Granville Hicks

IV. Choices and Chances

ONE NIGHT last summer my wife and I were visiting a popular journalist, who also had as guests a British novelist and a sociologist. The journalist started talking about the very rich. "We don't have any idea," he said, "how they live." And he spoke about a millionaire who, on the spur of the moment, invited a dozen guests to have dinner with him on his yacht. "Do you realize," the journalist went on, "that he has to keep a full staff on that yacht every minute, so that, once a fortnight or so, if the whim enters his head, he can take a little trip down the harbor and eat a meal? Think of the thousands of dollars he spends just to have the right to make that choice."

We went on talking about wealth in terms of choices. I know little about the habits of the rich, but the journalist and the novelist told story after story. Finally the journalist's wife spoke up and said, "You know, as I listen to your stories, it strikes me that their wealth doesn't really get them much. They reach the point where they have to spend thousands of dollars to have the right to make one additional choice. Look at the woman you were just speaking of, who has seven houses in different parts of the world and is just building another one. I suppose she'll spend more on that house than any of us will have to spend in his lifetime, and she won't get any good out of it except maybe two or three weeks a year. It reminds me of what I learned in college about the law of diminishing returns."

At this the novelist became philosophical. He talked about the Stoics, and said the only way to increase satisfactions was to diminish desires. He quoted Thoreau.

The sociologist brought us back to reality. "Look here," she said; "we're all talking as if the population of the United States were made up of people as rich as we are or richer. You know perfectly well that all of us belong to the privileged ten percent - or maybe it's five. We talk about the two percent at the top and forget the ninety percent at the bottom. Even our jobless professor here," nodding at me, "is making more than most of the gainfully employed in this country. Why, the amount he gets from reading publishers' manuscripts, which he regards as a sideline, is almost as much as the average wage of industrial workers. It makes me sick to hear persons arguing that, because the rich spend money foolishly, the poor are well off. Stop talking about the choices of the rich and think about the choices of the poor."

Of course she was right, and I knew it - from experience. My boyhood was pretty frugal, and my four years in college were a struggle. I know what it is to breakfast on fifteen cents and lunch on thirty-five in order to have fifty for dinner - and that at a time when prices were higher than they are now. I have often walked three miles to save ten cents subway fare. I can remember when a new suit meant six months' planning, and when having to buy a textbook meant going without desserts, which I loved, for a week.

I told a little of all this. "Come," said the novelist, "it didn't do you a bit of harm."

I admitted that in one respect he was right: in the world as it existed I was not sorry to have experienced what, after all, we had to regard as the common way of life. "Otherwise," I said, "you're quite wrong. I would be the first to admit that many boys get nothing out of college because they're immature, have no sense of responsibility, and can't see the world as it really is. As a teacher, I have been sick at the sight of middle-class parents sacrificing themselves and all their own possibilities of enjoyment and growth so that their sons and daughters might compete with the children of the rich. I am sure that, with things as they are, such boys would be better off if they had to give up a little for the sake of their education.

"But if you think that I got as much out of college as I might have, you are mistaken. I had enough food and a comfortable room and adequate clothes, but the damned worrying! The years in college are naturally an expansive time for a boy. He is not only learning new things; he is making new friends, having new experiences, cultivating new desires. He is interested in sports, in girls, perhaps in the theater and music. Even a studious boy, and God knows I was that, sees more in college than books.

"Now imagine what it is like, when you have all this boiling inside you, to have to think of every penny. I just said that I wanted more than books. Well, much of the time I couldn't even have books. I had to borrow copies from friends or use them in the library. And I liked books and wanted to own them.

"The wonder to me is that I wasn't miserable in college. I wasn't. I did have friends, even girls, though necessarily of the less demanding kind. I saw many plays, and I did not enjoy them the less because I sat in the second balcony. But I never went on parties, for parties always involved unpredictable expenses, and my pleasures had to be carefully budgeted. It seemed to me that I was saying no most of the time."

