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ROUTE 66: DESPAIR OR OPPORTUNITY? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jim Jordal   
Thursday, 23 April 2015

ROUTE 66: DESPAIR OR OPPORTUNITY?

By Jim Jordal

And there was a great outcry by the people against their money-lending brothers. Some complained that because of the drought-induced famine they had mortgaged their fields to get money for food. Others said they had borrowed to pay their taxes, using their property as collateral. And they described how they couldn’t raise enough food to get money for repayment of their debts, so now their creditors had taken their children as debt slaves.  Nor was it within their power to redeem them, because other men now owned their lands and vineyards.                                                                          Nehemiah 5:1-5 (paraphrased)

Mary and I recently returned from an attempt to follow most of fabled, 2400 mile-long Route 66--sometimes called The  Main Street of America--running from Chicago to Santa Monica, California (we shortened the journey somewhat by beginning in Joplin, Missouri). Portions of the old road still exist as virtual alleyways and rutted, broken beds of concrete, while others now lie buried beneath Interstate 40. But it can be done, although with much patience and some despair due mainly to poor route markings and unclear directions.

Route 66 opened in 1926 and as the Great Depression deepened it became a way of escape for unemployed laborers, failed farmers, foreclosed homeowners, and various people broken in body and spirit. The much-ballyhooed prosperity of the  Roaring Twenties was grinding to a halt amid closed factories and boarded-up stores. Untruthful advertising led the victims to believe that multitudes of farm-type jobs existed in the great Central Valley of California, and they had only to get there to avail themselves of renewed prosperity.

But alas, as later so graphically revealed by John Steinbeck’s searing novel, The Grapes of Wrath, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, this wonderful opportunity was mainly a skein of lies and broken promises. Relying mostly upon hope, the poor came by the thousands from the closed factories of Chicago, the dust-bowl farms of Oklahoma, and the hundreds of seemingly God-forsaken hovels in between. They drove broken-down old jalopies often turned into trucks by back-yard mechanics, loaded with all the family possessions, topped by mattresses and canvas tents upon which rode those passengers unable to get inside the vehicle. They camped along the way, cooking their meagre food by fires or kerosene stoves. If someone died they were buried along the road, mourned by their spiritually-torn survivors and accompanied to the next life by prayers and good words by whatever amateur spiritual counsel was available.

The awful part of it all was that hope soon morphed into despair as they reached the bursting-with-food valleys of California. Yes, the jobs were there, but not at the expected living wages promised so glowingly by widely distributed handbills.  Growers needed their labor, but soon realized that with scores of workers seeking each job, they did not have to pay the wages they had promised. So wages were arbitrarily cut to the point that it soon became impossible to earn enough to even feed one person, much less an extended family.

But none of this had to be. The Great Depression could have been prevented or greatly reduced in effect had economic and political leaders been more willing to abandon their love of balanced budgets and tight credit in favor of using already-existing levers for adding to public purchasing power.  And the farm foreclosures that drove the “Okies” into migration could have been avoided with less greed and fear on the part of prairie bankers and increased credit relaxation funded by the federal government.  Tight money is not useful in aiding recovery from depression, although then-President Herbert Hoover thought so. It took three years of suffering before Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated recovery through the famous First Hundred Days of the New Deal, but it took the better part of ten years and the advent of World War Two for prosperity to return again to those Okies now become Californians.

Weren’t the parallels pretty close between Nehemiah’s credit-starved, exploited people and the desperate victims of greedy farm seizures in Oklahoma and lying food producers in California? Allowing the banking system almost absolute control over credit is too often fatal to economic health. Israel knew it back then, and we are finally beginning to know it now. Route 66 recalls some of the horrors of that day. Let’s not have any new ones today.