Poor no more

Poor no more

80 years later, Upton Sinclair’s ‘EPIC’ campaign to end poverty still inspires

By Matt Hormann 06/18/2014

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In the early 1930s, the Colorado Street Bridge began to take on a rather ominous nickname: “Suicide Bridge.” A 1937 article in the Pasadena Star-News noted a “sharp upswing” in suicides from the bridge beginning in 1932 and peaking in 1934 and 1935.

What caused the increase in self-inflicted fatalities? It was the height of the Great Depression and roughly 900,000 Californians were out of work. The psychological toll was heavy. And unlike today, there were few or no safety nets for out-of-work Americans.

But just two miles from the bridge, in a ramshackle house on Sunset Avenue, a plan was being hatched to tackle the problem.

In 1933, Upton Sinclair, socialist author of “The Jungle,” founder of the Southern California ACLU, and proud tennis-playing member of Pasadena’s Valley Hunt Club, began work on a pamphlet titled “I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty.”

The book laid out some radical reformations for the Golden State and would soon become the top-selling book in California. “There is no excuse for poverty in a civilized and wealthy state like ours,” it read. “We can and should see to it that all men and women of our State who are willing to work should have work suited to their capacities, and should be paid a wage that will enable them to maintain a decent home and an American standard of living.”

In September 1933, Sinclair broke a three-decade long commitment to socialism, re-registered as a Democrat and announced his intention to become governor of California.

With a plan called End Poverty in California, EPIC, he promised to tackle the problem of the Depression in a new way: by appropriating abandoned factories and farms and putting them to use as self-supporting “land colonies” for the unemployed. He also proposed pensions for the elderly, disability payments for those unable to work and monthly relief checks for widowed women with dependent children. 

To fund the plan, Sinclair called for a new tax of 4 cents per share on stock transfers, higher income taxes on the wealthy, heavier taxes on corporations and banks, and an increased inheritance tax.

Sinclair came up with memorable maxims that stuck in the imagination of the public: “God created the natural wealth of the earth for the use of all men, not of a few,” “Autocracy in industry cannot exist along side democracy in government,” “When some men live without working, other men are working without living.”

EPIC struck a chord with Californians, who were fed up with the idea that private industry was going to fix everything.

“People really saw it as taking power and being able to change their lives,” explains Lauren Coodley, author of “Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual.” “It was a very inclusive movement in which regular people, church-going, and otherwise conventional people, felt heard and involved.” 

Sinclair succeeded in registering 300,000 new Democrats, and in the August 1934 primary election he won more votes than all the other candidates combined.

Republicans, however, felt Sinclair’s ideas paved the way for a “Sovietizing” of California. The conservative Los Angeles Times called Sinclair a “Bolshevist,” a “communist” and a “fanatic,” and warned that if he were elected, “arson and riot, violence and murder will follow as surely as night the day.”

Business leaders, including Times owner Harry Chandler, William Randolph Hearst, Sunkist chairman C.C. Teague and MGM Studios head Louis B. Mayer, urged voters to back Republican candidate Frank Merriam instead. They mounted a multimillion-dollar campaign against Sinclair that included fake newsreels, radio serials, billboards, newspaper ads and leaflets dropped from airplanes. They even allegedly tried to bribe the third-party candidate, Raymond Haight, to leave the race.

As a result, Sinclair lost the election, though he took an impressive 37.75 percent of the vote.

Nevertheless, the campaign didn’t just fizzle and fade away into history. Instead, it influenced California politics for decades to come. Former California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk called it “the acorn from which evolved the tree of whatever liberalism we have in California,” while Carey McWilliams, former editor of The Nation, claimed that EPIC “brought a Democratic party into existence” in California.

It is due in part to Sinclair’s contributions, says historian Greg Mitchell, that the recent economic crisis did not hit Americans as hard as the Great Depression. “The reason you don’t have the scandal of millions of people living in the streets,” he says, “is partly because of some of the reforms that came out of the 1930s and some of the things Sinclair advocated that helped lead to Social Security, disability benefits and other things: programs that help most people get by today.”

And, 80 years later, EPIC continues to inspire a new generation of politicians. In December 2013, state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier of Concorde formed the EPIC Caucus, which was directly inspired by Sinclair’s campaign. The caucus aims to reduce poverty and increase economic opportunity for Californians, and is made up of 32 members of the Legislature.
“It was modeled after the environmental caucus here in the Legislature,” says DeSaulnier. “I thought that if we could do it for the environment, why couldn’t we do it for poverty and inequality?”

DeSaulnier and fellow caucus member Loni Hancock have introduced SB 1372, a bill seeking to reduce disparities between worker and CEO pay by rewarding companies with a reasonable CEO-to-work pay ratio with lower taxes.

Desaulnier looks to Sinclair’s grassroots campaign as a model of inspiration. “It takes a lot of small changes to create a movement,” he says. “In this country that usually starts organically and from the community. I think that’s what Sinclair wanted. Running for governor was just part of his strategy.”

DeSaulnier also feels optimistic about the EPIC Caucus’s future. “I think it’s just going to gain momentum,” he says. “You can say that Upton Sinclair lives in Sacramento.” 

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