Essay on The Jungle
By Toni Clark
SWK A106 201

The 1906 novel The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, follows the life of Jurgis Rudkus and his family after they emigrate to the United States from Lithuania. Jurgis has a young wife Ona, who has emigrated with her cousin Marija, stepmother Teta Elzbieta, and the latter’s brother and son. They come to a stock yard in Chicago, where Jurgis, his father Dede Antanas, and many of the others attempt to find work. They are soon swept up in the life of the stock yard, that involves wage labor, predatory lending, abhorrent food “standards,” and reprehensible working conditions. The stock yard proprietors have monopolies over everything the family buys, and there is rampant price fixing as well as corruption. As the novel progresses, many of the family suffer work-related injuries and illnesses (including the death of Jurgis’ father, who is elderly,) due to hazardous working conditions and policies.
Ona suffers sexual harassment and rape at the hands of her boss Connor. After learning of this, Jurgis physically assaults him and is sent to prison. Already struggling, the family loses their home due to his imprisonment. Many of them lose their “places” at work because of retaliation from Connor. Jurgis is released from prison, to find his wife in premature labor with their child. The family has no money to pay for a doctor, and so Jurgis begs a midwife to help them. She does so only after demanding an exorbitant sum of money from Jurgis, that he promises to repay. Despite the midwife’s efforts, Ona dies in childbirth after giving birth to a son. He is named Antanas after Jurgis’ father, and his existence is the only thing that keeps Jurgis’ grief from breaking him completely.
Within two years, however, Antanas dies after drowning in the poorly kept sidewalk outside the place they are staying. Distraught, Jurgis leaves the family and goes on the road as a “hobo,” and through various jobs and chance encounters, he uncovers the controlling underbelly of elites, mobsters, and politician in his city. He finds, years later, that Marija has become a prostitute to help support the family in his absence, and that Ona’s younger brother Stanislovas has died. Jurgis then attends a socialist rally and finds that there may be hope to change these corrupt policies that have ruined his family, and so many others.
In the novel, as is common even today, the characters are taken advantage of as non-English speaking immigrants. While many immigrants who are unskilled laborers may be willing to work for little pay, the conditions described in the novel are reprehensible, and currently illegal. The United States has many laws that govern these behaviors, some enforced more readily than others. It is clear, based on the time in which the novel was written, that these laws had yet to exist and the few that the book describes (like child labor laws) were not enforced. While we know that The Jungle caused quite a stir in the United States when it was published, the book’s description of meat packing conditions is what placed it in the public spotlight. Though the book describes many terrible conditions, social norms, and political policies that made life horrible for its characters, it was massive grassroots social work and not the book’s popularity that caused the changes in society that we see today.
Social work that involves a whole-family system is something that exists today, but that Jurgis’ family did not have access to. The novel hints that there were some programs that the family did not know about, or even know how to ask about, but those programs were not as prevalent or robust as we they are today. The stigma that Jurgis faced as a wage-laborer, and then as a homeless man, are still in practice in our current society. While shelters exist, they are often overcrowded and underfunded, leading to the very same analogy that Sinclair wrote about during Jurgis’ time in prison. When shelters and prisons are used to manage populations rather than help them, people who are otherwise non-criminal citizens are exposed to criminality, and may turn to it.
Although not perfect, food pantries and welfare programs with food monies, are available in the U.S.. Jurgis and his family did not have access to these things, and for the few programs that did exist for them, they had no social worker to help guide them. It was with great trial and error that Jurgis and some of his family managed to learn English, and this only after they were taken advantage of many times over. Today, immigrants, refugees, and others have access to programs that aid them in navigating job seeking, credit cards, home and auto loans, and many other tasks that native speakers take for granted. Jurgis and his family were faced with hidden fees in a mortgage contract they did not understand. They were tricked into buying a house that was not built in the way that they were told.
