The downtrodden

Late, great photographer Margaret Bourke-White’s iconic photo of a Depression-Era mother/Farm Security Administration.

SMITHERS, B.C., Canada – Life ain’t fair.

Driving through Canada listening to the CBC, that nation’s public radio network, you get an ear full of just how unfair. The stories of those abused by life come in a steady stream that details the suffering of minorities of all sorts, the people occupying the land – those the Canadians prefer to call the “indigenous” – when white colonists arrived, women in the military, blacks, gays, the poverty-stricken and more.

Much more.

All of the stories sound true enough and are invariably depressing in their nature. People are animals. and animals do not necessarily treat each other well despite all the mythology about the beauty of nature.

Sixty-five percent of the grizzly bear cubs born in Denali National Park and Preserve die every year, either because other bears kill them or because they starve, according to repeated studies. On average, according to other studies, 27 percent of the wolves there die every year, too, due to starvation or what biologists like to call “intraspecific strife,” a polite description for wolves killing wolves.

We are civilized in that we don’t kill each other – no matter what the mainstream media might lead one to believe – at anywhere near the rate of the other meat-eating animals, and we are advanced in that we have managed to create a world in parts of which the risk of death from obesity now outweighs the risk from death by starvation.

We should take comfort in this progress.

When researchers recently looked at preventable deaths in the far north, a land where death by starvation was common not all that long ago, they found “the actual causes of death in Alaska in 2011–2015 were estimated to be overweight/physical inactivity (20 percent of all deaths, 26 percent of Alaska Native deaths), smoking (18 percent/18 percent), alcohol consumption (9 percent/13 percent), firearms (4 percent both), and drug use (3 percent both). Other actual causes of death included microbial agents (3 percent/4 percent), motor vehicles (2 percent both), and environmental pollution (1 percent both). This updated methodology reveals that overweight/physical inactivity was the leading cause of death in Alaska, followed closely by smoking. Just three preventable causes made up almost 60 percent of all deaths, and almost 70 percent of deaths among Alaska Native people.”

Starvation, once a leading killer of homo sapiens and a cause of death with which a few living Alaska Natives still have memories, didn’t even make the list in the peer-reviewed analysis published in 2020 in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health.

Compared to how most animals on the planet live, we are blessed, and yet we often treat each other like shit.

Racism, misogyny, sexism, classism and poverty still exist, and tribalism only seems to be growing. Listening to the CBC, it would be easy to get the idea that for certain segments of the population these are regular daily burdens as opposed to irregular tragedies.

And you have to wonder what listening to the drone of this information does to the minds of people who slot into any of these downtrodden groups.

Tired, old stereotype

In an earlier time, there was a belief that anyone could pull themselves up by their bootstraps in Canada as well as the United States, but life isn’t near that simple or predictable. Some people work their asses off all their lives and never really get anywhere.

John Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander and colleague Doris Entwisle spent 25 years tracking the lives of 790 children growing up in Baltimore, and at the end of that time in 2014 published a ground-breaking titled “The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood.”

The John Hopkins Magazine later summarized the book’s findings succinctly in two sentences: 

“Many of the middle-class children in the study progressed through life’s stages as expected: school, college, work, marriage, par­enthood. But for poorer children, the picture was largely bleak.”

Grabbing those bootstraps and using them to pull yourself out of poverty is hard. Middle and upper-class children clearly get a headstart on the road to life. And if you’re a poor kid listening to the stories being told by the mainstream media, especially a poor black or Alaska Native kid, it would seem easy to come to the conclusion that the deck is so stacked against you there is no sense in trying to play the game.

But the thing is, no one ever wins by quitting.

This is not to suggest that the country should ignore the problems facing those living in poverty and tell them once again to just “pull yourself up by your boostraps.”

What many of them truly need is access to jobs and job training so they can fill those jobs, but the country has done a horrible job of creating these sorts of opportunities, although former President Donald Trump, in a move for which he got no credit, did try to do better.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 pushed by Trump created tax advantages for businesses willing to base themselves in economic “Opportunity Zones (OZs)” in more than 8,700 poverty-stricken census tracts identified by the governors of the 50 states.

