America on October 12th, 1897 and October 12th, 1997: Assessing the Impact of Economic Development on Vulnerable Populations

By Daria Martin

Primary sources such as articles and editorials can offer insight into the common concerns, issues, and attitudes of the 1890s and 1990s in American culture. Thematic commonalities between the two decades exists when looking at the same month and day one hundred years apart. The major issues documented in both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times on October 12, 1897 and October 12, 1997 differed in context, but shared similarities regarding concerns about economic development and technological innovation. Feature articles from each decade coupled with opinion pieces reveal the underlying fears and anxieties of Americans that transcended the century gap. While the hundred years which separate the article publications demonstrates the shifts in focus of the respective decades, drawing upon the commonalities illuminates certain trends in American culture. Conducting this comparison makes apparent the ways in which economic change and technological innovation produced a sense of fear in the American psyche surrounding the impact of such changes on vulnerable and impoverished populations.

The October 12, 1897 feature article, “Debs and His Scheme” offers a harsh critique of Eugene V. Debs as an agitator promoting the dangerous concept of socialism. The unnamed author of this piece from The Philadelphia Inquirer details the gathering of socialists in the city. The article tells of Debs’ characterization of the 1890s as “an age of invention and of rapidly changing conditions” as well as his “violent den[unciation] the competitive system” (Philadelphia Inquirer). The author is fearful of Debs’ “scheme” to exploit the vulnerability of the desperate working class peoples by giving them false hope of the possibility of an overhaul of the economic system. Debs’ “tirade against against the system” of capitalism was rooted in what he saw as an economic system which increasingly harmed the poor and working classes. Socialist ideas as well as direct labor action fit into what Jane Addams understood as “the proletariat [learning] to say in many languages that ‘the injury of one is the concern of all’” (Addams, p.9). Debs rallied railroad workers in collective action through the American Railway Union, where he believed that “their persistent strivings were toward the ultimate freedom” from bad working conditions (Addams, p. 9). Many people, including Debs and Addams, were attempting to find solutions to and understand the ways in which the rise of monopoly power and poor labor conditions had produced vulnerable populations who felt anger towards their impoverished conditions.

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Rogers, William A. “King Debs.” Harper’s Weekly. 14 July 1894.
This political cartoon from Harper’s Weekly condemned Eugene V. Debs for his role in leading railroad workers during the Pullman Strike in 1894. “King Debs” portrays Debs as the leader of the American Railway Union and instigator of the nationwide Pullman Strikes. This image depicts Debs as responsible for preventing food cars from reaching their destination. Rather than showing Debs as a heroic labor leader, Rogers paints Debs and the American Railway Union as destructive to American society. Debs’ socialist ideas and support of mass labor movements incited fear because they “challenged the code of social ethics” where workers obeyed their bosses and capitalism was revered (Addams). American social ethics in the 1890s were reinforced by the capitalist market economy. As a socialist, Debs was critiqued because it was feared that he his rhetoric would prompt a rebellion against the capitalist system by the working classes.

In the 1997 article, “The New (Old) Politics of the Millennium,” Kevin Phillips reflects on the historical impact of economic downturn on the perceived legitimacy and success of political and governmental institutions. While the context differs from Debs’ concerns in the 1890s, Phillips cites how “economic booms and downturns have been associated with a number of political upheavals–most vividly in the 1890s and 1930s” (Phillips). America witnessed economic downturns with the Panic of 1893 and a recession in early 1990s. The supposed recovery of the 1990s was “weak and unfair to working class Americans” because the government partook in “Wall Street socialism” by bailing out negligent banks and offering corporate subsidies rather than providing welfare to impoverished Americans (Phillips).  Progressive reforms in the 1890s were made possible only because “The Panic of 1893 crystallize[d] public dismay with the Robber Barons, trusts, and Wall Street’s ‘Cross of Gold’” (Phillips). In the new millennium, Phillips ponders whether another so called “popping of [the] speculative bubble” will finally prompt “political reform and electoral realignment” (Phillips). Phillips warns that the “record bull market in stocks” does not reflect prosperity for average working class Americans. Economist Godfrey Hodgson argues that in the new economy of the 1990s, “the biggest winners of all were the top 1%” while “for under average and average earners the experience had been short of catastrophic” (Hodgson, p. 92). Phillips ends his piece by pushing his audience to pay attention to the corruption of money politics which enables those “riding the highest” to prosper while impoverished Americans suffer.

