Poverty: An American tradition

January 15, 2009

Leela Yellesetty reviews a new book that looks at the history of poverty in the U.S.--and resistance to it.

YOU DON'T have to look far these days to see that poverty is on the rise in America.

As we slide further into the deepest economic recession in decades, more and more Americans are faced with layoffs and evictions and record numbers are lining up at food pantries, shelters and welfare and unemployment offices. Many who aren't yet desperately poor are teetering close to the edge.

Indeed, even before the most recent crisis emerged, studies found that 58.5 percent of Americans will have lived below the poverty line at some point in their life, keeping in mind that the poverty line itself is unreasonably low. The numbers are worse for oppressed populations. If you are Black and female, for instance, you have a 98.8 percent chance of being poor in your lifetime.

In this context, a critical history and analysis of poverty in America couldn't be more relevant. Stephen Pimpare's A People's History of Poverty in America offers just that, drawing on an impressive array of scholarship, oral history, literature and primary source material. As part of the New Press' People's History series, Pimpare follows the tradition of Howard Zinn, looking at the history of poverty from the perspective of those who actually experienced it.

A bread line in San Francisco during the Great Depression
A bread line in San Francisco during the Great Depression (Dorthea Lange)

Rather than being a straight chronological history, the book is organized thematically, thereby drawing attention to the continuity of the experience of poverty in the U.S. As Pimpare puts it, "Hardships are part of our national experience, and poverty is not the exception, but the rule; it is not an anomaly confined to some marginal and marginalized population. In America, poverty is endemic."

Through a deft and highly readable weaving of historical and contemporary material, Pimpare highlights not only how poverty has been a constant feature throughout American history, but the similarities in the ways people have thought about and dealt with it. He systematically shreds all of the time-honored myths about poverty, in particular the widespread idea that people are poor because of some personal, moral failure.

"It is only slight exaggeration to say that those with political power have worried principally about the morals of poor Americans, while poor Americans have been concerned about their stomachs," writes Pimpare.

Pimpare attacks the myth of the lazy poor from every angle, illustrating the reality of living in poverty and the structural obstacles to pulling oneself out of it. Rather than lying around asking for handouts, Pimpare points out, "What poor Americans have usually demanded (when they have demanded anything at all) is not charity or welfare but a safe job at a decent wage." Instead, what poor people usually face are poverty wages, dilapidated housing and schools, diminished opportunities and constant humiliation at the hands of those in power.

The book strips away at the stereotypes of poor people, replacing them with a far different reality. For instance, in the chapter on homelessness he asks those who complain about homeless people's hygiene to think about what it really takes to stay clean while living in a car, or how it feels to be herded like cattle through a homeless shelter.

He challenges proponents of welfare reform to put themselves in the shoes of a mother who must choose between a minimum-wage job that will barely pay for child care or staying home with her kids. In response to moralizing about poor people's drug and alcohol use, he quotes the words of an early New York tenement dweller lecturing a disapproving health inspector: "If you lived in this place you too would ask for whiskey instead of milk."

Pimpare implores readers to ask why it is so unreasonable for poor people to want more than just mere subsistence out of life, that maybe a sense of joy and comfort are equally important for survival.

AS IF being poor weren't hard enough, the book also highlights the ways in which the poor are punished further. "Throughout much of our history, to be poor was a crime. Should you have found yourself in debt in colonial Philadelphia, you would have been jailed and then required to pay for your own food and heat."

And as we witness a new rash of evictions and homeless sweeps today, Pimpare notes, "It is during periods of growing inequality when the most punitive approaches to direst poverty seem especially visible in the historical record; perhaps regressive redistribution and repression go hand in hand."

Much of the book is a discussion on the role of the welfare state in relation to poverty, and contrary to right-wing arguments, the author clearly demonstrates the positive impact of welfare programs in lifting people out of poverty, to the extent they're available. However, he also considers the negative impacts of welfare institutions in the lives of poor Americans.

All too often, both public and private charities have been more in the business of reforming and controlling their beneficiaries than helping them. The experience of constant judgment and public humiliation are enough to keep many from even seeking the assistance they so desperately need--if the price of help is losing your last shred of self-respect.

While welfare institutions may be a mixed blessing, two major state institutions have had an entirely negative impact on poor people in the U.S., particularly on African Americans: slavery and the criminal justice system. The concluding chapter examines how these racist institutions have profoundly shaped poverty in America, to the benefit of a minority. Pimpare writes,

"We should note a curious irony. African Americans have historically been more likely to be castigated for their dependence on welfare, despite their relative independence from it through exclusion. As I've noted, we could instead claim that it has been whites who have been dependent upon Blacks: for cheap labor on the plantation, on the farm, in the factory, and in the prison; for child-rearing and housekeeping; as cannon fodder; and as politically indispensable scapegoats."

Perhaps the most compelling theme of the book is that the poor are not merely passive victims, but human beings who employ a variety of strategies in order to survive and maintain some measure of dignity and joy in their lives. All too often the poorest Americans have had not choice but to figure out ways to help themselves.

The highly publicized munificence of Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates notwithstanding, Pimpare observes that "poor people have had to depend upon one another because too few outside their communities have cared. In fact, when data about charitable giving are examined, the poorer one is, the more of one's income has historically been given away." Even more astounding, in a footnote we learn that people making less than $100,000 give more in absolute dollars than the millionaire set!

Aside from devising ways to survive, poor people have always resisted their oppression in various ways--from subtle acts of defiance and sabotage to collective struggle and direct action. Contrary to popular belief, most poverty relief programs in U.S. history were not benignly granted by the elites; they were demanded, and in some cases created, by the poor themselves.

The final chapter on resistance is disappointing in its brevity, since so many other examples could be included, but the history of the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1960s and the Communist Party's anti-eviction campaigns in the 1930s provide valuable lessons for activists today. In the words of a Detroit auto worker, janitor and union organizer on the anti-eviction campaign,

"The Communists have done a lot--they've practically stopped evictions. When there's an eviction about to take place, the people notify the Unemployed Council and the Communists go around and wait till the sheriff has gone and then move all the furniture back into the house. Then the landlord has to notify the authorities again, and the sheriff has to get a new warrant, and the result is that they usually never get around to evicting the people again. They've got the landlords so buffaloed that the other day a woman called up the Unemployed Council and asked whether she could put tenants out yet. The Unemployed Council said no."

This is exactly the history that needs to be uncovered in America today.

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