Commentary Magazine


Our Fifty Million Poor:
Forgotten Men of the Affluent Society

A fair statement of a current myth about poverty in the United States would probably go something like this: the poor are a small, rapidly declining group; they have achieved a substantial measure of protection as a result of the reforms of the New Deal; insofar as they exist, they are mostly non-whites and rural Southerners; and as industrial productivity continues to rise, they will entirely disappear.

Such is the myth. The facts present the hard outline of a different, and far less pretty, picture. As many as 50 million Americans continue to live below those standards which we have been taught to regard as the decent minimums for food, housing, clothing, and health. These millions are, in fact, a predominantly urban, white population; they have scarcely been affected by the reforms of the past quarter-century; and as a group they have profited least from the striking gains in productivity which have characterized the American economy since World War II.

If a rising productivity has failed to suppress poverty in the United States—as prematurely claimed by some of our more sanguine theorists—it has conspicuously piled up the profits (distributed and undistributed) of the country’s most successful corporations. Between 1940 and 1957, according to a report from the Department of Commerce, the country’s total corporate profits—after taxes—were tripled. The same productivity has benefited the best organized sectors of labor, and served to swell the over-$5,000 per year category in the government’s income statistics. The poor, however, were not affected appreciably by the boom generated in the Korean war, and the statistics of poverty remained at about 1949 levels, up to 1956. In the last two years, the numbers of the poor have increased; and some of the progress made previously toward minimum standards has been wiped out. Those who were already poor were the first to become unemployed in the recession of 1958.

By even the most conservative official definitions, close to a third of the nation (the phrase echoes out of the past) is living at economic levels which, as a 1956 Congressional resolution put it, “are below the prevailing standards of adequacy.” More gloomily, the same resolution stated that these millions of Americans are “today living at income levels permanently, not temporarily, depressed.”

In 1949, a Congressional body, the Joint Subcommittee on Low Income Families, statistically defined poverty in terms of an urban family income of less than $2,000 a year, or a rural income under $1,000; at the time, the CIO criticized this definition as too low, but in any case, since then the cost of living has risen by more than 25 per cent. In 1952, the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated “adequate” budgets for a family of four in various cities; its lowest figure was $3,812 a year (New Orleans) and its highest $4,454 (Washington, D. C). The most recent revision of the Bureau’s figures, reported in Medical Economics, set the low at $4,288 for Scranton, Pennsylvania, in September 1958. These government estimates are conservative. In 1954, the Heller Research Committee of the University of California concluded that an adequate urban family budget should be no less than $5,353. (Its computations were modest: rent was figured at $52 a month.) On a less generous estimate, most authorities would agree that an urban family of four needs more than $3,500—probably $4,000—to subsist in 1959. Roughly 25 million families, not far from half of all American families, are living on less than $4,000 a year today.

Suppose, however, that we set the standard of adequacy still lower—at $3,000 a year. At least 40 million, perhaps closer to 60 million people, are living at or below this level. A recent Federal Reserve Board report tells us that 34 per cent of the “spending units” (families or unattached individuals) in the United States had incomes of less than $3,000 in 1958. If, on the other hand, we use the Commerce Department’s figures for 1957, one-quarter of the families in the nation were below the $60-a-week level. (The statistical discrepancies spring from the recession, and from the fact that some “spending units” represent single people, others farm families who have non-money income.) When one takes into account the inflation of the last two decades, this $3,000-a-year standard is about that which the WPA provided to unmarried workers during the depression period of the 30’s. And, as Senator Paul Douglas has pointed out, “the regional differences in the cost of living are much, much less than commonly claimed, between cities of appreciable size and as regards the difference between large and small cities.” Of the families who had incomes under $3,000 in March 1958, only 18 per cent lived on farms. The South, to be sure, was poorest; some 43 per cent of its families were earning less than $3,000 a year in 1957. But 31 per cent of the people in the North Central states were similarly impoverished.

Setting low estimates of “adequacy,” making allowances for farm families who don’t need as much money income in order to survive, taking account of regional differences, the problem of poverty in the United States remains enormous. Poverty is not, as shall be seen, a condition which is disappearing; nor is there any ground to hope for an easy, automatic amelioration of it.

