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  • Mj Pettengill

Meat and Potatoes: Then and Now


The social welfare system as we know it, has evolved from the early days in the mid-nineteenth century, when the shifting of responsibility for the poor transferred from local to county and then to the state. The ongoing burden of caring for the poor was greatly alleviated when (wealthy) churches and fraternal organizations stepped up to the plate. Instead of dumping the poor, feeble minded, elderly, and low level criminals together in the almshouses and poor farms, orphanages and nursing homes for the old emerged.

This transformation seemed natural, but all it did was transfer the heavy, ever growing load from one shoulder to the other. There is no purpose in listing all of the woes of this tragically flawed system. However, there is one thing that remains certain throughout time. The system is corrupt. The irony of working on the “Poor Farm” is that the inmates were often malnourished, hungry, and overworked.

The effectiveness of the “Poor Farms” is that the people who were sentenced to poverty — unable to pay their debts — actually cultivated the land. They did something productive for a (often leaky) roof over their heads, meals lacking in nourishment, and to surrender all of their possessions. There was something tangible at the end of a season, which was the result of their back-breaking labor. Unfortunately, corruption and abuse of power caused this particular public farm system to collapse, leading to the rampant use, misuse, and abuse of food stamps.

The harvests from “Poor Farms” were not limited to crops alone; I know that the Carroll County Farm also managed, cut, and sold firewood. This pooling together of collective resources could offer a way to recover from our current lack thereof. Land, once abundant with riches indigenous to the region, now lies in waste.

Currently, a large percentage of the population cannot afford to heat their homes and must rely on “Fuel Assistance,” which does not usually meet the needs of genuine family requirements. Even if firewood was still available [from the County Farms], most landlords are unable to rent homes and apartments with wood stoves; it is a high risk insurance liability and many low income families do not own a home.

The problem facing many underprivileged families is that the system is designed to keep them down. The deck is stacked, and it is almost impossible for them to claw their way out of poverty. The very system that supports them, has one hand tossing a penny and scarred potato at them while the other is picking at their empty pockets for possible table scraps. Any gain that is made is a penalty, hence the system continues on like a scruffy hamster on an old, rusted wheel.

If a welfare recipient shows any signs of recovery — whether it be the slightest increase in income, temporary or not — the rug is ripped out from under her feet. This fear and uncertainty instills a sense of urgency and desperation. The person in danger of losing assistance clings tighter, seeking methods to maintain benefits and security. This also leads to dishonesty and fleecing the system. So many people know all of the tricks of staying in the system to the point of having more children, avoiding employment, working under the table, etc. There is very little, if any, authentic incentive to actually extricate oneself from the system, which is largely based on threats and apathy. It doesn’t work. In order for people to have the desire to better themselves, positive reinforcement and integrity in the system is necessary. Both are glaringly absent.

The time has come to reinstitute and organize local, county, and state farms, overseeing the production of our natural resources and industry, nurturing the earth and her people to live harmoniously. This may offer opportunities for those who do not have skills or resources, the ability to learn and contribute to their own families and the community as a whole. This will work if there are systems in place ensuring that the “big bosses” do not skim off of the top to the point where there is little or nothing in the bottom of the barrel, leaving all of the labor and none of the fruits for the laborers.

How tragic it was that those who tilled the soil and worked in relentless conditions returned from the fields to a bowl of warm, watery gruel, while those whose efforts consisted of carrying a heavy, pointed stick for prodding them like cattle — ate like kings.

The iron bell called us for taking food. I pushed the bark into her hand. We walked to the house. The ones whose laughter was without reason and whose words had no meaning went before us. She placed the bark in her yellow dress before we sat together with a bowl of scalded milk, a piece of boiled potato and a brown crust. – Nellie Baldwin September 15, 1872.

We are beyond nudging at this point. We must push to work together with integrity to nurture, respond, and love the earth and her inhabitants, and rejoice in her abundance. If this unfolds, restoring honor and balance is once again attainable. The time to call for natural justice, logic, and peace is long overdue.



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