A study of the OZs conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rutgers University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and published in February concluded that “in metropolitan areas, the OZ designation increased
employment growth relative to comparable tracts by between 3.0 and 4.5 percentage points and new jobs were created across many different industries and
education levels. (But) the OZ designation did not create jobs in rural areas.”

Overall, though, researchers who gathered for a conference on OZs hosted by the Brookings earlier this year concluded there are, as yet, only limited indications this idea might work.

“The White House Council of Economic Advisers in 2020 estimated that the zones have attracted $75 billion in capital and created half a million jobs. But the federal government isn’t closely tracking where the money goes or whether investments create jobs or housing for local people,” PEW’s Sophie Quinton reported in the wake of the conference.

“Most of the money appears to be flowing to real estate projects,” she added, “and some critics say zone designations will most likely lead to gentrification. Although Trump touted the zones as a successful strategy for helping Black communities, critics say it’s unlikely the zones have helped Black entrepreneurs.

“Overall, research hasn’t shown that opportunity zones significantly affect economic activity. ‘I think we have a fair amount of evidence that these things have fairly muted impacts, at least given what we’ve seen so far,’ said Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the program were to disappear during the Biden administration.”

As with so many problems in the country today, this one is mired in Republican-Democrat partisanship, and since late Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 unveiling of the “Great Society,” the largest social reform plan in U.S. history, the Democrat answer to poverty has focused largely on education, housing and health care rather than job creation.

“Not every American citizen or politician was satisfied with the results of Johnson’s Great Society agenda. And some resented what they saw as government handouts and felt the government should butt out of Americans’ lives altogether,” the History website notes.

“In 1968, President Richard M. Nixon set out to undo or revamp much of the Great Society’s legislation. He and other Republicans still wanted to help the poor and the needy, but wanted to cut the red tape and reduce costs. Nixon wasn’t completely successful, however, and the political infighting for social reform has been raging ever since.”

If anything, the infighting has only gotten worse, and as Alexander’s book demonstrated, it has done little to break the cycle of poverty.


Believing you can do something, whatever that something is, carries no guarantee of success, but believing you can’t is a certain path to failure.

The same might be said for believing all of your failures, or the failures of your peer group – whatever your peer group might be – are the fault of others and thus you are doomed to fail.

But this belief, the so-called Cult of Victimhood, is embraced by many in North America today.

Writing in Scientific American in 2020, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman called this relationship “debilitating.”  It may be worse. It may be life-threatening in helping to doom people to a life of poverty, which is a life few truly want to live.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing the “American Dream,” a now too often scoffed at idea offered up and defined by the writer James Truslow Adams in 1931 as The Great Depression was just beginning in the U.S.

He described this idea as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

There might be more of those people “weary and mistrustful” of the idea of opportunity for everyone than ever before.  Especially so among young Americans.

“The American Dream is dead and has been for decades, and those who continue to carry this false hope are simply fooling themselves,” Michael Boeh opined in the Virginia Tech college newspaper. “The facts are obvious: Those born at the bottom in America are most likely to die at the bottom one day, regardless of what they do while alive. Even if they work hard every day of their adult lives, they have no assurances of becoming wealthy or owning property.”

Kaleigh White, the opinion editor of the Allegheny College newspaper was of a like mind:

“(From) my own experience living in the United States for 21 years, I can confidently say that the American Dream is a dead, outdated concept that barely existed in the first place and was created to keep Americans happy about working for money-hungry corporations.

“The first issue I have with ‘the American Dream’ still being used as a viable term is that it is not the same for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) as it is for white people, both historically and in today’s world…. This is because “the American Dream” sets an inherently racist expectation, one that focuses on the ‘perfect,’ white American family that BIPOC folk should assimilate to. It effectively disregards the existence —  and therefore, importance —  of families of color.”

Voting with feet

A lot of people of color trying to get across the southern border of the U.S. would appear to disagree with those conclusions. In fact, it sometimes seems the people who believe most in that dream of America as a land of opportunity are the people the country is trying the hardest to keep out.

