The following is by Hannah Florence.
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath details the impoverished circumstances of the fictional Joad family during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Initially, the Joads are tenant farmers in Oklahoma, but due to the consolidation and mechanization of agriculture during the 1920s, they are displaced from their farm and without many options. After receiving a leaflet that promises abundant jobs and housing, the family follows in the path of many of their neighbors that have already left for California in search of more opportunity. Yet the hardships continue for the Joads. The grandfather dies on the arduous trip and find that they have been misled about the availability of jobs and the conditions of the squalid camps.
According to Steinbeck, the introduction of the tractor and the power of the bank are responsible for their initial misfortunes. The tractor makes farming easier and more efficient, but leaves families without work including the Joads. In an encounter with a tractor driver, a tenant farmer without work asks, “what you doing this kind of work for—against your own people?” (pg. 25). The tractor driver is seen as treasonous because he improves his own standing while a hundred other people—his people— are left without a means to provide for their own families. But the tractor driver doesn’t revel in his improved circumstances, instead he is blunt about all of their predicaments, “crop land isn’t for little guys like us anymore” (pg.25). This assessment indicates that despite their divergent trajectories, neither the tractor driver nor the tenant farmers have any influence, but they are both pawns of a larger power. Steinbeck insinuates that both individuals—the tenant farmer and the tractor driver– is largely expendable. If the driver leaves another tractor driver would gladly accept the job; if that one left, still another one would come along. The greater enemy is the big-wigs in ‘the East’ who give orders to ‘the bank,’ who are ultimately responsible for displacing the farmers.
The increasing efficiency of agriculture and its effect on the fictional Joad family illustrates what many families have faced due to the increasing efficiency of manufacturing. For the Joads, there is a strong sense of alienation. Their family home is damaged by a tractor, the neighbors are leaving, and there is no work available. Similarly, as factories and plants that were economic drivers have shuttered in rust belt towns, other main street staples such as the barber shop, the diner, and the hardware store can’t afford to stay open. As a result, formerly vibrant communities are emptied. Individuals are faced with the reality that the relatively straight-forward path to the middle class afforded to their parents will not be the same for them as options diminish for blue-collar work. The next steps for people, specifically without a college education, may not seem clear or within reach.
The monsters outlined in the first section of The Grapes of Wrath— the bank and the tractor—could be subbed in for the current monsters in our current political and economic discourse—automation and trade. The novel picks up on some of our current anti-establishment rhetoric as individuals in ‘the East’ that run the bank profit handsomely while families such as the Joads have their lives uprooted. The bank and the people in the East create a new class of winners and losers as well. The winners in this case are the tractor drivers who can now afford to give their kids shoes for the first time; the losers are the tenant farmers who have no income for food. The income inequality between the tractor driver and the tenant farmers is a microcosm of increasing income inequality in the U.S. as a result of rapidly increasing productively for a small sector of the labor force. In Average is Over, Tyler Cowen illustrates how low-skilled laborers face a similar scenario to the tenant farmer of the 1920s: individuals who are a complement to innovative technology are richly rewarded, but unskilled labor that can be replaced by it will struggle to find work in the knowledge economy.
The Grapes of Wrath demonstrates how creative destruction brought about by innovation and technology is an enduring phenomenon. Yet the characterization of this trend in The Grapes of Wrath seems prescient given the sentiments of many Americans that computers, automation, and globalization are richly benefitting a small portion of Americans that can harness these technologies at the drastic expense of many Americans that have been automated or outsourced out of their jobs.
- Hannah Florence is a student at Samford University, where she studies economics, political science, and data analytics. She is currently a Young Scholar for the American Enterprise Institute’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life. After graduation, she hopes to continue her public policy research as she begins a career in Washington, D.C.