The “Grapes of Wrath” is a fictional account inspired by terrible plight of Oklahoma Sharecroppers during the “dust bowl” period that also coincided with America’s “Great Depression.” The actual causes of the circumstances, outside of the natural (drought, wind, crop failure), are barely hinted at in the film which instead presents the bewildered outlook of the tenant farmers who have no idea why the events of the movie are occurring, while implying the culprits are the rich and “well to do”, and also simultaneously presenting government as both co-conspirator and savior. The one-sided nature of the film and its contradictions regarding government are merely symptoms of it being fiction and presenting the image its author, or director, desired and while it is excellent in helping us understand the personal trials of the sharecroppers and highlighted an obvious failure in the system it did not provide clear understanding of what the failure was or why it happened. The best way to understand the hardships of the “Okies” and apply those lessons today, then, is to look at the actual history of that time period. After a brief study of the history it becomes apparent that the events depicted in “The Grapes of Wrath” are the result of ill-conceived government enforced property rights, government distortion of the markets, and corporatism, which can all be applied to current poverty issues. In addition to the causes of poverty that effected the “Okies” today we also have inflationary monetary policy, heavy regulatory burdens for entrepreneurship, and the drastic expansion of the size of the federal government that has led to its ever growing consumption of otherwise productive resources.
Terry Anderson and Peter Hill in “The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier” describe how in the late 1800s, the federal government pursued an aggressive homesteading policy in the west. Advertising “free land” was politically popular and it was a way to quickly secure the nations expanding territory. However, in doing this the federal government ignored privately established property rights negotiated between Indians and ranchers or amongst early settlers of the lands and redistributed arbitrary plot sizes with residency and improvement requirements that were not market based. The result of this was a “race for property rights” that led to both land owners with insufficient capital to successfully use the land, they could only afford the “free land” and not the equipment, seed, etc. to profit from it, and to the landowner-tenant farmer system. Landowners from other regions and around the state of Oklahoma claimed stakes during homesteading land races and then rented the land to tenant farmers. Since the land was “free” and did not constitute the landowner’s primary residence or income he had less incentive in the maintenance or improvement of the land and the tenants often could not afford to make improvements or did not think of the land as their own and thus could not justify extra expenses to improve the landowner’s property.