I was beginning to feel a little self-pity, but the sociologist fixed that. "Remember," she said, "that you had really chosen all this. You didn't have to go to college. A bright boy like you could have got a job that would have paid for dances and parties and all the rest."

"But then," said the journalist's wife, "he'd have had no future."

"Exactly. I mean, whether that's true or not, it's what he would have thought. All through those bad years in college he believed - he knew - he was going to escape from his little hardships, and that made them endurable. Suppose there had been no chance of escape, as there seems to be none for millions who face major hardships every day of their lives."

And that is how we came to discuss the cruel choices that poverty forces upon millions, instead of discussing the luxurious choices for which the infinitesimal minority pays such huge sums.

Paul De Kruif in Why Keep Them Alive? quotes from a pamphlet called "Emergency Nutrition," by Professor Henry C. Sherman. This pamphlet answers a simple question. What should a mother do when she has to choose between milk and bread for her children? "Should she crowd milk out because a penny spent for bread goes further to still the pangs of hunger?" No, Professor Sherman says, milk is more important. It is less filling, but more nutritive. It will keep a child alive. Given milk and a little bread, a baby can not only live but even, after a fashion, grow.

That is a choice we wouldn't like to have to make. Milk or bread. Milk or a little green vegetable. Bread or a taste of meat. Yet hundreds of thousands of mothers have to make such choices every single day. In 1935 a New York newspaper reported: "One hundred and thirty-five thousand pupils in New York City's elementary schools are so weak from malnutrition that they cannot profit by attendance in regular classes." One hundred and thirty-five thousand in New York alone. How many throughout the country? Six million, at least, according to the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. Six million in 1930, before the depression really got started. Probably eight or ten million when it was at its worst.

Mr. De Kruif has told us of another choice that the poor have to make. Down South the poor eat meat (sow belly and fat back), meal, and molasses - and the children die of pellagra. For ten years the causes and cure of pellagra have been known. In the South the Red Cross has distributed yeast, which will cure it, and seeds to grow the green stuff that will prevent it. Pellagra is on the way out.

But, Mr. De Kruif warns us, if prosperity returns, pellagra may return too. It sounds fantastic, but here is the explanation. If there is a boom in cotton or tobacco, farmers will want, or will be compelled by the owners, to use all their land for the profit-making crops. The little patches of green vegetables will disappear.

That would be stupid, you say. Of course. But there's a choice being made. Cotton means money, and money means clothes, tools, house improvements, medicine. All of us, I am sure, would be too wise to give pellagra a chance. But we have never had to make a choice like that. We can have green vegetables and enough money for daily expenses.

Some time ago I got hold of a little leaflet issued by the United States Government, containing two family food budgets, one a restricted diet for emergency use and the other called "an adequate diet at minimum cost." I showed it to my mother and my wife, and we went into executive session. The first column gave a diet for two adults, the second for two adults and a child. Adding these together gives the total for a family our size: four adults and one child.

"Milk," I said, "two quarts a day. That isn't bad."

"We average at least two quarts and a pint. You know how much of the time we get three quarts. And look -"

"Yes, I know. Milk is the one thing the budget really allows for. The leaflet says one-third of the food money is to be spent for milk and cheese. If we went on that basis, we'd have between forty and fifty cents a day to spend for everything else."

"We get about four dozen eggs a week."

"This budget allows for nine."

"Nine dozen?"

"Nine eggs. And two pounds and a half of lean meat and fish."

"What did we have this week? A leg of lamb on Sunday, a little over four pounds. That did for Monday too. A pound and a half of sausages on Tuesday. A pound and a half of pork chops on Wednesday. Then we had oyster stew Wednesday night - a pint of oysters. A pound and a half of hamburg Thursday. A pound and a half of fillet of haddock today. Tomorrow we'll have beans, of course, at night; so maybe I'll have salmon loaf for lunch."

"Say twelve pounds of meat and fish this week."

"What about vegetables?"

I examine the chart. "We're allowed fifteen pounds of potatoes."

"A peck. That's all right."

"Two pounds and a half of dried beans and peas."

