Social Darwinism met its match in the 1930s. The “evil” of the poor was a hard concept to sustain during the Great Depression. Suddenly, through no fault of their own, the poor were family, friends and oneself. It gave rise to the huge popularity of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the diminution of social Darwinism.

The Great Depression’s impression

The Depression empowered FDR to institute the social safety net, relieve the poor and bolster the middle class. Like Teddy before him, FDR slowed the move toward oligarchy. The role of the economic system in creating poverty was uncovered. The Gilded Age elite became known as the “robber barons.” The role of government in alleviating poverty was newly discovered and acted upon.

Even though communal responsibility and the social safety net were back, it was different. In the mid-1800s, the responsibility was assumed by individuals. In the mid-1930s, it was assumed by the government. It was more as it had been in our earliest settlements — communal responsibility reinforced by church and government. During the Depression and after World War II, America came the closest to aid without taint.

In response, the super-rich called FDR “a traitor to his class.” The taint of poverty and the moral superiority of the rich were ideas that would not die. The farther we moved from The Great Depression, the more often those who accepted help were looked down upon. The proudest among us, refused assistance to avoid the taint of poverty. During the Bill Clinton administration, “work-fare” imposed draconian regulations before a dollar in aid was granted. Social Darwinism held sway even as the need for assistance was acknowledged.

FDR, his programs and his ideas were under constant assault. When Social Security could not be undone, the Social Security Trust Fund was raided by Congress. Congress then told the American public Social Security was going bankrupt. The public was not told Social Security was perfectly sound if only politicians put back what they misappropriated.

Inequality and iniquity

Today, as little as 1 percent of the population controls as much as 90 percent of the wealth. Will there be an unstoppable shift away from democracy? Money talks, but does it dictate? Will the 1 percent ask the politicians it supports to establish the form of government that best serves them? If the economy is allowed to tilt severely enough, is there an inevitable effect on our form of government?

In April 2019, at the House Financial Services Committee hearing, freshman Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., asked JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, a man who earns $31,000,000 annually, how an employee of his, a woman who earns $35,000 annually, was supposed to live. Dimon said he didn’t know. Apparently, no one does. The point Porter was making was that too many incomes do not cover costs. Too many Americans are working poor. Dimon earns 1,000 times more than his entry-level employee. That is indisputable income inequality. Does that explain a political tilt to the right?

The population of America is much larger today than it was in the Gilded Age. The increased population puts an additional strain on the government and its ability to produce and dispense goods and services. Yet the need, a product of the disproportionate distribution of wealth, exists now as it did in the Gilded Age. We live in a world of finite resources. If we mean to economically suppress a group, first we vilify them. People of another color and another land are not merely different — they are dangerously different. Is that the basis of the resurgence of hate groups?

The new Gilded Age

Is the American Rescue Plan “an end of welfare as we knew it” or a caesura? During the time of COVID, we can say the magic words about people who need assistance: “through no fault of their own.” When COVID is behind us, will social Darwinism and its invidious comparison hold sway once more?

Recently, Missouri Republicans blocked federal funds for the expansion of Medicaid. In an editorial, The Kansas City Star could not understand it — why turn down free medical care for those who cannot afford it? The editorial concluded that “they hate the poor.”

The story told in the Gilded Age — social Darwinism — justified the income disparity. The story was told from podia and pulpits. If a culture tells a story that a majority accepts, the power of that story cannot be overestimated. That story shapes and directs.

Today we cannot agree on much — not even the story of us. If our fastest growth and the strongest middle class in U.S. history are behind us; if an America wherein a single-wage earner can support a family is behind us; if Americans who trusted the government and demanded it work as hard and honestly as they did is behind us; if all that is in the past — what is our future?

Who are the ones that will push back against oligarchy? Biden and his party proposing more legislation like the American Rescue Plan? If so, expect a fight — in Congress and in the streets. Expect the continuing battle: the social safety net versus the poor man’s bootstraps. The solution of warning out versus economic growth of inviting in.

Watch the battle with a clear understanding that behind it all is the real fight: Will a few control the power and money or will the many share both?

Carole Owens, a writer and historian, is a regular Eagle contributor.