did the poor suffer due to the way they were exploited, their dignity was undermined; they were blamed for the circumstances they found themselves in, hated for their poverty, and so people thought they were justified in assaulting them, as they believed their poverty proved they deserved everything they got. This problem is one which continues with us today, as Peggy Rosenthal explained:
With the glut of migrant workers, the farmers keep lowering the piece-work wages, paying literally starvation wages to those who manage to get even these scarce and always short-term jobs. As the migrants slip deeper and deeper into hunger and debt, local residents come to hate them for their poverty—and take up arms against them. Steinbeck is, alas, describing precisely the mass mentality of the vigilante groups in my winter home of southern Arizona, along the Mexico border.
This problem is not one only the United States faces. It is a problem the world over. John Gee, writing in the Guardian, shows us one of many ways people find themselves exploited by the system. Recruiters come to those in economic need, saying they will help them find work if they are willing to pay a fee; thus, after being recruited, often to work in a new country than their own, the vulnerable poor accept what is offered, thinking they will get work which will easily pay off their debt, but instead, find themselves getting work which does not even pay them enough to live. They end up too afraid to complain because they fear what would happen if they do so:
Recruitment fees are not only a heavy burden on workers who had hoped to support their families by working abroad, but they also increase their vulnerability to the worst forms of exploitation. Workers who fear that they may lose their jobs and end up worse off than if they’d not taken the jobs in the first place are reluctant to complain about underpayment of wages, poor accommodation and safety standards, or ill health.
It seems that whatever we learned during the Great Depression has been lost to us; we have allowed the poor to become exploited once again, making sure they have to incur all the burdens needed for their self-improvement. This can be seen in the way people find work. They are told that to have a job which pays a living wage, they should be properly educated, with skills which justify their pay. But since they cannot get such skills without paying for them, most have to go into debt if they want better paying jobs, but once they go into debt, they find such jobs do not pay well, leading them to work for employers who do not necessarily pay them a living wage, but now with a burden which they did not previously have. They took out loans with the belief that they would be able to pay them off and still enjoy enough economic success, only to find themselves in a much worse situation, and yet if they didn’t do so, they would have been told their lack of job opportunities was their fault because they didn’t get the education they needed. Does this not compare to the way migrant workers were exploited, going into debt in order to find work, only then to find that when they work, they have to go into more debt in order to survive?
To be sure, many try to find ways to break the cycle of debt and exploitation, but few find themselves able to do so. The few who do are used to justify the system, by saying they are proof that anyone can do it, when in fact, only a few can do it, and it is more luck than anything else which allows them to be freed from their debts. This, once again, can be seen in the way many poor believe getting a college education will help them transcend their poverty. They are told it will, and so because they believe what they are told, they are willing to go into debt, with the hope that what work they have will render the debt negligible. This is why so many take student loans for college education. Those who have the money would not need to do so. Those, moreover, who have the money often find they have such contacts and resources, their education also will cost them less than those who do have such advantages, if, that is, it will cost them anything. Thus, we must understand, contrary to the claims of many who try to justify the economic situation and the ignore the burden student loans put on workers, the ones most burdened by the system and such loans are those coming from the poor and middle classes, with the poor, more than the middle class, more likely to suffer the worst consequences for having to take out such loans, even as they will suffer generational poverty if they do not take a gamble upon their future and hope that they will find a good paying job once they are done with their education.
The poor, and then the middle class, are the most burdened by the present labor system, one which expects those who want work to pay for whatever training they need themselves. The promise that such education will lead to a better life is turned upside-down, as debt after debt is accepted thanks to the belief that such education will easily allow for the payment of such debts once the person joins the workforce. Those who don’t seek such education might not have the debt, but they also will not be able to find work, and so will get in debt in other ways, as they will also be unlikely to find work which pays a living wage. This is why something needs to be done with student loans, because properly dealing with them, though it might help a few who have found themselves in a better situation due to their education, will greatly help those who are trying to better themselves, those trying to get out of poverty and yet find themselves unable to do so because the promises they were told were not kept.
