Where Are the Bread Lines?

If there’s one mimetic image of the Great Depression, it’s unemployed men standing in endless bread lines.

Those men didn’t have to worry about standing six feet apart, but what’s economically different now? There have been some stories and images of people lining up for food aid, but it hasn’t been as pervasive as in 1931–1933, despite roughly comparable unemployment. (Which, it’s always worth noting, doesn’t count those not looking for work nor the underemployed.)

Broadly speaking, this downturn has two different and divergent images: “essential workers” carrying on as ever, and the rest of society eating carry-out on the couch with Zoom and Netflix.

If we care to see it, that’s a clear look at the shadow side of the culture we’ve built:

  • It’s more possible to be more alone more of the time. The image of cities is the couch-bound Millennial, not the tenement.
  • From fashion to food to entertainment, we’ve made an absurd amount of good-enough options absurdly affordable.
  • We’ve made work much less visible at every step of the chain. People who work with their fingertips have found it’s just about as easy to do that from home as from the office. And, with the touch of a finger, they can send another person out for food, delivery, or whatever else feels essential at the moment.

Just as a few families sent two successive generations off to war while the rest of the country stopped paying attention to a faraway tragedy, we’ve now made it easy and acceptable for some to risk dying of boredom while others risk their lives to deliver food to the bored.

Today’s breadlines are inside Whole Foods. I’m not so sure that’s really progress. In fact, it might be holding progress back, since it’s much easier to ignore.