June 30, 2011

Not worth a darn

By Lorraine Collins

Every now and then I hear an amazing factoid uttered by a television pundit but he then moves on to discuss something else and I have to scribble it down on whatever piece of paper is handy, lest I lose track of it. A recent one was that one third of all the socks in the world are made in one factory in China. Workers there earn $14 a day and send most of that home to their families in rural communities.

I think the point of mentioning this was that we Americans should not try to compete with China in making socks. We have to find other, more expensive and complicated things to make. That's probably true. But still---one third of all the socks in the world? Made in one factory? I wondered how big the factory is and where all the socks go. I decided that the destination for millions of pairs of socks had to be countries where people have enough money to buy socks as well as shoes. That would be in Europe, North America, the richer countries in South America, and elsewhere. Recently Sports Illustrated had photos of children in Bangladesh playing cricket on stony ground. They were barefoot like millions of other people in impoverished areas of the world. So just hearing one fact about socks got me to thinking about worldwide economies and populations.

This sort of fact can make me think of history, too, at least my personal history. By now there's been quite a lot of that. I remember that my mother had a "darning egg." It was made of wood and was egg-shaped with a handle to hang onto as one thrust it into the sole of a sock to mend a heel or toe. About the only place one would find such a thing these days, I imagine, is in an antique store.

I bet I'm safe in saying that nobody darns socks anymore, but if you do, let me know. I buy quite a lot of socks in a year but I'm always surprised to discover a hole in the heel of a sock, or a toe poking through after only a few weeks. I'm pretty sure that the quality of socks today is less than that of the 20th Century, and that socks today are not worth a darn. Like so much else in society, we don't try to repair them, but just throw them away.

As I recall, darned socks weren't always comfortable but we wore them because we couldn't afford new ones. We had patches in our jeans, too, but today I see expensive new jeans with rips in them for sale in department stores. It's a fashion, I guess, though I don't know why. But it's probably just as well, because we now can't tell whether the person in tattered jeans is rich enough to buy a popular fashion, or is too poor to afford new pants. That may be beneficial in terms of hiding how much poverty exists in America.

I've heard it said that people are falling out of the middle class in record numbers. Any number of  Internet websites can offer us statistics that demonstrate that the top 1% of the people have seen their income more than double in recent years while the bottom 90% have seen their share shrink. Personal savings have plummeted and one source says that half of all Americans will experience poverty sometime before age 65. The gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider and wider. Just about anybody who looks at economics is aware of this, but we don't seem to pay much attention to it when establishing tax rates or when we decide to cut programs that help the poor.

Surely we should be paying attention to the situation, not only for compassionate reasons, but in the interest of developing a stable and productive society. Any plan for economic recovery  that doesn't take these facts into consideration really isn't worth a darn. 

Lorraine Collins has published a collection of her Black Hills Pioneer columns called "Gathering My Wits."

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