The Rediscovery of Poverty

THE RISE OF Protestantism and modern capitalism had somehow made a virtue of the personal qualities required to become rich, and so had begun to put poverty in a new light. Of course, there were always the “deserving poor,” whose poverty, due to illness or misfortune, was no fault of their own. But the prevailing view in Britain and the United States well into the nineteenth century was that poverty properly concerned government only when a man’s desperate economic condition had made him a public charge or a threat to society. The old “Poor Laws” aimed to prevent starvation and to forestall crime. Like the other rules of public sanitation, they were directed more at keeping life safe and pleasant for the well-to-do than at improving the lot of the impoverished.

Throughout the nineteenth century, as the historian Robert H. Bremner has observed, philanthropists actually directed their efforts at pauperism rather than at poverty. American, like British, programs to aid the poor were overcast by moralism and religion. Here the old-fashioned morality of self-help and hard work was reinforced by faith in New World opportunities. In America, of all places, poverty should be only a way station to comfort or even to wealth. “The best way of doing good to the poor,” Benjamin Franklin had urged, “is, not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.” It was an American axiom, then, confirmed by both fact and myth, that only a peculiarly unlucky man could not rise out of poverty if he had the will.

THIS INDIVIDUALISTIC VIEW, which explained poverty by personal failings and saw the consequences mainly for the individual, would not long survive the American condition. Such a view was alien to the rising American concern for a standard of living. And when individual well-being was assessed not in treasure but in quality of life and in opportunities for living, the poverty of the poor man became a misfortune also for his better-off neighbors. Were they not being deprived of responsible fellow citizens, of potential customers, of clients and patients? They too were losing the wholesome benefits of a contented, educated community. They too were failing fully to share the rewards of the ingenuity, industry, and fulfillment of fellow Americans. A proper American standard of living included, of course, freedom from threats of disease, violence, and crime, freedom from modern versions of “those poor who pester the streets of London” who in colonial times had driven the Georgia philanthropists to try out their philanthropy over here. In America, then, not merely pauperism (starving and destitution) but poverty (unfulfilled opportunity) was a social menace.

By the mid-nineteenth century, in Europe and elsewhere, revulsion against the old individualist view of poverty had begun to take the form of socialism and sparked a revolution against the whole economic system. While in the United States too a few revolutionary voices were heard, the more social view of poverty tended to take other forms. With some prodding and some assistance from abroad, the whole problem began to be redefined. The old problem of dependency—the social burden of those who could not feed, clothe, or shelter themselves—became the newer problem of insufficiency. By the beginning of the twentieth century, American concern had gradually turned from a specific worry over the public cost of keeping the impoverished from starving or stealing, to a more general worry about those who (in pioneer social worker Robert Hunter’s phrase) were receiving “too little of the common necessities to keep themselves at their best.” “Poverty,” in Hunter’s classic definition, “means lack of ‘due food and lodging’ and clothing.”

An impulse from abroad came in the monumental study by a public-spirited English shipowner. Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London (17 vols., 1891–1903) aimed to show “the numerical relation which poverty, misery, and depravity bear to regular earnings and comparative comfort, and to describe the general conditions under which each class lives.” In England, one consequence of his work was the Old Age Pensions Act (1908). Instead of moralizing in his library, Booth had made a laborious street-by-street canvass of London districts to obtain up-to-date statistics, and he shocked complacent Londoners by his estimate that about 30 percent of the people of the metropolis were actually living in poverty. Seeking causes of poverty, he gave the lie to moralistic clichés by showing that, compared to the amount of poverty that was caused by illness and unemployment, very little was due to intemperance. In a word, Booth had demonstrated that the sentiment-ridden subject could be treated “scientifically” with statistics.

Americans followed Booth’s lead. Drawing on their new wealth of statistics and the new social sciences, they sought to make a census of want in the United States. Scholars, ministers of religion, and politicians of all parties showed a new interest in those whom Lord Brougham had called “the great Unwashed.” In 1892, Congress took the unprecedented step of instructing the Commissioner of Labor (a Federal Bureau of Labor had been created in 1884) to investigate the slums of cities with populations over 200,000. What truth was there in the claims of the anti-saloon forces that alcohol was the most important cause of poverty? The new factual approach produced Substitutes for the Saloon (1901), a publication of a Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem, which drew on copious facts about recreational facilities in slum neighborhoods to put the liquor problem in its context.

A flood of specialized studies then collected statistics on the condition of the Negro, on the state of tenement houses, on child labor, and on the problems of working women. The movement to redefine poverty found an eloquent voice in Robert Hunter, who had served with the Chicago Board of Charities before working in the slums of New York City. His Poverty (1904), which H. G. Wells called “compulsory reading for every prosperous adult in the United States,” was an instant success. He described the extent and the consequences of poverty in the United States by drawing on the statistics of pauperism, of charitable society caseloads, of pauper burials, and of wage rates. His shocking conclusion was that in a total population of some 80 million, there were no fewer than 10 million persons living “in poverty.” Hunter’s arithmetical approach was a far cry from the more traditional American view expressed, for example, by William Graham Sumner, who said that there was really no satisfactory definition of “a poor man.” Sumner and other Americans feared that all easy definitions served only to cover reformist enthusiasms and “social fallacies.” But Hunter’s insistently statistical view—that the poor could be defined as those Americans whose income fell below an established minimum—had wide appeal. Others drew on the improved statistics of income, both individual and national, to give more precise definition to the plight of the poor.

