In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, miners in the Pocono Mountains and other coal-rich regions often lived in company towns, built around the site of a mine. They paid their rent to their employer, who built and owned all houses in the town, just as they bought their groceries, clothing, and other provisions from company stores.
In many cases these purchases were on credit rather than cash, taken as advance on future pay. Miners would receive a pay stub that showed a negative balance after deducting rent, food, and clothing. Rather than earn a living, they dug their way deeper into debt to their employer.
In the Poconos, miners were permitted to stay in the house you rented only as long as some resident worked in the mine. When a miner died, his body was laid in front of his rented home as a signal to his family: They had three days to send someone else into the mine (often a son, as little as eight years old) or they would be evicted. Company men would literally move all of the family’s possessions to the curb, carry out any living persons who would not leave, and lock the doors. Continue Reading
My mother grew up in a multi-family house in Queens, New York City, which she shared with her three sisters, her mother and father, both sets of grandparents, and a couple of surviving great-grandparents. My father, who had four siblings, grew up in similar surroundings.
The question of “Why It’s So Hard to Get By in America Today” is something I reflect on frequently. I’ve had the good fortune to make good money for most of my adult life. Liz and I learned recently that we are, according to the Census bureau, “affluent” Something for which, incidentally, we both feel incredibly lucky.
Yet there’s always been this pervasive feeling that we’re barely scraping by, and when I see friends and relatives bringing babies into their lives, I wonder how they can possibly afford that. From where I sit, having a child seems like the economic tipping point that would knock me off this spinning merry-go-round into the Social Safety Net, from which recovery is incredibly is all-but-impossible.
So why does the America we now occupy seem so much harder to afford than it used to? Continue Reading