Every time Jurgis and his family faced hard times, due to these deceptions or to other misfortunes, his response was that he would simply “work harder.” This sentiment continues to be a major misconception in current American society; if you work harder, you will be more successful. This is demonstrably false, and while aforementioned welfare monies exist in society today, they are tied to the idea of job seeking, and wage earning. Jurgis could only work so hard, and was not better for it. When he was injured, there was no where to go that would not put him and his family further into debt.
We have Medicaid and Medicare, Social Security, welfare, child protective services, consumer protection agencies, women’s rights advocates, and many other programs at work in society today. These programs may be better than what Jurgis and his family had and yet, for many, they are not good enough. Millions of Americans go hungry every day, and most of them are children. Healthcare in the U.S. is still a system based on cash and not need, which puts massive financial pressure on individuals and families, not dissimilar to what Jurgis experienced in the novel. Workman’s Compensation laws are much stronger than they were in Sinclair’s time, but they are still difficult to enforce, and many employees continue to live in fear of losing their job if they are injured.
Political corruption and “graft” are still major concerns today, as they were for Jurgis and his fellow workers. Anti-trust and monopoly laws have helped to curb the most egregious of these violations, but workers and consumers still find it difficult to separate politicians who truly want to help change social welfare, from those who merely want power and compensation. It’s interesting that Jurgis found himself embroiled in voter fraud, when these issues continue to cloud our current elections. While social media has made it more difficult for some to get away with these behaviors, it has also enabled others to become more popular, and to spread their propaganda to a willing populace. Social media sites share in this “graft” in a way; they do not choose to shutdown hateful speech, under the guise of “freedom.” This is a falsehood, of course, as they are not a government and so their censoring of speech is not violating the First Amendment. They are instead receiving the benefit of corruption, and are in this way no different from characters like Mike Kelly, colluding with “the Packers.”
Sex workers are treated as poorly today as they were in Sinclair’s novel. Their rights are not enforced, and their personhood is taken away from them in favor of puritan demonizing. When a sex worker is attacked, or raped, they are treated as though they were asking for it. Their line of work confuses conservative society. When they are attacked, the majority of society believes they must have placed themselves I this position, or “were asking for it.” This is of course not true, but when we are faced with the reality of a woman’s choice we falter. Why would she choose this life, when she could choose another? We assume that it was not her choice, and that a tragic life of sex work is a fate worse than death. While many women and children are forced into sex trafficking, and outright slavery every year, there are those like the character Marijia, who choose it as a way to survive. It may be that Sinclair wrote her character as an example of what a woman might do when she has no other choice, but there are women for whom this is not representative. And these women are human beings too, deserving of all the love and trust that we would give to anyone else in need.
Awareness of sexual harassment is perhaps the most widespread social issue of the last six months. Celebrities and moguls have been brought to some kind of “justice” by the “whistle-blowing” of their behavior. Harassment of women, especially in the workplace, is a common trope in movies and novels, and there is good reason for this. I believe no woman escapes harassment by men. The whole of society is on the brink of this awareness, and hopefully they grasp it. We must change the way we allow men, (and people) to speak to and treat women (and anyone.) Ona was forced to have sex with her boss, for fear of losing her job and the jobs of her family members. This is not the only way that people take power over women, as they are often forced to flirt and accept unwanted advances and compliments for fear of being seen as “cold,” or a “bitch,” and losing their job. While we have sexual harassment laws and trainings provided in the workplace, the culture of objectifying and harming women persists. This is a major part of what women are fighting for in society today.
The economic conditions in The Jungle were complicated, and unsustainable. The workers were not paid fair wages, even as they were willing to work. The suffering and coercion that occurred made it so their “willingness” was not complete. Basic economic models show that a person might be willing to work a job for a specific wage, however these models cannot feasibly consider the forced labor that the people of the stock yards in novel were experiencing. Packing Town’s structure was devoid of competition between employers, merchants, and workers. Sinclair described monopolistic employers who engaged in collusion among each other to crowd out wages. Minimum standards for working conditions, enforced by government regulation that is free of corruption are among the things that were missing in Packing Town. The town is good example of a basic economic model of production. In this “model,” there is no free market because there is deceitfulness everywhere. A person cannot purchase a good or service “freely” if they are being lied to about that good or service. They cannot work a job freely if they are being lied to about their workplace expectations and wages. They cannot be expected to live with out access to clean food and water, and the conditions in Packing Town put the onus on the Packers, not on the workers.