_____________

 

In any attempt to describe the American poor, old people must be listed first. More than a third of the people over sixty-five years of age in 1957 had incomes of less than $1,890 a year ($36 a week). These aged live on inadequate pensions in the blighted neighborhoods of the cities—often enough, in the loneliness of rooming houses. Insofar as pensions are tied to previous earnings, it may be surmised that a great proportion of them were always poor. According to a recent survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a majority of those who made less than $3,500, who worked for thirty-five years, and were covered by a union pension clause, were receiving benefits of $40 a week or less. The older people who were not covered by some negotiated plan (25 per cent of office workers and 40 per cent of plant workers were without retirement benefits in 1957) had an average monthly income of $62.35 in 1956.

The inadequacy of prevailing pensions achieves terrible meaning in the light of the widespread economic discrimination against the aged. Older people have been finding it more difficult to obtain and hold jobs over the last fifty years. The National Planning Association, in 1952, concluded that the aged will find it even more difficult in the future. The NPA study declared: “On the most optimistic assumptions, the number of non-earners among the aged will not only remain very large, but will grow as the number of the aged grows.”

Second in any catalogue of the poor come the unskilled workers. In an economy growing ever more complex and technical, the unskilled are largely doomed from the moment they abandon their studies to seek employment. Those who leave school without acquiring industrial or commercial skills generally do so for one or both of two reasons: they are the children of uneducated parents (with little regard for education as a value), and they are members of large families (which need the youth’s wages). In 1949, the Joint Subcommittee reported that 62 per cent of the fathers of families which earned less than $3,000 had not finished grade school. In 1957, the Department of Commerce estimated that more than a quarter of these low income families had seven or more members.

Yet, despite their propensity to large families, the very poor tend to have fewer wage earners than the lower middle class. In 1957, only 15 per cent of the families with incomes under $3,000 had three people working—as compared with 28 per cent in the $6,000-$7,000 group. The aged and infirm relatives of the poor are part of this story; children are another.

At work, the unskilled are largely unprotected by recent social advances. Almost two-thirds of American workers and employees were not organized into unions in 1957. A third of the work force—some 20 million workers in agriculture, retail trades, service industries, agricultural processing, etc.—was still excluded from the minimum wage law in 1957. Unemployment insurance varies radically in its benefits from state to state, and there are huge gaps in coverage. A recent University of Michigan survey concluded that 36 per cent of the unemployed had received no unemployment benefits during the 1958 recession and that 85 per cent of those who did found them inadequate. Last March, the AFL-CIO estimated that two million jobless workers (about 40 per cent of the total) were either without coverage or had exhausted their claims. Thus, for the unskilled worker outside the major interstate industries, the “social security” achieved by the New Deal tends to be rather problematical.

Local and regional pockets of poverty develop among skilled workers, too, when an industry is threatened with widespread shutdowns or moves South to take advantage of lower wage rates. The textile mills of New England and the West Virginia coal fields are two examples of industries where skilled workers remain poor. Solomon Barkin of the Textile Workers Union described their problem to a Congressional Committee in 1954: “The workers receiving less than $1.25 an hour are not paid low wages because they are unproductive or inefficient. . . . The trouble is that they are weak bargainers. They live and work in low-wage areas. They are immobile—they are the heads of families, or wives, or young people or older men and women. They suffer from racial or sex discrimination. Many possess skills that are not easily transferrable. Many are victims of employer-controlled labor markets.”

_____________

 

Away from the cities and towns, migratory workers constitute a substantial segment of the poor. No one knows exactly how many of them there are. It was noted by an officer of the Sharecroppers’ Fund that the U.S. government “takes census figures of migrant birds, but not of migrant workers.” Paul Jacobs recently estimated in the Reporter that there were as many as one million farm workers who work less than 150 days of the year. They are not covered by the fair labor standards laws enacted under the New Deal. They are victimized by accidents, shipped like cattle in trucks, and work side by side in the fields with their small children. They often live in camps like the one the San José (California) Mercury described as the “longest slum in the world. . . . Village conditions in Pakistan are no worse.”

