Reflecting on the tsunami of snark that Sen. Joni Ernst received for talking about being so poor she had to wear bread wrappers over her shoes, Megan McArdle says the sneering mob ignores the fact that within living memory, Americans used to be a lot poorer than we are today. Excerpts:

There is nothing so romanticized as old-fashioned cookery, lovingly hand-prepared with fresh, 100 percent organic ingredients. If you were a reader of the Little House books, or any number of other series about 19th-century children, then you probably remember the descriptions of luscious meals. When you reread these books, you realize that they were so lovingly described because they were so vanishingly rare. Most of the time, people were eating the same spare food three meals a day: beans, bread or some sort of grain porridge, and a little bit of meat for flavor, heavily preserved in salt. This doesn’t sound romantic and old-fashioned; it sounds tedious and unappetizing. But it was all they could afford, and much of the time, there wasn’t quite enough of that.

These were not the nation’s dispossessed; they were the folks who had capital for seed and farm equipment. There were lots of people in America much poorer than the Ingalls were. Your average middle-class person was, by the standards of today, dead broke and living in abject misery.

This makes me think about the way my mom, born in 1943 into poverty (and her family had it better than many), loves loves loves convenience foods, sliced white bread, canned vegetables, and the like, and cannot for the life of her understand why her son prefers to cook things the old fashioned way. For her, as a child, cooking was drudgery. It consumed a lot of her mother’s time and effort, and nothing they ate could remotely be described as fancy. My dad is nine years older than my mom, and was born in the teeth of the Great Depression. He talks about how hard it was for his mother and grandmother (who lived with them) to feed the family every day. His dad was out on the road getting work wherever he could, and sending money back. Their oven was powered by wood that my dad, as a child, and his brother chopped. If they wanted meat, they pretty much had to kill, gut, and pluck one of their chickens. Many nights, if the family was going to eat meat, Daddy or his brother had to shoot enough squirrels to fill the stewpot. Many more nights, supper was stale cornbread jammed into an iced-tea glass, filled with buttermilk and eaten with a teaspoon.

The thing is, my dad said, they didn’t know they were poor. Almost everybody they knew was in the same situation. My grandparents didn’t have indoor plumbing until my dad, their son, installed it himself in the early 1950s.

And I think about the crappy 1970s clothes I was raised wearing, and how the stuff we get from the secondhand store now for our kids is better made and better looking than the clothing my mom bought new from Sears back in the day.

This week, our Black & Decker rice cooker quit working. “How do we get it fixed?” I asked Julie. “You don’t,” she said. “Nobody fixes those things anymore. It’s cheaper to get a new one.”

Isn’t that bizarre? The only thing to be done is to throw this device away, because it would be less expensive to buy a new one than to fix the old one. That is affluence.

More McArdle:

Joni Ernst, who is just a few years older than me, had a much more affluent childhood than the generation that settled the prairies, and more affluent still than the generations before them. But in many ways, she was much poorer than the people making fun of her on Twitter, simply because so many goods have gotten so much more abundant. Not just processed foods and flat-screen televisions — the favorite target of people who like to pooh-pooh economic progress. But good and necessary things such as shoes for your children and fresh vegetables to feed them, even in winter.

In every generation, we forget how much poorer we used to be, and then we forget that we have forgotten. We focus on the things that seem funny or monstrous or quaint and darling. Somehow the simplest and most important fact — the immense differences between their living standards and ours — slides right past our eye. And when Ernst tried to remind us, people didn’t say “Wow, we’ve really come a long way”; they pointed and laughed.

We are in many ways a nation of ingrates. Read the whole McArdle column. 

(H/T: Leslie Fain)

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