By David Snoke
MK: We hadn’t scheduled blog posts for Sundays, but in the flurry of activity this week we ended up with an extra post – so we are slotting it in as a “special Sunday edition.” This post addresses the challenges of migratory movements by looking at a classic American novel (and movie), “The Grapes of Wrath.” While the people movements in the story are not strictly “immigration” – the characters are all Americans – it provides a window into the dynamics we have been exploring. The story is a work of fiction, but it reflects real historical events in our country. Sometimes, fiction can offer a window into real world problems.
John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is one of the great novels of all time, and also one of the great novels of migration and social justice. It tells the story of poor Scotch-Irish farmers from Oklahoma (“Okies”) who migrated westward to California in the 1930s. The mass influx of these people created a social disaster for several years, as wages were extremely depressed, jobs were hard to find, and a wave of starvation and homelessness followed. A main theme is how the family structure that could support people through hard times can be scattered to the wind by the overwhelming pressures of migration.
Steinbeck, a socialist, partly used the story to argue for government social services. The people of California are not especially welcoming of the Okies, and don’t take responsibility to help them. A high point of the story occurs when the main characters, the Joads, find an efficiently run government project to help them. This may seems somewhat quaint to modern eyes, but it addresses a real issue, namely what to do when private charity isn’t sufficient.
Another theme is the existence of social evils, forces that make it hard for any one person to do what is right. The main social evil in the story starts when farmers in California advertised widely in Oklahoma to attract workers for their fields. Pressed by natural disaster in their home land (the “dustbowl”), the Okies migrated in great numbers. By the economic law of supply and demand, this suppressed the wages in California drastically. Steinbeck makes it clear that part of the social injustice comes from the farmers in California being happy about the vast number of immigrants suppressing the wages. They had incentives to encourage the migration of the Okies, as it gives them cheap labor.
What can we apply from this book for today? On one hand, it seems clear that the role of the church and the individual in California at that time was to help the immigrant Okies as much as possible. To allow them to die in the streets and fields, as Steinbeck portrays, is heartless.
On the other hand, we could also take a step back to question the structural aspects of the situation. How do we address the incentives that businesses have to attract cheap labor and suppress wages? Were there alternatives to the situation that played out in the Grapes of Wrath? Would a more just society have worked to improve conditions in Oklahoma, rather than encourage the breakup of families and cultural structures that so often occurs in precipitate migrations? Steinbeck’s novel, remote from our present lines of argument, may help us with a different perspective.
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Matt Koerber is the senior pastor at City Reformed Presbyterian church. This is his personal blog that he also asks guest writers to participate on.