The penumbra of Hurricane Katrina’s fourth anniversary is as good a time as any to reflect on the situation of the poor. As the storm revealed in spectacular fashion, times of crisis are always hardest on marginal groups. Obviously, the South has no monopoly on marginalization (though perhaps it follows racial lines more notably there), and we see it surface in countless places and in myriad forms. It might be helpful, then, to check our own reflexes as the effects of recession advance glacially across the country.
Some food for thought: Mary Douglas (whose writings continue to fascinate) points out in How Institutions Think that scarcity situations tend to reinforce rather than obliterate social hierarchies. A social body in crisis acts like an organic body in hypothermia; it directs its threatened resources to the most vital organs. She describes famine protocols in isolated Hindu villages:
The emergency system starts to give short rations to the disadvantaged, marginal, the politically ineffectual. Protecting those in command and those already advantaged results in the skeletal institutions being preserved and the usual channels of communication being kept open. The effect is to maintain some minimal level of operations. As the crisis deepens … [one] witnesses with horror a systematic destruction of certain categories of persons… Whatever are the normative principles of exclusion from privilege or security—whether by birth, or office, or sex or age, or by definition of deviancy and criminality—these regular exclusions point to who will get less as resources diminish and who will finally be turned out or left behind to starve.
Gruesome in extent, but familiar in principle.
An interesting aside: if the social distinctions are thought to derive from a cosmic order (as they are thought to be in the Hindu caste system), then the excluded tend to accept their doom with meek resignation. The concentration of goods in the hands of the higher castes is as much a part of the course of nature as the failure of crops. Hence, when normal life resumes, the survivors “take up their old relationships of service gratefully, without grievance.” In a more egalitarian society such as our own, by contrast, caste-rationing tends to lead to riots.
As an added twist, public policy experts have long noted that panicky attempts to protect resources exacerbate problems of scarcity. In Missing Persons, Douglas points to a field of research showing that “the public battening down of hatches and the locking of the gates against the afflicted … actually causes the worst of the effects once the famine has started.” Laws are inevitably passed to keep the rural poor away from city granaries, the expectation of inflation promotes hoarding, price controls remove food from the market, legal barriers block the movement of food across regions, etc.
Are we susceptible of similar panic attacks? Not yet to the same degree. All the same, one can detect similar instincts in the recent furor provoked by the 1,700 stimulus checks mailed (mistakenly) to incarcerated convicts. The damage to the taxpayer, one must admit, was slight. The checks in question were each in the amount of $250, so the total cost was just under a half million of the $787 billion stimulus package. That would be the equivalent to dropping a penny in a $20,000 transaction. Nonetheless, the thought of murderers and rapists (the Boston Herald prominently featured the crimes of the beneficiaries) receiving their rations before respectable, godfearing American families sold the story. It even gave occasion for Sara Sendek to crow that “President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill has done more to help convicted criminals than it has to actually boost our economy and create jobs.” Though the stimulus mailing was plainly bungled, the outcry was instructively disproportionate to the monetary damage. It galled because it violated the unstated code of famine rationing: scarce resources should go to the “better sort.”
I don’t know that these reflections necessarily favor any particular policy decision—on welfare subsidies or health care reform anything else that involves rationing scarce resources. Perhaps they merely suggest that a wealthy Christian nation ought to do better than a poor Hindu village in this regard. To that end, we might humbly resolve to resist demagoguery and to remember the poor—even in recession. For if we let “nature” run its course, they will surely bear the brunt of the shortfall.