We must, as a society, address the unjust burdens played upon the poor thanks to the way the system has forced them to take out loans they will not be able to pay. This is not to say the solution will be easy. The system needs to be transformed, and there are many elements which must come together to deal with the problem. Workers need to be offered living wages, and not just for “skilled labor.” Those presently exploited by the way the system works, and so have loans which they cannot pay off, also need to be addressed by society. In making sure all of this happens, society needs to engage prudence, which means, it should not be surprising if the changes are done incrementally, instead of all at once, so to make sure such changes offer real improvements to the system.
We should want an educated public. We should want to help those who have been unjustly exploited because they tried to better themselves by becoming educated. In trying to fix the system, those who were able to improve themselves without incurring such great debt, or in such a way as to get the kind of work everyone assumed would be available for those who were educated, should not be upset that others are able to be lifted up, and have their burdens removed, just as someone who has not been injured in an accident should not be upset when doctors take care of those who have been hurt in one. The common good requires us to take care of the poor and needy, and that means, those who have should help the have-nots, instead of complaining when they are told that their excess should be put to use to those who are in need. The more the needy are taken care of, instead of exploited, the more society as a whole will find itself improved. Thus, when talking about debt policies where various poor countries were to be aided, the wisdom of the Administrative Board of the United States Conference of Bishops should adapted and understood in relation to debt in general:
The common good is the sum total of those conditions in society that make it possible for all persons to achieve their full potential. This broad concept suggests the need to consider a wide range of factors in assessing the moral adequacy of debt policies. Ultimately, debt policies must take into account the good of the whole society, not just segments of it, and the global common good, not just that of individual nations. A moral assessment of debt policies, therefore, must include the extent to which the debt burden undermines the ability of governments to fulfill their obligation to promote the common good, forcing them to spend their scarce resources on debt service rather than on critical investments in health, education, or clean water. Debt policies cannot be judged solely in terms of their impact on individual countries or institutions but must take into account the interests and needs of all those affected by debt, at home and abroad. From this broader perspective, the debilitating debt of poor countries far removed from our own is a problem because it erodes the global common good.
When the common good is ignored, and selfishness prevails, the debt people find themselves in will just continue to grow, and they will find themselves treated worse and worse, until, at last, they either become exhausted and die from exploitation, imprisoned due to the debt they cannot pay, or find themselves giving up, becoming what it is they tried to avoid becoming. There are many such burdens placed upon the poor which the rich and powerful do not experience. The debt many take on to be educated is one such burden. For many, it has become a crippling burden, one which makes it impossible for them to live with the dignity everyone should have. All those who say they should have known better, they shouldn’t have taken out the debt, are also those who say they should do what they have to do to get good work, that they are not owed living wages, and that only educated people or those with skilled labor (often achieved through some form of costly education) should have living wages. In other words, they are being told they are on their own, that society should have no interest in taking care of them. No matter what happens to them, they are told it is their fault. This is unjust and cruel, and it comes from an ideology which ignore that society should work together for the common good. When the poor and needy are neglected, indeed, exploited, and society allows it to happen, society is at fault and is to blame, and if it does not fix the situation, it will suffer as it experiences the eventual consequences of its inaction.
Society will be better the more it helps the exploited. This is why, when dealing with the exploitation we see happening today, it is clear more needs to be done to improve the work situation; more needs to be done to make sure jobs truly give living wages; but also, more needs to be done to help those who have tried to do what they thought would give them the opportunity for such work, only to find themselves in a nightmare situation, in a cycle of debt which has no end in sight. And, from a Christian perspective, we must understand the cry of the poor and vulnerable, the cry of those oppressed by exploitation, rises up to heaven, and that we, if we are to follow with God’s pathos, will want to do all we can to change society so that the poor and needy are given the aid they need instead of left to perish. For, if we are to be holy and righteous like God is holy and righteous, our heart will be with those in need, and we will do all we can to make sure those in excessive debt, those who are poor and needy, are properly taken care of instead of allowing their exploitation to continue:
If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right — if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of impurity, does not oppress any one, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any increase, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances — he is righteous, he shall surely live, says the Lord GOD.(Ezek. 17:5-9 RSV).
Alan Yuhas, “The Grapes Of Wrath Is 75 Years Old And More Relevant Than Ever” in The Guardian (4-14-2014).
 John Gee, “How Migrant Workers Get Trapped In Debt To Recruiters” in The Guardian (8-17-2022).
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