These migrant laborers are part of a larger revolution in agriculture. They, together with machines, are replacing thousands of unskilled rural people who have for various reasons moved into the cities. Most of those who have left the farms have been thrust into urban slums, with no preparation for a new way of life. In Harper’s last year, Albert Votaw described the 70,000 “hillbillies” who have upset Chicago’s population of four million. Their children come from inferior schools and find it difficult to adjust to the new ones. The adults, unfamiliar with the rationality and speed of city ways, tend to job-jumping and rent-skipping. In an environment of high racial tension, these white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants have awakened prejudice and hatred that equals the hostility toward the Negro. The study is one of a fairly small group, but Chicago’s problem is duplicated in several urban slums, among the “Arkies” of St. Louis and the country folk who came to work in Detroit’s industry, for example.

Finally, any catalogue of the poor must include Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Indians, and other members of the so-called non-white minority groups. In 1957, the average non-white worker’s wage was not much more than half that of the average white worker. The minorities among the poor suffer a double indignity: their slums are segregated. Like the aged worker, the Negro, the Puerto Rican, the Mexican, the Indian, are among the first to be fired and last to be hired. Yet, it must be emphasized, America’s poverty is not primarily racial. In the Commerce Department tabulations, three-fourths of the Americans earning less than $1,890 are white.

In the course of a walk through the slums of any of our major cities, one may see these types of the poor living side by side. Some explanation of their movements was provided by Daniel Seligman of Fortune, in his chapter on “The Enduring Slums” in The Exploding Metropolis. “The slums are crowded,” he writes, “because there are more jobs to be had; the news was spread to small towns and farms, the South, and to Puerto Rico, and in the wake of the postwar industrial expansion there has been a great migration of rural laborers and semi-skilled craftsmen to the big city. They work as sweepers at General Motors; they are scrap throwers at Inland Steel; they push hand trucks around New York’s garment center.”

In other words, the growth of poverty reflects massive changes in the American economy itself. The great improvement—the so-called “income revolution”—since World War II has been a rise in the number of families earning between $5,000 and $10,000 a year. (Some of the improvement is illusory, because the purchasing power of the 1959 dollar is about that of the 1939 fifty-cent piece.) Nevertheless, although many individuals and families did in fact escape from poverty to the lower-middle class in the last decade, there has been almost no change in the proportion of the poor in our population. Their share of the national wealth remains what it was. Between 1947 and 1956, the Commerce Department has found, the number of individuals in the lowest two-fifths of the money structure actually increased by .3 per cent. The hard core of impoverished millions remained.

_____________

 

Escape from poverty is difficult; illness is one of the major barriers. Because of the unhygienic conditions of the slums, the poor are more susceptible to disease of all kinds, and they are thus more likely to lose pay or their jobs because of illness. In 1957, the Commerce Department reported, 36 per cent of male workers earning less than $3,000 a year lost some working time due to illness: the highest concentration of illness was among those who earned under $1,000 a year.

When disease strikes, the poor cannot afford proper care. For a time after President Truman’s request for national health insurance was rejected by Congress, it seemed that private or semi-private medical plans might be on the way to remedying this situation. But the AFL-CIO estimated in 1957 that 37 per cent of American families lacked any medical insurance whatsoever, and that only 3 per cent had comprehensive coverage. Public clinical care is available to the poor in the cities—if they can endure the meanness of the conditions which often characterize public medicine. In any event, such care, even at its best, can do nothing to stop the incubation of disease in the conditions of poverty.

Physical illness has long been recognized as part of the slum complex. Now, social research adds mental disease to the picture. In New Haven, social scientists Hollings-head and Redlich found a striking correlation between low income and mental disease. Partly, it is a question of money for treatment after the breakdown has occurred. For example, in one mental hospital which they surveyed, 93 per cent of the patients from the top economic class were receiving some kind of psychoanalytic therapy. It was a private hospital, and so there were no patients present from the lowest class (Class V). Of those in the next grouping, however, only 19 per cent were getting analytic therapy. The poorer patients were generally treated by social workers and young doctors, and received shock treatment rather than systematic psychotherapy.

Yet the cost of care is not the only factor. Dr. Thomas Langer, in a paper read to the American Psychopathological Association, described a study which showed a definite relationship between poverty and the incidence of mental disturbance. One cause of greater mental illness among the poor, he suggested, is the cumulative effect of the stresses of slum life—not any single traumatic incident, but the grinding, wearing conditions of everyday living. Unscientific impressions would surely seem to corroborate Dr. Langer’s hypothesis: it can hardly be argued that slum life is conducive to the emergence of a healthy personality.

