What Happens When Poverty Exists In the Valley of Plenty?



Poverty in the Valley of Plenty is a documentary film that then California Congressman Richard Nixon and growers in the San Joaquin successfully sued to have banned for defamation. It was about the working conditions that early post-WWII farmworkers still suffered under. I was able to show a banned copy of the film to the United Farmworkers of America that had been produced by the Hollywood trade unions when I was a member of the UFW

In 1948, the National Farm Labor Union and Hollywood filmmakers who hated the virulently anti-union big farm grower DiGiorgio Fruit, the largest grape, plum, and pear grower in the world, made the film titled Poverty in the Valley of Plenty to expose the terrible conditions of the farmers. In 1947, DiGiorgio responded to a strike by firing all the strikers and replacing them with a combination of Filipinos, undocumented workers, and migrants coming to the U.S. through the Bracero Program. The last of these was an illegal move against the agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that explicitly stated braceros were not to be used as strikebreakers. The unions hated DiGiorgio so much that they waived all their wage and hour contracts to get the film made.

The conditions of farmworkers in the 1950s were such as portrayed in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath during the Great Depression The film portrayed poor farmers from the Dustbowl that could only find work in California’s crop-filled valleys—under conditions that aren’t much different from many of today’s lower income workers.

We have today as much of a problem for at least 25 percent of working Americans that earn no more than the poverty rate for a family of four–$25,100/year in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Who are they? Many are single-adult families with children—mostly mothers barely making ends meet in menial jobs. The Oxford economist Robert Allen recently estimated needs-based absolute poverty lines for rich countries that are designed to match more accurately the $1.90 line for poor countries, and $4 a day is around the middle of his estimates. When we compare absolute poverty in the United States with absolute poverty in India, or other poor countries, we should be using $4 in the United States and $1.90 in India.

“Once we do this, there are 5.3 million Americans who are absolutely poor by global standards. This is a small number compared with the one for India, for example, but it is more than in Sierra Leone (3.2 million) or Nepal (2.5 million), about the same as in Senegal (5.3 million) and only one-third less than in Angola (7.4 million). Pakistan (12.7 million) has twice as many poor people as the United States, and Ethiopia about four times as many.”

Author Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone), in his book “Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis,” looks at another angle: the way income inequality is trickling down to our public education system.

Putnam points out that Americans of different classes and educational backgrounds are increasingly living apart from each other: either in educated, wealthy enclaves or the inverse—poverty again in the valley of plenty. That has a negative and stratifying effect on schools, particularly on schools in poor areas.

“What we know very well is that when rich kids go to school, in their backpack they bring their parents’ aspirations, their parents’ resources, their parents’ trips to France, their allusions to Proust or whatever, and that benefits all the kids in town,” Putnam said..”

“When poor kids go to school, they’re bringing in their backpack gang violence—even if they’re not personally involved—they’re coming from very poor neighborhoods, they bring disarray from home, hunger at home, and those factors affect everyone else,” he continued in a PBS interview on TV interview.

The Nation Magazine cites a recent Education Law Center and Rutgers Graduate School of Education report that exposes the tremendous inequality in educational opportunities of elementary school students within wealthy and poor school districts and states. It highlights Professor Putnam’s central thesis; by worsening the the chances of success of lower-income children; already hindered living in poor neighborhoods within dysfunctional family structures; it hurts all Americans.

Putnam cites the findings of Clive Belfield, an associate professor of economics at Queens College, City University of New York: “The aggregate lifetime burden of failure to face the woes of poor youth is $1.59 trillion for taxpayers and $4.75 trillion for the larger society in lost earnings, lower economic growth and lower tax revenue beyond direct costs in welfare.”

An inadequately educated public diminishes the chances democracy itself will survive, as well .

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of PopularEconomics.com, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly and The Huffington Post
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