"I bake about a pound and a half of beans Saturdays."

"Four No. 2 cans of tomatoes."

"That's two quarts. We must use pretty nearly two quarts of our own tomatoes a week. I canned forty-three quarts, and that will last us well into the winter."

"And we use about two quarts of tomato juice besides."

"Then we come to leafy, yellow-colored, and green-colored vegetables - five pounds."

"This week we've had four pounds of squash, two pounds of carrots, a pound and a half of spinach, two pounds of string beans, two pounds of peas, a head of cauliflower, and a head of lettuce. Say thirteen pounds."

"And in summer we have fresh corn and tomatoes and beans and carrots and the rest out of our own garden."

"Dried fruit -- one pound."

"We don't have much, thank goodness; prunes and apricots once in a while."

"Would raisins count? We use nearly a pound a week."

My daughter breaks in. "You mean I do."

"Four pounds of other vegetables and fruits."

"I get a dozen oranges, three to six lemons. That's all."

"Oh, apples. And look at the grapes we got last fall when we were making jelly and conserve."

"And for that matter, the currants we picked, and the blueberries. All the canning we do has to count somewhere."

"Well, I'll go on. Ten loaves of bread and fifteen pounds of assorted cereals."

"That's more than we use."

"You have to fill up on something."

"A pound of butter or margarine."

"We use two pounds or more of good country butter."

"Three and a quarter pounds of lard, oils, salt pork, bacon."

"We don't use quite that."

"Four pounds of sugar."

"We use five."

"More than that, if you average in what we use in canning time."

"A pint of syrup."

"We don't use that."

"But we do have candy once in a while."

"A pound of cheese."

"More than we use."

"A pound of coffee."

"We use two pounds."

"A quarter of a pound of tea."


"A quarter of a pound of cocoa."


"That's all."

"We use more milk, five times as many eggs, five times as much meat and fish, more than twice as many vegetables. To say nothing of a lot of extras."

My daughter breaks in again: "I guess we live pretty well."

Her grandmother sighs. "I never thought we were hearty eaters. My father ate three eggs for breakfast every morning. And Dad's father had a piece of beefsteak three or four mornings a week. Well, this leaflet says that the diets are for emergency use only."

But what is an emergency? In 1929, before the depression began, at least one out of every eight families in the United States was living on this emergency diet. In 1932 and 1933 probably one-third or more of the people in the United States had no more and no better food than this.

Last July, Harry Hopkins, Federal Works Progress Administrator, announced, as a result of a careful study, that a family of four must have an income of $982 to exist on an "emergency" level in New York City. We know that a quarter of the families in New York had less than $1,000. No doubt many of these enjoyed a more ample diet than that I have described, but obviously their extra food was purchased by sacrifices elsewhere.

A maintenance budget, according to Mr. Hopkins, would come to $1,375 in New York. "The higher standard," he stated, "measures only the amount required for basic maintenance, without provision for saving, while the lower is frankly an emergency level, insufficient to maintain health and physical efficiency for any considerable period of time."

On a maintenance budget a family of four could live in a four or five room flat, equipped with gas, electricity, an icebox, and a radio. They could read a daily newspaper, go to the movies once a week, and enjoy "an adequate diet at minimum cost." They could have suitable clothes for their daily work and be decently clad on Sundays. The man could carry a small insurance policy, and there would be enough for dental and medical care - if there were no emergencies.

We know that this maintenance budget would, even before the recession, have seemed paradise to more than a third of all the families in the country. Yet it is well below what the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics calls an adequate budget. The adequate budget - though scarcely providing for a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot - is somewhere near to what we have in mind when we talk about an American standard of living. At present prices it would cost about $1,900 in New York City, $2,100 in Chicago, $2,250 in Los Angeles, nearly $2,300 in San Francisco. It is out of the reach of considerably more than half of the people of the United States.