_____________

 

Conditions of housing for the poor have not improved at all since World War II. In fact, they have grown worse. Charles Abrams, former New York State Rent Commissioner and chairman of the State Commission Against Discrimination, has summarized the postwar development as follows: “Slums persist as our slum dwellings are being cut up into single rooms into which whole families are herded. The millions of Negroes and other minorities pouring into our cities are being forced to pay the highest rates for the shabbiest dwellings, and the competition for housing is increasing neighborhood tensions in a growing number of areas.”

Public housing, which seemed a popular liberal cause in the 30’s and 40’s, is no longer an important factor in alleviating the situation. In 1957, according to Abrams, only 1,610 of the 35,000 public housing units Congress had authorized for that year were under contract by June. Present public housing bills offered by liberal Democrats in the Congress provide for fewer dwelling units annually than Senator Robert Taft recommended a decade ago. Abrams estimates the current need for new housing, public or private, at two million units a year. The current growth is less than a million; new construction is largely for upper and upper-middle income families.

The effect of these housing policies on our cities is all too obvious. The prospects for the future, according to Dr. Raymond Vernon of the business-backed Committee for Economic Development, are not reassuring. As the New York Times reported his projection: “Slums will march from downtown business districts to the suburbs in New York and twelve other major cities. . . . [Dr. Vernon] saw a ‘gray belt’ of urban decay spreading from the downtown skyscrapers to the city line. He also saw scant prospect of arresting the flight of middle-income families to the suburbs. When this group abandons an area, he said, the vacated buildings are converted to intensive low-income use.”

The economic paradox is that the abandoned quarters become more expensive, rather than cheaper to rent—in flat contradiction to the old “trickle-down” theory, which assumed that the poor would ultimately inherit run-down middle-class dwellings at lower rents. But that theory assumed a housing surplus, rather than the shortage we have had since the war; it also assumed competitive rents, a tenants’ market, which we have not had either. Today, loopholes in state and local rent-control laws often make it possible for the same apartment to draw rentals several times as high when it is split into small units than it did when it was used by a single family. At the same time, the shortage of good housing has made municipal inspectors loath to condemn substandard dwellings for obvious violations of health and safety codes. People live in these apartments for years after they have deteriorated below the standards set by official codes and regulations.

Living in such housing conditions were two million urban families who, acccording to the 1950 census, did not have an inside toilet. Three million urban families in 1950 were without a tub or shower. In the New York metropolitan area alone, there were at least 150,000 units without shower or bath; 72,000 units which had plumbing which the census takers described as “dilapidated.” The situation is worst in the racial ghetto: the 1950 census reported that half a million urban non-white housing units had no running water whatever inside the building. It will be interesting to see how much of an improvement is recorded by the census of 1960.

_____________

 

Only in the last two centuries has poverty been thought of as a social problem, capable of solution. Before then, it was considered as inevitable as floods or epidemics. As John Maynard Keynes wrote: “From the earliest times of which we have record—back, say, to two thousand years before Christ—down to the beginning of the 18th century, there was no very great change in the standard of living of the average man living in the civilized centers of the earth. Ups and downs certainly. Visitations of plague, famine, and war. Golden intervals. But no progressive, violent change.”

The “progressive, violent change” came with the rise of science and capitalism. The earth was transformed and new possibilities of material well-being were explored, but the poor remained. The medieval fatalism which saw divine ordinance in the impoverishment of the masses was secularized; in the early 19th century, the poor were considered the necessary victims of political economy, rather than of God. Side by side with the technological revolution, there existed, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s phrase, the “tradition of despair.” For Adam Smith and those who followed him, the prospects of the poor were bleak.

Even the 19th-century revolutionists tended to skirt the problem of poverty. Marx envisioned a social revolution that would transform all of society, but he did not expect the very poor to achieve that revolution: the decisive force, he thought, would be the organized industrial workers.