Opinion pieces from each decade also reflect the concern for vulnerable Americans following economic and technological changes. A letter to the editor of The New York Times written by Robert Peele and published on October 12, 1897 entitled “To Make Elevators Safe,” addresses the dangers associated with passenger elevators in New York’s new high rises. Peele cites the possible causes for the accidents: “1. Faulty design. 2. Poor workmanship or lack of care in erection. Breakage or temporary derangement of the apparatus. 4. Careless running by cheap or incompetent attendants” (Peele). Peele is suspicious of the argument that these accidents were not preventable. He compares the safety of his experience working in mine shafts where “although speed and loads are much greater, accidents of any kind [were] of rare occurrence” (Peele). Peele argues that “the owner owes it to the occupants to assure their safety in every way in his power” (Peele).  The owners of the buildings could have prevented accidents by hiring competent builders and attendants, as well as funding the “rigid inspect of machinery, guides and ropes (Peele). Those who died or were injured in elevator accidents almost always included the elevator attendant, who was vulnerable not only to low wages but also victim to incompetence of the builders and lack of oversight by the owner. Peele’s opinion piece reflects how engineering passenger elevators within high rise buildings in New York City was not without danger. This editorial thus serves as evidence that anxieties surrounding technological innovation and economic development were rooted in concerns for those who would be vulnerable to safety oversights.

In the 1990s, a piece from the Soapbox section of the New York Times featured an opinion from an everyday New Yorker, Marka Margolies, who was concerned about how the city’s economic development not only impacted her personally but also harmed the increasing homeless population who had not been the benefactors of the new economic opportunities. Marka Margolies’s sunset view from her NYC apartment was taken away when Donald Trump decided to develop the land between her building and the Hudson River in Riverside South. While Margolies was saddened by the new high rises ruining her view of the sunset, she was also “keenly aware that not long ago, a group of people who had no other place to live had set up homes for themselves…directly underneath where construction was about to begin. They were forcibly removed by the city from their makeshift home” (Margolies). Margolies wonders what happened to the homeless people who were forcibly removed, and was doubtful there would be any apartments for them in Riverside South (Margolies). For Margolies, the Trump development of Riverside South is representative of a larger issue where economic disparity results in increased subjugation of impoverished people. In the 1990s, the trend of economic prosperity for the top 1% coincided with President Clinton blaming poor Americans for their circumstances and making “a systematic overhaul of federal policy that led to the criminalization of the welfare poor.” (Nadasen, p. 3). This Soapbox article reveals how the subjugation of the welfare poor and homeless populations was occurring in tandem with expensive real estate development in the city.

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Applewhite, Scott J. “Bill Clinton Signs Welfare Reform in 1996.” The Atlantic. 1 April 2016.
This photo shows President Bill Clinton smiling at the signing the The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which “ended traditional welfare by turning a federal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), into block grant” (Nasadeen). Bill Clinton joined in a bipartisan effort to help reduce the supposed culture of poverty in America by limiting access to welfare all the while criminalizing the poor through acts such as the Crime Bill. The “culture of poverty” argument was “evidenced by [Clinton’s] racially coded language of dependency and people taking advantage of the system. Stereotypes about women were the foundation of the 1996 welfare reform debate” (Nasadeen). While the state increasingly participated in corporate welfare, or what writer Kevin Phillips describes as “Wall Street Socialism,” the most needy families were demonized and condemned for supposedly mooching off of the system (Phillips).

Works Cited:

Addams, Jane. “A Modern Lear,” Survey 29, no. 5 (November 2, 1912): 131-37.

Applewhite, Scott J. “Bill Clinton Signs Welfare Reform in 1996.”The Atlantic. 1 April 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/04/the-end-of-welfare-as-we-know-it/476322/

“Debs and His Scheme.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 12 Oct. 1897.

Hodgson, Godfrey. “New Economics,” in More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 87-111.

Peele, Robert. “To Make Elevator’s Safe.” The New York Times. 12 Oct. 1897.

Phillips, Kevin. “The New (Old) Politics of the Millenium: History Tells us Money and the Market Will Matter Most.” The New York Times. 12 Oct. 1997.

Nadasen, Premilla.  “How a Democrat Killed Welfare.” Jacobin. Feb 9, 2016.

Rogers, William A. “King Debs.” Harper’s Weekly. 1 July 1894.

 

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