The Souls of the People

Photo by Dorothea Lange, Edison, California, 1940: “Young migratory mother, originally from Texas. On the day before the photograph was made she and her husband traveled 35 miles each way to pick peas. They worked 5 hours each and together earned $2.25. They have two young children...Live in auto camp.” Bureau of Agricultural Economics series on agricultural "Community Stability and Instability." National Archives. 
[Introduction to The Souls of the People, a forthcoming sixteen-part series on economics and inequality]


Even in wealthy countries, notably the United States,1 the poor suffer much more than the wealthy from private debt,2 incarceration,3 the inability to pay for healthcare,4 access to- and outcomes of education,5 have little recourse to workplace bullying6 and sexual harassment,7 worse consequences from substance abuse,8 9 suffer more domestic abuse,10 depression and mental illness,11 suicide,12 homelessness,13 exposure to crime,14 exposure to pollution,15 insecurity, stress and pain,16 and related problems. Many of these problems are getting still worse for the poor, as well as for the middle class as some sink into poverty.17 18 19

Besides these life-changing issues the “little” things also build to weigh down the poor, again notably in the United States. The working poor, if hired,20 are nickel-and-dimed,21 suffer ever more small miseries22 that “like small debts, hit us in so many places, and meet us at so many turns and corners, that what they want in weight, they make up in number” (Kipling; see for example Hard Work, Hard Lives23).

Fines and fees that are of little consequence to the wealthy are onerous to the poor, and essentially criminalize poverty. In 2019 “53 million Americans between the ages of 18 to 64—accounting for 44% of all workers—qualify as ‘low-wage.’ Their median hourly wages are $10.22, and median annual earnings are about $18,000.” (2019)24 Fines and fees can and do send these working poor into a downward spiral.25 26 27

The “spiral of inequality” that Paul Krugman could write about in 199628 has only gotten worse.29 The working poor are losing faith in the system.30 The middle class is indeed shrinking and upward mobility out of poverty decreasing.31 32 And all the while the wealthy hide their assets,33 use law to enrich themselves further,34 protected by the courts or better served by them,35 36 even by the supreme court.37 38

This sixteen-part series, The Souls of the People, will explore these issues and the ideas and economics behind them. The values, origins, economics and philosophy behind the call to “cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” (Norquist). The creation of think tanks specifically to provide a pseudo-intellectual foundation for inequality, and that along with media convince the middle class to vote against their own interests. The rise, reasons for, and effect of beliefs that markets without law allow for full employment and that wage laws cause unemployment. That competition alone can bring about good working conditions. The rejection of progressive taxes, and of the right to avail ourselves of the power and resources of the country through organizing public goods. And most importantly, how all of these are maintained by laws that impoverish the powerless and enrich the powerful, and thus are self-perpetuating. Yet if the laws don’t change, inequality will worsen. If inequality worsens, the laws won’t change. It is hard to know where to start.

And all the while “in the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling.”

The souls of the people
The most fatal ailment
Ill fares the land

So long as you are happy
What we yearn to be
The sane and beautiful

The sum of what we have been
A little world made cunningly
Like a sinking star

The cries of the harvesters
The earth with its starkness
Written in blood

To do and die
In this fateful hour
So that we may fear less
The rags of time


Notes & References

Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath took its title from Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published in 1862:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on

which in turn is an allusion to The Book of Revelation 14:19-20:

So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth, and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God.


[1] America’s Poor Are Worse Off Than Elsewhere. 2021.

[2] The Private Debt Crisis. 2016. Richard Vague, Democracy, Fall, 42.

[3] Connections Among Poverty, Incarceration, And Inequality. 2020. Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisonsin-Madison.

[4] Americans Near Poverty Line Face Significant Gap in Health Care Coverage, May Forego Essential Health Care. 2021. Skylar Kenney. Pharmacy Times, April 9.

[5] The impact of poverty on educational outcomes for children. 2007. Ferguson, H., Bovaird, S., & Mueller, M. Paediatrics & child health, 12(8), 701–706.

[6] Low-Wage Workers and Bullying in the Workplace: How Current Workplace Harassment Law Makes the Most Vulnerable Invisible. 2017. E. Christine Reyes Loya, Hastings International and Comparative Law Review, vol. 40 no. 2.

[7] Low-Wage Workers Aren’t Getting Justice for Sexual Harassment. 2017. Alana Semuels, The Atlantic, Dec. 27.