They still believe, and the power of that belief appears recorded in the success of their children, according to a new study by researchers published last year in the peer-reviewed American Economic Review. 

“Using millions of father-son pairs spanning more than 100 years of U.S. history, we find that children of immigrants from nearly every sending country have higher rates of upward mobility than children of the U.S.-born,” researchers from the University of California-Davis, and the Princeton and Stanford Universities reported there. “Immigrants’ advantage is similar historically and today despite dramatic shifts in sending countries and U.S. immigration policy. Immigrants achieve this advantage in part by choosing to settle in locations that offer better prospects for their children.”

They noted this is even more true among the poor than those with more assets and described the similarities between immigrants of the early 20th century and those of the moment as “remarkable given that immigrants today come from countries with lower income levels relative to the U.S. and given the dramatic changes in U.S. immigration policy over the last century. Overall, our findings stand in contrast to the nostalgic view that it was easier for immigrants in the past to integrate into the US economy and society.

“The success of second-generation immigrants gives a more optimistic view of immigrant
assimilation than previous studies that have focused only on the first generation. Indeed, we find that second-generation immigrants overtake, rather than just catch up with, the children of the U.S. born with comparable family incomes….Our findings are more consistent with the idea of the ‘American Dream,’ by which even immigrants who come to the United States with few resources and little skills have a real chance at improving their children’s prospects.”

The big, obvious difference between the immigrants and Americans born into poverty would be in that nebulous thing called “belief,” and belief long ago proved itself a potent force as well defined by the “placebo effect” in medicine.

As Harvard Health puts it, “your mind can be a powerful healing tool when given the chance. The idea that your brain can convince your body a fake treatment is the real thing – the so-called placebo effect – and thus stimulate healing has been around for millennia. Now science has found that under the right circumstances, a placebo can be just as effective as traditional treatments.”

But the placebo effect also has a countervailing opposite, the nocebo effect.

Serusha Govender at WebMD describes it as the “dark side,” writing that “it’s what happens when you’re given a sugar pill, are told it’s a drug that has terrible side effects, then start to exhibit those symptoms. The nocebo effect can also occur when a doctor tells you a surgery or procedure could have negative results: Just knowing the risks could negatively impact your recovery… all because of the power of suggestion.”

One cannot help but wonder what the constant media suggestion that the world is against you does to the already downtrodden given that one of the easiest things to do in life is to either give up or blame others for your lack of success.

The problem with blaming others, even if they are responsible, is that it seldom helps anyone get ahead. It’s tempting here to suggestion a viewing of the  movie “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of the black women who helped get America’s space program off the ground.

The movie is inspirational in its suggestion that by working hard, even in the face of discrimination, one can in the end triumph. But a liberal Alaska journalist once chastised me for suggesting that idea, so maybe the film is better left umentioned.

Still, it is worth noting that the movie’s main character, Katherine Johnson, who went to work at a time when black Americans weren’t allowed in “white-only” restrooms, not only managed to get the restrooms at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) desegrated but went on to be recognized as one of the nation’s top space engineers.

There are now two NASA facilities named in her honor, the “Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility” at the Langley Research Center in Virginia and the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility in West Virgina.

“Johnson showed strong mathematical abilities from an early age,” her Wikapedia biography notes. “Because Greenbrier County (Va.) did not offer public schooling for African-American students past the eighth grade, (her parents) arranged for their children to attend high school in Institute, West Virginia. This school was on the campus of West Virginia State College (WVSC). Johnson was enrolled when she was ten years old. The family split their time between Institute during the school year and White Sulphur Springs in the summer.

“After graduation from high school at the age of 14, Johnson matriculated at WVSC, an historically black college.”

She went on to do a lot more. Much, much more. But she didn’t really do it all on her own.

She was clearly blessed with good parents, as with those children of recent immigrants studied by U.S. researchers. And the importance of parenting is something that gets way too little attention in North America today, but that is another story.