Collusion among the bosses in Packing Town created a culture of fear and oppression for the workers. In the end, this meant that an elite few were getting obscenely wealthy on the backs of the many poor. Jurgis encountered this when he met the son of one of the owners by chance on the street. What he witnessed when he was invited into this young man’s home was an example of the extreme inequality of wealth that continues today. While the incentive to become wealthy is somewhat key in encouraging entrepreneurship, inequality on this scale is unsustainable. Throughout economics, there are discussions of this nature. How much is enough to be happy, and does amassing more wealth make a person happier still? As it turns out, making up to $75,000 (in 2010 prices) per year increases a person’s happiness, according to a study from Princeton University. After this amount, however, happiness does not markedly increase. Based on the way Sinclair wrote the character of the packer’s son, it’s as if he knew this instinctually. The young man was not happy, and while he was impressed by his family’s belongings, they did not bring him joy.
Many other studies on economic growth have shown that placing a cap on earnings mainly serves to discourage the pursuit of knowledge and ideas. This does not mean that the wealth that comes from successful ideas should not be distributed more fairly. Sinclair points out that the wealth of the packers was made from the blood sweat and tears of their workforce, and they could have more than afforded to increase wages, improve working conditions, and enforce food purity. Instead, they had an incentive to collude and cheat, which is what they did at every opportunity. Many companies continue in this manner today, but more and more companies are finding that better treatment of workers – beyond what is mandated by government, increases their profitability. Public opinion can be swayed quickly, and businesses can be boycotted. The key in modern society is to ensure that, for instance, a boycott can be effective because there is not a monopoly in the industry. More competition lowers prices and increases quality, all else being equal.
People need access to clean air and water, healthy food, healthcare, safe working conditions, and overall quality of life. While many of the issues raised in The Jungle have been address in some way or another through modern society, there are many more issues that persist today. Social work is threatened by conservative ideologies that forget the horrors of the past and refuse to see the ones of the present. The basic idea that a rising tide raises all boats does not seem to matter to them, and social programs that are already barebones and not enough are being threatened. An expansion of social programs is needed, not a reduction. Jurgis and his family could’ve used welfare and food subsidies, and a case manager for their early immigration. They did not have access to laws protecting them from substandard food, housing, and working conditions. The corruption they witnessed, in their workplace, in their government, and in their justice-system was abhorrent, and yet these are not dissimilar to what continues today. The mistreatment of homeless person, sex workers, and other marginalized populations also persists today, and while advocates work tirelessly to change local and national policy, there is much to be done.
Jurgis and his family wanted to come to America for a better life, and instead they endured abject poverty, misery, and despair. The Jungle is both a good reminder of how far we have come in modern society, and an apt lesson for how far we have yet to go. Sinclair opposed capitalism, and his investigative journalism into the meat packing industry serves as an excellent criticism of it. Sinclair promoted socialism, but like all economic systems, both socialism and capitalism involve real people. It is a “best guess” as to how real people will respond to incentives, and how they will respond to “failure.” Safety-net systems need to be in place for the “failures,” and strong government regulation and enforcement needs to be in place to manage the incentives.
When he came to America, Jurgis wanted to know the price of his home, the price (and contents) of his food, and the price of his strong labor. At every turn, he was lied to and deceived, so that real prices never existed for him until it was too late. The cost in society to fund social programs works on a “multiplier.” This means that for every real dollar spent towards funding social programs, the amount is magnified across society. A healthier, happier, better educated populace will be more productive, and have more time to come up with “the next big idea.” There are many moral philosophies that teach that kindness and helping others is the “right thing to do.” Kindness and helping others is also the economically smart thing to do.

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