Pushing for a More Humane Society

By Bergmann, Barbara R. | American Economist, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
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Pushing for a More Humane Society

Bergmann, Barbara R., American Economist

Like most economists, I came to the profession not through any great interest in the actual economy itself. Rather, I enjoyed studying and creating models of simple processes that might or might not resemble what goes on in the actual economy--a form, really, of recreational mathematics. However, as time went on, I became interested as well in working on issues of race, gender, and poverty in the economy, and the social policy questions these issues raised. I have been able to use my standing as an economist, and even a bit here and there of my economics training to write on these matters, and, I hope, to make a contribution to the eventual achievement of a more humane world.

I was born in 1927 in the Bronx. I became an atheist at age four, when I failed to receive a minor favor I had prayed for and believed I deserved. It then occurred to me that nobody was up there listening. I became a feminist (a person who believes in working toward the equality of women and men) at age five, when it became obvious to me that you needed your own money to be an independent person, which was what I wanted to be when I grew up.

My grandparents had come to the United States from eastern Europe in the huge wave of immigration prior to 1914, fleeing anti-Semitism. Neither of my parents stayed in school through high school, because their families needed the money they could earn. One of my mother's sisters had been sent to work at seven, and never learned to read and write. But for my generation there were better hopes. We were expected by our parents to integrate seamlessly into American life and succeed financially. The hope for a boy was that he would become a lawyer or a doctor, and the hope for a girl was that she would marry a lawyer or a doctor. We were encouraged to look forward to going to college, which was realistic, because New York City provided tuition-free public colleges, a prestigious one for boys and a lesser one for girls. We were pressed very hard to do well in school.

My father was a union typesetter and earned a good wage of $50 a week all through the Great Depression of the 1930s, so we were not in want. However, the unemployment rate was about 25 percent, and the terrible state of much of the populace was obvious, even to a child in elementary school. I had two male cousins who were about 10 years older than I was, and who were unable to find jobs after they left high school. Their pride and morale were destroyed. When World War II came, they were taken into the army, and that experience, plus the jobs they found in the prosperous post-war economy, saved them.

My most vivid single memory of the depression is of a middle-aged man who walked into our neighborhood one day carrying a violin, a bow, and a battered wooden folding chair. He set the chair on the sidewalk outside our apartment house, sat down, and played several pieces. People listening through open windows in the apartments above threw down pennies. After he had picked up the coins, he made an announcement in a loud voice: He said would give the violin, the bow, and the chair to anyone who would get him a job. It was the inclusion of the chair that I found, and still find, most poignant.

My childhood during the Great Depression left me a strong believer in having government provide help when people face problems either beyond their power to control, as was the case during the depression, or because they have made improvident choices, or because they have legitimate needs that they cannot supply out of their own resources. There was a brief period, when I was about 17, when I became very vain about my own intelligence and prospects. I hated the idea that the riches I felt sure to earn during my glorious future career might be taxed away by the government and transferred to those less talented and less hardworking than I. It was a brief spasm of immaturity and selfishness, and soon passed off. I have been left of center in my politics ever since.

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