If you belonged to one of the ten million families whose incomes fall below Mr. Hopkins' maintenance level, how would you choose your indecencies? Would you live in a crowded, badly-lighted, badly-ventilated flat in order to have almost as much food as your family needs, or would you give your children privacy and sunlight and fresh air but deprive them of the fruit and milk and meat you know they need? Would you send them to school with their stomachs only half-full or with their feet only half-shod?

If the people who have to make such choices were all brought together in one city or one state, and the rest of us had to go and look at them, if we had to walk through street after street of dingy tenements, looking at thousands of undernourished children, if these things were brought squarely under our noses, we might be moved. If we were told that not a single person in all New England had, day in and day out, enough to eat, we'd start a campaign to feed New England. If we learned that, because of some calamity, not a person west of the Rockies had a decent living standard, we'd raise millions of dollars to help them.

But the trouble is that we don't see. Our lives are so arranged that we don't have to see. You either don't go near the slum areas of your city, or, if you do, your mind is full of the engagement you have to keep or the shopping you have to do or the business you are going to or escaping from. And if your eye sees the undernourished, poorly dressed children on the steps of some dingy hovel, your mind assures you that this is exceptional, that these people are naturally shiftless, that they are perfectly satisfied to live this way.

The families that have enough for decency but not enough for comfort aren't so badly off, of course, but they too have their choices to make, and not very comfortable choices. From the time I was seven until I went to college I lived in such a family. Because of my mother's good management, we had enough to eat and enough to wear, and we lived in a home that, in spite of its lacking some modern conveniences, was perfectly comfortable. But there wasn't enough left over for dental care. I don't know whether my mother and father ever made a conscious choice, but they were faced with this decision: should my older sister go to high school and normal school, or should we have our teeth taken care of? My sister got her education, which was right, but the teeth, as I can testify, suffered.

This is a trivial example of the kind of choice that persons below the comfort level have to make. Fortunately, we were never confronted with a choice on a more serious level. Many persons are. I pick up one of my weekly magazines and read about the magnificent new cures that science is discovering. Surgeons can now operate to relieve heart disease. There is a short-wave treatment for sinus infections, a rest and starvation treatment for coronary thrombosis, an improved type of insulin, new developments in fever therapy. De Kruif has told us about the effect of sunshine on rheumatic heart disease and the use of artificial pneumothorax, the collapsing of the affected lung, in tuberculosis.

Nothing can be more encouraging than the progress of medicine, but - it costs money. Suppose you had a son who had gone to work and was bringing a little much-needed money into the home. Suppose he developed tuberculosis. The pneumothorax treatment would save him, but he would have to lie in bed, under a doctor's care, for six months or a year. What would you do?

Well, you say, there is such a thing as charity. All right. But first you must overcome your American pride and your American prejudice against institutions. Then you must find a charity clinic or hospital that practices the best methods, and in most of the country that won't be easy. And once you find the institution, you'll be lucky if there isn't a waiting list.

It isn't so easy as it sounds. But even if you are lucky and secure for your son the treatment he needs, there will still be problems. His illness has reduced the family income, and yet, even in the best institutions, there are extra expenses. When he comes out, cured, thank heaven, he will still have to have rest and special food. What items in the family budget are to be slashed? Meals for the other children? The clothing your husband needs if he is to keep healthy on his job? Or will you cut the rent by crowding into a couple of rooms?

On every level except the wealthiest, the problem of medical care, unless one is uncommonly lucky, comes close to insolubility. We don't have to guess about this: we know. Here are the ten million families whose incomes are below the maintenance level. In this group twice as many persons as in the rest of the population are laid up for periods of a week or more. Nearly twice as many have chronic diseases. For every day that a person with an income of over $3,000 is ill, a person with an income of less than $1,000 is ill three.

But who keeps the doctors busy, the comfortably well-to-do or the poor? The Committee on the Costs of Medical Care reports that, of the families it surveyed, forty-seven percent of those whose income was under $1,200 received no medical, dental, or eye care. The same was true of forty-two percent of those whose incomes ranged from $1,200 to $2,000. From $2,000 to $3,000 the percentage dropped to thirty-seven percent. Of those with incomes over $10,000 all but fourteen percent received some sort of attention from doctors.