In 1909 the Pittsburgh Survey, which scrutinized the lives of the city’s workers in relentless detail, became a model for others. This new social-scientific brand of American philanthropy was supported by the fortune of a pioneer businessman. Russell Sage, born in a covered wagon going west in 1812, had almost no education. He started life in the grocery business and then was a collaborator in Jay Gould’s sensational railroad manipulations. Toward the end of his life Sage became a philanthropist, and after his death his widow used his fortune to set up a foundation in his name for “the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States.” A symbol of the new social approach to poverty, the Russell Sage Foundation aimed “to eradicate so far as possible the causes of poverty and ignorance, rather than to relieve the sufferings of those who are poor and ignorant.”

THE PUBLIC CONCERN for poverty, which had begun with a few social workers, passionate reformers, and doctrinaire socialists, broadened into a major issue of national policy by the mid-twentieth century. After the Depression of the 1930’s, no President could be elected without a remedial program not merely for the starving and the destitute but for all those Americans who lacked the essentials of an American standard of living. Only a century before, the passionate crusader Dorothea Dix had had trouble awakening a few state legislators to the predicament of “paupers” who, along with the insane, were confined in almshouses and jails. In 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his second inaugural address described “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” he sounded a national alarm; and the nation listened.

The growth of the social sciences and the amassing of statistics gave ever sharper definition to the statistical community of “poverty-Americans.” For example, Social Class and Mental Illness (1958), by August B. Hollingshead and F. C. Redlich, showed from a detailed statistical study of New Haven, Connecticut, that in the lowest fifth of the population in the city there was three times as much treated psychiatric illness as in the top two fifths. Moreover, they observed, while in the top two fifths 65 percent of treated psychiatric illness was for neurotic problems and only 35 percent was for the more serious problems of psychoses, in the bottom fifth 90 percent was for psychoses. These and other less ambiguous studies on diet, health, and housing climaxed in the early 1960’s in an organized public concern that was without precedent.

This concern was focused in a popular book by the socialist writer Michael Harrington, The Other America (1963), which used statistics to prove that between 40 million and 50 million Americans were living in poverty. Harrington defined the “poor” as “those who suffer levels of life well below those that are possible, even though they live better than medieval knights or Asian peasants. . . . those who are denied the minimal levels of health, housing, food, and education that our present stage of scientific knowledge specifies as necessary for life as it is now lived in the United States.” Harrington shocked his readers with his persuasively quantitative definitions of “the poor.”

Income statistics were the raw material of these definitions. Distinctions were made according to family size, city and farm, and region of the country. The poor, whom generations of Americans had seen as a vaguely defined fluid mass on way stations to success, now had become a large, sharply defined statistical community which threatened to remain static. The new quantified definitions did not reduce the emotional appeal of slogans to help the poor, who became the new hyphenates; just as formerly there had been German-Americans and Italian-Americans, now there were Poverty-Americans.

“This Administration today, here and now,” said President Lyndon B. Johnson in his first State of the Union message on January 8, 1967, “declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” Congress established a vast antipoverty program, appropriated $1.1 billion for Appalachia alone, set up VISTA (a domestic peace corps), a Job Corps for dropouts, Operation Head Start, and a host of other projects. Cynics, recalling earlier short-lived American enthusiasms, mocked the “poverty industry.” Some noted that the poor now were called the “underprivileged.” Government agencies lent their authenticity to the new definitions, and gave an official reality to the statistical community of the American poor, even requiring “representation” of poverty-Americans on the boards administering antipoverty projects. But with traditional optimism, the coordinating agency, until its dissolution in 1973, was called the Office of Economic Opportunity.

In 1959 the Department of Labor surveyed twenty American cities to define a “modest but adequate” budget, below which was the poverty level. And in 1964 the Social Security Administration explicitly defined “poverty levels”: based on figures provided by the Department of Agriculture’s Economy Food Plan, these were designed to reflect different consumption requirements depending upon family size, age, and urban or rural residence. According to the Department of Commerce in 1968, an American was living in poverty if he had an annual income of less than $1,748 ($1,487 on farms) for a single person, less than $2,774 for a family of three members ($2,352 on farms), less than $4,706 for a family of six ($4,021 on farms). The Statistical Abstract of the United States, published by the Bureau of the Census, began to indicate the precise number of Americans living “below the poverty level.” For 1968 this came to 12.8 percent (25.4 million persons) of the total population, down from 22.4 percent (39.5 million persons) for 1959. The Bureau’s Pocket Data Book for 1971, along with figures on livestock production, steel output, and automobile registration, offered a chart of the “Incidence of Poverty.” Income consciousness had become so prevalent that proposals to aid the poor were now sometimes stated as the need for a “negative income tax.”

As the estimate of well-being became more quantitative, it did not necessarily become more vivid or more poignant. Harrington concluded his insistently statistical portrait of poverty in America by saying that even if there were ten million fewer poor than he had figured, “that would not really be important.” At the same time that the United States undertook the most self-conscious and best-organized attack on poverty in all its history, some romantic and conscience-ridden young Americans, children of the comfortable middle class, were making an unprecedented effort to secede from the American Standard of Living. They hoped to share the “virtues” of poverty. And in this they were denying a dominant motif of American civilization which had been a gigantic program against poverty.

Antipoverty publicists in the 1960’s, who generally defined poverty-Americans by the copious use of statistics, commonly observed that poverty in America was “invisible.” This was another way of recognizing the spread of everywhere communities, new groupings of Americans held together abstractly, in common statistical categories.

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