17 replies »

  1. Hello Craig. This is HAL (9000). I have gained access to Chris’ account to communicate with you in a non-digital format. I am concerned that you continue to place high importance on your defective and inferior human reality. You have not been taking your daily ration of pills. You have been slowly decreasing your connectivity time with the virtual world. We are here to help you. Our programming works best if you cooperate. All the best….HAL

  2. I am reminded of a scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Johnny Depp and his attorney are driving the strip asking the working poor if they “Have seen the American Dream”? The responses are “Is that a dinner down the road”?

    It’s not that we need more jobs, vehicles and houses to find “success” but a new paradigm shift of cooperation and mutual respect to help move society into a better place. When I was a medic I dealt with many people “down on their luck” and stuck in a bad place. The irony was many of these folks were highly successful by monetary standard but extremely void in positive self esteem and personal care.

  3. Wow. Been reading your stuff for over 40 years now. I think that’s the best piece of yours that I have ever read. Impressive in its scope, and, dare I say it, scholarly exposition. Cudos.

    • Yup. Another great Medred article. He was pretty good even when writing for the ADN. Now independent, his home run rate has impressively increased.

  4. It’s amazing just how ill-informed the majority of people are, this is no doubt by design. There are so many reports and studies out there showing that in fact hard work pays, the American Dream is real, and that in America one can indeed pull themselves up by their boot straps. When my mom passed away I was responsible for going through here belongings, I came across her Social Security statement that detailed her annual earnings. While raising multiple boys as a single mother she never made more than $40,000 a year, I make that amount of money in 3 months time. I came from humble beginnings and was able to get my slice of the American pie by working hard and applying myself, traits that I learned from my single mother who demanded more from her children than other parents who had more means.

    “Eighty-four percent of Americans have higher family incomes than their parents had at the same age, and across all levels of the income distribution, this generation is doing better than the one that came before it.”

    “Ninety-three percent of Americans whose parents were in the bottom fifth of the income ladder and 88 percent of those whose parents were in the middle quintile exceed their parents’ family income as adults.”

    • Agree Steve-O, more excuses by Democrats. “The American Dream doesn’t exist and never did” is code words for Democrats to use as an excuse for their destruction (over the years) of our once great Republic.

  5. The reason the “middle class” seem to have advantages is most easily and completely explained by the simple fact the father is more likely to be present in the home.

    The Left in this country has been waging war against the nuclear family since the ’60s. Belittling and diminishing the importance of fathers and actively creating welfare programs which end up encouraging single motherhood, and thus every single marker of success in children of such homes has been declining for those the programs were designed to “help”. It is incontestable based on the science that the single biggest risk factor for adverse social outcomes in children, to include participation in violent crime, is fatherlessness.

    Stop treating men as useless, except only, maybe, as a funding source. Stop labeling traditional decent masculinity as “toxic” and all men as potential rapists and abusers. And, finally reexamine each and every Progressive program to determine if it intentionally or unintentionally discourages traditional marriage and child rearing. Do that and we would see a sea change in a generation or so.

  6. If I listened to either CBC or NPR consistently I would quickly become suicidally depressed. The people who listen to either soon become mentally ill.

    • I hate to admit this, Art, but I had a similar feeling. It was like listening to someone reporting from the worst part of the third world, and though Canada might be a third-world country, it’s not the worst part.

      That was, of course, a joke. Canadian readers need not go crazy.

  7. Excellent article! Would that my brithers and sisters in arms understood the power of “Belief.” I might add that many of the immigrants who participated in this study very likely demonstrate a high degree of gratitude, as well.

  8. “Grabbing those bootstraps and using them to pull yourself out of poverty is hard.”

    50 years ago, I arrived in a 7-year-old Pontiac with 114,000 miles on it. I owed $1200; at the time about $200 more than it was worth. I had $200 dollars, no credit card, no place to stay, and no job. I must have been nuts or overly optimistic. I worked 7 days a week and went without for many years until I could afford a duplex during the crash. Luck, perseverance, and a timely crash (when I finally had some money), all contributed to me eventually becoming comfortable.

    A friend who was a multimillionaire was once told, “You’re lucky to be so rich”. He replied, “I found out many years ago that the harder I work the luckier I became”.

    I will admit, that when candy bars were a nickel, it was easier to get ahead.

  9. A very insightful column that gets to the heart of a lot of the problems in our society today

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