The effect of insufficient food, bad housing, bad working conditions, and inadequate medical care is perfectly clear. There are ten major diseases that cause three-fourths of all the deaths in the United States. Josephine Roche, then Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, told the American Public Health Association last October that the death rate from these diseases is twice as high among the poorer one-third of the American population as it is among the others. President Hoover's Research Committee on Social Trends said: "Until a point is reached where the death rate does not vary according to income, it seems paradoxical to claim that wage earners are receiving a living wage."

Anyone can see how it works. The wealthier families have nourishing food and healthy homes. Their work is safe and done under pleasant conditions. They are regularly under the care of doctors, and, if they happen to fall ill, they are promptly given the best treatment. Is it any wonder that they have only half as much disease and are sick only one-third as much of the time?

Take, for instance, the matter of the job. Every once in a while, it is true, a businessman or a lawyer or a doctor dies of heart disease. But suppose you were a miner, had always earned your living as a miner, knew nothing but mining, lived in a region in which few other jobs were available. Now one out of four anthracite miners in Pennsylvania has silicosis, which they call miners' asthma, and nine out of ten get it if they stay in the mines for twenty-five years. There are at least a million people in the United States working in industries in which there is a danger of silicosis. Any one of these million is likely, within the next five or ten years, to find that he is short of breath when he does heavy work. If an X-ray is taken, it will show that his lungs are pitted with small scars. In time, if he does not leave his job, he will have to gasp more and more frantically for breath, until at last he is laid off, to succumb to tuberculosis or heart disease.

Or perhaps you are working for the Du Ponts, making Zerone, an anti-freeze for automobile radiators. Zerone is a commercial name for methanol or synthetic wood alcohol, a substance with which two million workers, employed in sixty different industries, come in contact. It can be absorbed through the skin or through the lungs, and it causes blindness and general physical decay.

Or perhaps you work in a rubber factory and are exposed to benzol, lead, carbon disulphide, or naphtha poisoning. Or perhaps it is only lead poisoning that threatens you, as it threatens thousands of automobile workers. There are seven hundred different occupations in the United States in which industrial poisons are a danger. To these poisons can be traced innumerable deaths from tuberculosis, cerebral hemorrhage, Bright's disease, and organic heart disease.

And then there are industrial accidents, steadily on the increase. There were 16,000 deaths caused by industrial accidents in 1935, and 18,000 in 1936. Eighteen thousand deaths, 70,000 injuries resulting in permanent disability, and 1,460,000 resulting in temporary disability. Accidents are now compensated for in all but two states - Arkansas and Mississippi - but by no means all employments are included, and compensation is usually inadequate and often hard to get.

Over forty million people improperly housed. Forty to fifty million with less food than they want, and at least ten million with less than health demands. These same people constantly exposed to disease, because of their surroundings, because of their jobs. These people hit by disease twice as hard as their more fortunate fellow-citizens. These people seeing their children grow up with little chance of advanced education. (In the University of Minnesota there is only one student from a laborer's family for every sixteen hundred adult laborers, but there is one child of a businessman for every twenty-four businessmen in the state.) Sometimes with little chance of more than a rudimentary education. (In seven states of the South $38 a year is spent for the schooling of a white child, and about $10 a year for the schooling of a Negro.) Often exposed to the most dangerous influences. (A child brought up in a New York City slum block is twice as likely to find his way into a criminal court as a child from a better part of the city.)

President Roosevelt talks about one-third of the nation being ill-housed, ill-fed, and ill-clad. It would perhaps be accurate to say that more than one-half of the nation is not so well-housed or fed or clad as it ought to be, and that one-quarter of the nation lives in slums and hovels, does not eat well enough to maintain health over any considerable period of time, has inadequate clothing, education, medical care.

You would think these ten million families would walk up and down in front of our comfortable houses, making us look at them, but they don't. They go about their work, when they have any, or stay uncomplainingly in their miserable homes. You'd think the cough-racked silicosis victims and the sharecroppers with their skeleton children would parade in the streets of the capital. But they choose to die in the semi-privacy of their tenements and their cabins.

