Robert Lee Maril
Waltzing with the Ghost of Tom Joad: Poverty, Myth, and Low-Wage Labor in Oklahoma
(University of Oklahoma Press, 2000)
In the past decade, the various outlets of the mass media have reminded Americans at every turn about how we are living in an unprecedented era of prosperity, unique in our nation’s history. A glance at the magazine racks or stories on the nightly news might lead one to assume the U.S. is divided into the super wealthy and the soon-to-be wealthy, with no room for the soon-to-be bankrupt and already impoverished. Serious poverty as an issue is too often left for the debates waged by academics, not journalists and other observers of the contemporary scene.
Consider the situation from the vantage of Oklahoma, where the connotations of the term “poverty” are situated primarily in the past. Today, in Oklahoma, we understand poverty as a terrible problem during the decade of the Dust Bowl, although at the time many Oklahomans loathed John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for publicizing this fact. We might admit to its widespread continuation into the 1960s, when the Johnson Administration’s Great Society included a “war on poverty,” and might even concede to some serious problems during the oil bust of the 1980s. But since the beginning of the boom times of the 1990s, poverty has slipped off the media radar within the state. In a 1993 survey, only 1% of Oklahomans rated poverty as a serious social problem. And now, at the end of a bullish decade for Wall Street and chimerical media hype for Silicon Valley, poverty in Oklahoma is simply not a hot button issue for our politicians, newspapers, or broadcasters.
Oklahoma is not alone in its denial of persistent, widespread poverty in the midst of the perception of affluence. Middle-class Americans seem most comfortable putting the poor out of sight and out of mind. Commentators such as Barbara Ehrenreich have suggested that existence in the American middle class is too precarious for us to contemplate what would happen if we slipped a notch or two down the socio-economic ladder. In the Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (Pantheon, 1989), Ehrenreich showed how tenuous class status can be in America—as she told Brian Lamb on CNN’s BookNotes when the book first appeared, “Probably everybody’s anxious right now except the very rich.” Too many of us, even in the middle class, are just a few paychecks away from joining their ranks. For reasons of our own psychological comfort, we prefer to think about the lives above us, not below.
Our resistance to accepting the reality of poverty in Oklahoma today has also been a form of boosterism. If we admit to the scale of our problem, we jeopardize our image as a successful state, our desire to attract economic investment, and our belief in our own up-by-the-bootstraps mythologies. Our guiding myths in Oklahoma, perhaps even more so than in other parts of the U.S., are about profound self-reliance on the path to individual achievement of the American Dream. Few Oklahomans with access to major media outlets are inclined to mention the inequalities of our economic system, such as the growing divide between have and have not. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote in her wonderful memoir, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), “Complaining was forbidden. Anything that suggested weakness was forbidden. We took pride in not being gripers and whiners, ‘bellyachers.’”
Yet if we wanted to gripe, we would have good reason. The general facts about poverty in Oklahoma from the 1990 census (the most recent available information) are grim. East Coast skeptics of the “heartland” may not be surprised to hear the sad facts about Oklahoma, but many people who live here are silently stunned by the data. We are the eighth poorest state in the U.S. 38.3% of female-headed families live in poverty; 17.9% of persons over 65 years of age live in poverty; 21.4% of Oklahoma children live in poverty; 16.7% of all Oklahomans live in poverty. The numbers are even worse for minority communities, as the revised 1993 figures reveal: 44.5% of African-American children, 35.8% of Hispanic, and 34.8% of American Indian children are under the poverty line. (To read in more detail about child poverty statistics in Oklahoma, see the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy’s webpage, where a fact book of state benchmarks can be found: http://www.odl.state.ok.us/kids/factbook/kidscount99/state.htm#poverty)
The situation in Oklahoma is serious, but hardly exceptional. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. as a whole had a greater income gap between rich and poor in the early 1990s than any other industrialized country studied by the group. The gap between rich and poor had narrowed during the 1960s and 1970s, but then grew wider than ever before under Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. In a preface to Lee Maril’s book, Robert McCormick, a member of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, reminds us that “the story of poor people in Oklahoma is in many respects the story of poor people everywhere.”
How do we capture this story and do it justice? Over a century ago, Jacob Riis used the then new technology of flash photography to illuminate the dark corners of New York tenements during the Gilded Age, proving to a skeptical nation that a rising tide does not raise all boats. Riis’s work revealed the grave difference in how the other half lives in America, something that was repeated brilliantly by Walker Evans and James Agee in the depths of the Great Depression. In their classic book of documentary reporting, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Evans and Agee argued that it was nearly impossible to bring to the written page the grim force of impoverishment in the lives of Alabama sharecroppers some 65 years ago. A poetic writer, Agee wished he could just give us bits of wool, pieces of tin, the smell of sour milk, the sound of wind in the cracks between boards, to share with us something more than mere words on a page.
