The Vice of “Making Do”

Detail of A farmer's son in Cimarron County, Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl era by Arthur Rothstein, for the Farm Security Administration via Wikimedia Commons

He's making do, too.

Show of hands:  who here thinks of “making do” as a good thing?  Now I can’t see through the computer, but I’m pretty sure that you’ve got a warm spot in your heart for “making do.”  It’s quintessentially American and has a noble ring to it.  When you say “making do,” what do you think of?  I think of a rugged family farming the dust bowl and living in their sod house, or a depression homemaker watering down soup in the kitchen.

I think of scenes of grinding poverty.

So, why does “making do” have such a good reputation?  Let’s look at a recent story from NPR on All Things Considered entitled “Reduced Wages At Reopened Maine Mill Divide Town” by Tovia Smith.  It’s about the return of a mill to production, but that employees have seen a reduction of wages and new hires are offered $11 per hour, which a veteran employee says is not worth it.

There were a lot of responses to the reopening of the mill.  I want to take a close look at the ones that were about “making do.”

“They’re spoiled,” says Cindy Flemming, 60. “They got so used to the bigger paychecks. They don’t know how to live without.”

I don’t know that you could call a paper mill worker spoiled.  I don’t think of working with heavy machinery in dirty, smelly conditions for long hours as being spoiled.  I also doubt they don’t know how to temporarily live without.  I think the issue here is that they resent being forced by desperate conditions to take pay far below what the work would ordinarily dictate.

“You can get a cookbook in any one of these thrift shops for 25 cents,” she says. “And a big bag of flour or a bag of sugar. I can put a meal together with hardly anything. You can still live on $11 an hour. It’s not that it’s going to be easy, but if I have to, I know how to do it.”

Alright, now I know you’re being unreasonable.  Not even addressing the value of buying an ancient thrift store cookbook for modern tastes, let’s unpack that comment about making meals out of a bag of flour and some sugar.  Alright, I’m not an expert on nutrition, but I’m pretty sure that humans will suffer if they eat only flour and sugar for an extended period of time.  Humans need protein.  Humans need healthy fats.  Humans need vitamins and minerals.  I don’t care who you are, you have got to eat more than just refined carbohydrates, or you will sicken and die.  Compare your suggested ration for mill workers with the weekly ration for slaves at Monticello.  Expecting a blue-collar worker to eat sugar and flour for the indeterminate future is not only an unreasonable expectation, it is a cruel one as well.

It’s cruel because you are expecting a person to got to a hard, physically laborious job while eating food virtually devoid of nutrition, and you’re heaping moral condemnation on them by calling them spoiled for resenting the situation.

This is what I call the vice of “making do.”  There is a point where expecting someone to endure hardship and “make do” with their situation is vicious.  I’m not talking about the temporary “making do” that can happen to anyone from time to time, say, when you have a bad month or two.  It’s madness to expect someone to have a declining standard of living for an indeterminate period of time, and not resent it.

So, if you have to “make do,” then “make do,” but please don’t expect people to do this for an indefinite period of time and expect them to do so uncomplainingly, and don’t condemn them for disliking it.

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