Because these ten million families don't complain, we ignore them, and, if we have to admit their existence, we say they're morons, and wouldn't appreciate better conditions if they had them. It isn't true, and we really know it isn't. It is easy to say that the poor ought to make their wants known, but I have seen half a hundred hunger-marchers with their heads cracked opened by policemen's clubs, simply because they tried to call their needs to the attention of the legislators of New York State. The governmental machinery that protects us and our property protects our minds as well, keeps from them the knowledge that might prove disturbing. Neither the press nor the radio is open to the poor, and when they take to the streets they are met with clubs.

Force helps to keep the poor from complaining, and sometimes they fall into will-less, purposeless, lifeless docility. We see some of the docile ones, and we call them stupid. If we were wise, we would recognize that they are an indictment of our civilization. They are men and women who have been so reduced by years of undernourishment, so battered by jobs beyond their strength, so terrified by the threat of unemployment, so utterly robbed of confidence and hope, that they have given up the battle. These are the lovable poor that novelists like to write about, grateful for a charitable crust, keeping their own place. Or they are the improvident poor, also dear to fiction writers because they are so quaint and demonstrate so clearly that their poverty is their own fault.

We like to believe that their attitudes are the cause of their poverty, but of course it is the other way round. My ten-year old daughter can understand that. She noticed some time ago that some of the poorest children in the country school she goes to are also the stupidest. And she saw at once that they are stupid because they are poor, because they don't have the kind of food that makes energy, because their parents haven't the time or the ability to help them, because they are worried and harassed.

If she can get that, why can't we? Is it because she has imagination enough to put herself in the place of these children and visualize what their lives must be like?

If our imaginations weren't atrophied, we would see the docile poor not only as an occasion for pity but also as a challenge to our common sense and our patriotism. For the deterioration of these human beings, quite apart from its tragic aspects, represents an incalculable waste. A manufacturer knows well enough how to estimate the economic value of a man, but we do not bother to calculate social value. Only the most shiftless of farmers would leave a diseased herd of cows untended or would permit his horses to starve, but we make no attempt to check the decay of human resources.

All the statistics about undernourishment, bad housing, and unnecessary disease represent personal tragedies. They also represent social waste. Here is a manufacturer. Nearly a quarter of his machinery is not in use, and he is allowing it to be destroyed by rust. Another quarter is in operation, but it is not being properly tended to, and it will wear out much sooner than is necessary. The remainder is more or less adequately looked after, though, as a matter of fact, only a small proportion is treated in accordance with the most advanced technological knowledge. The manufacturer is obviously a disgrace to a land that prides itself on its efficiency.

Human beings, however, aren't machines. They don't, as a rule, just let themselves lapse into uselessness. It is very often pointed out, by apologists for our present way of doing things, that many of the poor are healthy and many are happy. It is true. More than that, most of them have not slumped into good-natured hopelessness or sullen despair. I know a foundryman who is a serious Socialist and a careful student of Karl Marx, an electrical worker who devotes four or five nights a week to the union in which he is a minor official, a collar factory operative who attends classes at the Y.W.C.A., a boy who digs ditches on a W.P.A. project in the daytime and writes poetry at night.

The courage of the working class is one of the things that make me like America, but at the same time it makes me realize with what fatuous irresponsibility we are squandering our human resources. Instead of these men and women having the best possible chance to develop their talents, their lives are so difficult that many of them are beaten into dullness and most fall far short of their potentialities.

We used to be reckless in our waste of our natural resources, but we have begun to learn better, and we regret the thoughtlessness of our ancestors. Our children will regret and condemn and marvel at our indifference to human waste.

You may have noticed that every few days there is an item in the papers about somebody's committing suicide because he didn't have a job or a home and was hungry and desperate. Occasionally a man kills himself and his wife and children too. Well, that's one choice, but what will our descendants think of a society that made it a reasonable alternative?