Sunday, January 31, 2010

The People of the Abyss

What Jacob Riis did for New York City with his photos of tenements, Jack London did for London with his book, The People of the Abyss. The abyss that he referred to was the squalid East End of London, where the poorest of the poor lived and died.

All of the horrors are there, described not by a dispassionate historian keeping a professional distance in his reporting, but in eyewitness accounts of and interviews with people living in appalling conditions.

What I found most horrifying about this book is that so many things haven’t changed since it was written at the turn of the last century. His descriptions of homeless people forced by the police to literally walk all night due to a law which forbade sleeping in public places brought to mind the sweeps done in our own cities, forcing the homeless off the streets and out of our sight.

Healthcare was an issue then just as it is now. Families were forced into poverty and sometimes starvation when the husband, the main breadwinner, was injured, became ill or died. The majority of bankruptcies in our own time are caused by overwhelming medical bills.

More than a century ago when this book was written, when a man was out of work due to illness or injury, his wife was unable to adequately support the family because the only jobs open to her paid too little. Sadly, in our own time, women are still not able to adequately provide for their families on their own because they are paid, on average, 70 cents for every dollar a man earns doing the same job. A statistic that should outrage everyone (but strangely doesn’t) is that post-divorce, children slide down the economic scale, sometimes into poverty thanks to their mothers’ inability to earn a living comparable to their fathers who actually ascend the economic ladder post-divorce due their higher earning power.

The cost of housing, rents equal to half their income, brings to mind the mortgage crisis we are suffering today. As the cost of housing during the last real estate bubble, reached stratospheric levels, families were forced to pay more and more of their income for housing, leaving little to actually live on. All it takes is a job loss or catastrophic illness for them to find themselves on the street as the banks foreclose on their homes. Their counterparts a century ago faced a similar fate for the same reasons. Job loss or illness resulted in the loss of the tiny rooms that they rented.

Yet for all the similarities, there are important differences. We have laws governing the workplace and a social safety net that prevents the worst of the gruesome results of illness and unemployment described in this book. Laws about workplace safety and working hours prevent employers from exploiting their workers. Unemployment insurance replaces a portion of lost wages. Food stamps and free or reduced cost meals in schools stave off starvation.

We have come a long way since 1902. After reading this book, I realized that we still have a long way to go.

Review copy courtesy of Hesperus Press Limited.

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