[8] Understanding the Relationship Between Poverty and Addiction. 2018. St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, June 18th.

[9] Addiction And Low-Income Americans. 2021. Addiction Center.

[10] Moving Families Out of Poverty: Domestic Violence and Poverty. 2001. Deborah Satyanathan and Anna Pollack, Michigan Family Impact Seminars Briefing Report No. 2001-2.

[11] Poverty, depression, and anxiety: Causal evidence and mechanisms. 2020. Matthew Ridley et al, Science Vol 370, Issue 6522.

[12] Poverty may have a greater effect on suicide rates than do unemployment or foreclosures. 2016. UCLA Newsroom, Nov. 16.

[13] HUD: Growth Of Homelessness During 2020 Was ‘Devastating,’ Even Before The Pandemic. 2021. Pam Fessler, NPR.

[14] Urban Poverty and Neighborhood Effects on Crime: Incorporating Spatial and Network Perspectives. 2014. Corina Graif, Andrew S. Gladfelter, Stephen A. Matthews, Sociology Compass Vol. 8, Issue 9 pp. 1140-1155.

[15] How and why are the poorest people most likely to have exposure to toxins? 2021. Medical News Today.

[16] The high costs of being poor in America: Stress, pain, and worry. 2015. Carol Graham, Brookings, February 19.

[17] The Pandemic Stalls Growth in the Global Middle Class, Pushes Poverty Up Sharply. 2021. Rakesh Kochhar, Pew Research Center.

[18] 8 Million Have Slipped Into Poverty Since May as Federal Aid Has Dried Up. 2020. Jason DeParle, New York Times, Oct. 15.

[19] Poverty In America: Economic Realities Of Struggling Families. 2019. Hearing Before The Committee On The Budget, House Of Representatives, June 19.

[20] Concentrated Poverty and the Disconnect Between Jobs and Workers. 2019. David Neumark, EconoFact- The Fletcher School, Tufts University, Jan. 22.

[21] Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. 2001. Barbara Ehrenreich. Metropolitan/Henry Holt.

[22] Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. 2018. James Bloodworth, Atlantic Books.

[23] Hard Work, Hard Lives: Survey Exposes Harsh Reality Faced by Low-Wage Workers in the US. 2013. Oxfam America.

[24] Low-wage work is more pervasive than you think, and there aren’t enough “good jobs” to go around. 2019. Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman, Brookings, Nov. 21.

[25] The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines. 2019. Noah Atchison and Michael Crowley, Brennan Center for Justice, Nov. 21.

[26] Fees and Fines: The Criminalization of Poverty. 2019. Kiren Jahangeer, American Bar Association.

[27] Fines and fees are a pound of flesh for poor people. 2021. Alexes Harris, Seattle Times, Feb. 25.

[28] The Spiral of Inequality. 1996. Paul Krugman, Mother Jones, Nov/Dec.

[29] Trends in income and wealth inequality. 2020. Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Ruth Igielnik and Rakesh Kochhar, Pew Research Center.

[30] Survey Shows People No Longer Believe Working Hard Will Lead To A Better Life. 2021. InsiderMag summary of the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020.

[31] The costs of inequality: Increasingly, it’s the rich and the rest. 2016. Christina Pazzanese, The Harvard Gazette, Feb, 8.

[32] Squeezing the middle class: Income trajectories from 1967 to 2016. 2020. Stephen Rose, Brookings, Aug, 10.

[33] How the Rich Hide Their Assets. Accessed August, 2021. Ad and discussion for Estate Street Partners, LLC.

[34] How Wealthy People Use the Government to Enrich Themselves. 2017. Jesse Singal, New York Magazine, Dec. 28.

[35] The rich get richer and the poor get prison : ideology, class, and criminal justice. 2010 (9th ed.). Jeffrey H Reiman and Paul Leighton, Allyn & Bacon.

[36] The Importance of Litigant Wealth. 2010. Albert Yoon,, 59 DePaul Law Review 59:2.

[37] How the Supreme Court Favors the Rich and Powerful. 2020. Adam Cohen. Time, March 3; adapted from Cohen’s Supreme Inequality (2020), Penguin Press.

[38] A Court for the One Percent: How the Supreme Court Contributes to Economic Inequality. 2014. Michele Gilman, Utah Law Review, vol. 2014 no. 3.

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