Yet words can make a difference. In the early 1960s, the writing of muckraking socialist Michael Harrington convinced John F. Kennedy that poverty in America, especially in Appalachia, was not a minor blip in the American dreamscape, that a systemic response was needed. Alas, we seem to need frequent reminders of the continuing presence of “the other America,” to borrow the title of Harrington’s book, so much does it confound American ideologies of success, opportunity, and progress.
To capture the “other Oklahoma” in his new book, Waltzing With the Ghost of Tom Joad: Poverty, Myth, and Low-Wage Labor in Oklahoma, Lee Maril has taken a more academic approach in order to paint a desperate scene with the tools of modern sociology. Working in the tradition of Agee, Riis, and Harrington, Dr. Maril brings our attention to the poor in Oklahoma, who he presents with a judicious blend of statistical data and compelling narratives of individual lives. Chair and Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, Pan American, Dr. Maril has published earlier works on rural fishermen on the Gulf of Mexico and on life on the border between Texas and Mexico. Out here in Oklahoma, he is known to many NPR listeners because of weekly commentaries he made while teaching at OSU in the late 1990s.
Waltzing With the Ghost of Tom Joad is a book I know well in several capacities, some of which make me predisposed to review the book favorably. As a professor at a small teaching college in Chickasha, Oklahoma, I helped bring Dr. Maril to campus for a public lecture on the understudied topic of poverty in Oklahoma. Several years earlier, as an acquisitions editor at the University of Oklahoma Press, I fought to have this book published in the state of Oklahoma (something Maril fails to note in his acknowledgments). It is a sign that much has changed in the 60 years since the University of Oklahoma Press backed away from Angie Debo’s path-breaking And Still the Waters Ran (Princeton, 1941) because of the controversies it would have generated regarding the legitimacy of Oklahoma’s origins as a U.S. state. Now that same press has published Dr. Maril’s research in a handsomely designed volume, showing that books critical of Oklahoma do not have to be published out of state and smuggle across the Rio Grande like contraband.
The book begins with an epigraph taken from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, describing Tom Joad, with his “high and wide” cheekbones and hands “shiny with callus.” The author begins with this image to remind us that Joad is not just a ghost from the past, but also a living symbol of rural poverty even today. With extensive research funded by a grant from the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, Maril uses a blend of quantitative and qualitative methods to show historical trends among low income people; examines the origins of myths about the poor and what enables these beliefs to remain unquestioned in our midst; and shows how Oklahoma poverty is perpetuated by the region’s dependence on low-wage labor. We meet individuals in 12 households in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and in smaller communities; we see them in their living rooms, get to know them by name, learn something of their situation, and then we revisit them three years later to see if anything has changed.
Maril’s writing is clear and adequate, though dry in places. Combined with the absence of photographs and other illustrations and the heavy weight of statistical evidence in some chapters, this aridity makes the book read somewhat slowly in places, rather akin to an expanded report than a deft and seamless narrative like urban anthropologist Carol Stack’s Call to Home: African Americans Reclaim the Rural South (HarperCollins, 1997). Even without the uncommon eloquence of a social scientist like Stack, Maril has written a book that will open many minds. Its implications for public education are particularly important. In his thoughtful preface, Robert McCormick wonders “in reading Dr Maril’s accounts of Oklahomans in their poverty how different their stories might have been had someone cared enough to see to it that their underlying condition of poverty did not interfere with their opportunity to get an education.”
Most East Coast city folk don’t give much thought to the nuances of “fly-over country,” those 40 brain-drain, electorally red states between the first traces of Appalachian mountains and the crotchety fruit inspectors near Barstow, California. We are to America what Alice Springs is to Australia—remote, desolate, mythologized, rarely visited by touring drag queens—so it does not surprise me that our social reality is irrelevant to Seinfeldian urban dwellers who might ponder our fate only when watching our college football teams or lamenting our state executions. I am a New Jersey transplant to the Sooner state, and I know how easy it is to forget about the Great American Desert, as the original American psycho, Andrew Jackson, dubbed this region. I was able to do it for three decades with considerable success, but then I moved here and found a place that is both awful and wonderful, as readers of Lee Maril’s book will discover.
Maril has written an important book for Americans willing to hear the facts about one of their most mythologized states, rather than joining the vast majority who keep their heads tucked into the sand. In Oklahoma, the ostrich factor is remarkably high; when last measured, 99% of the state’s residents refused to see poverty as a serious social problem. Now, almost a decade later, with the publication of this concise book of only 159 pages, Lee Maril had made a persuasive case for joining the informed minority, those few Americans who accept social reality rather than mythology, and then work to change it. Reading this book is the first step toward making this informed choice.
Randy Lewis is the author of Emile de Antonio: Radical Filmmaker in Cold War America (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000). He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.