Indeed, the “welfare state” as we know it today represents largely the effort of the organized millions in the trade unions and the liberal middle classes. In theory, they recognized the conception of a minimum human need, of a floor under human suffering; in practice, the welfare state was best geared to the needs of those who had struggled for it, rather than the poor. The landmarks of reform—the recognition of collective bargaining, unemployment compensation, old-age and survivors’ insurance—were designed in the main to help those who had skilled, or semi-skilled, regular employment. Some of the benefits extended to the entire population, to be sure; and full employment during World War II made it possible for many poor people to improve their status. Still, the tens of millions of the poor remained to a large extent outside the scope of the welfare state, locked in their immemorial poverty.

_____________

 

Fortune magazine once described the American economy as a “Permanent Revolution.” The Chamber of Commerce, declaring that “serious depressions have been abolished in the United States by popular vote,” listed six Keynesian techniques as the stuff of its new faith. President Eisenhower has said that unending prosperity can be achieved through a “cooperative effort in which the policies of individuals and economic groups of all levels of government are consistent with one another and mutually reinforcing.”

In view of this widespread optimism about the future of our economy, it is not surprising that we lack any comprehensive program to deal with mass poverty. It is, however, alarming that the existing social programs often enlarge poverty’s scope. On the one hand, as Galbraith has pointed out in The Affluent Society, the postwar expansion of industrial production was accompanied by a roll-back in the traditional social services, and a refusal to consider the new problems that had arisen—such as the inadequacy of school systems to accommodate new millions of students.

On the other hand, many measures of the postwar period which seemed to spring from reform impulses were completely transformed in the course of the legislative and administrative processes. What is generally called “urban renewal” is a case in point. It seems utterly progressive in concept, yet often works to aggravate slum conditions. Last March, for example, the New York Post noted a “slum clearance” project on the city’s West Side which is designed to provide accommodations for what federal and state laws call “middle-income” families. The rents are scheduled at $50 to $60 a month per room—or $250-$300 for a five-room apartment. (This requires an annual income of at least $12,000, probably more.) Meanwhile, the previous residents of the slum area must find accommodations where they can—in other slums, as a rule.

Many incidents of this kind prompted Charles Abrams’s rueful conclusion: “We tore down slums—but intensified overcrowding and its unhealthy by-products. We built some housing for the middle class—but, as costs continued going up, we simply lowered the standards so that many houses were worse than those built in the 19th century. We increased the proportion of home-ownership—but spiraled the price and the debt.”

Racial segregation is sometimes the chief result of “redevelopment.” The Hyde Park-Kenwood Urban Renewal Plan in Chicago will reduce the number of housing units in the Chicago University area by a third (from about 6,000 to around 4,000). The buildings which are being torn down are part of an inter-racial slum. Those which will replace them will rent at $45 a room, or will sell as cooperatives at prices between $20,000 and $45,000. The plan will thus displace most of the area’s low-income families and will also drive its Negroes back into the South Side ghetto. The development involves some $28 million in Federal funds.

The mere building of low-income, un-segregated housing is not, however, the entire answer to such conditions. Those who have visited some of the celebrated “projects” of the pre-war and postwar periods, as did Harrison E. Salisbury of the New York Times in his survey of juvenile delinquency, have been shocked by the same old familiar decay of poverty. These buildings have elevators and modern plumbing; but their inhabitants do not know how to use either. In the new, publicly financed, concrete-and-steel warrens, ignorance still survives, and with it the face of poverty.

Indeed, each factor in the equation of being poor tends to reinforce the others. Poverty means ignorance and unsanitary conditions; thus, no skills and more sickness, less work—more poverty. The child of the poor, as often as not, passes on poverty and its habits of mind to his own children. The statistics make it clear that the persistence of poverty is not simply a matter of new additions to the economy, like the Puerto Ricans in New York or the Mexicans in California and Texas. A large section of the poor inherits its poverty.

_____________

 

In large measure, poverty is a separate culture, another nation, with its own way of life. The poor are least capable of taking advantage of new opportunities, first to be struck down by a social crisis. In the recession of 1958, the number of people receiving less than $2,000 a year increased by 10 per cent; but because the recession was a “blue-collar” phenomenon, it had little effect on those better off. In fact, during the same period, another 10 per cent passed upward into the $7,500-$l0,000 bracket.

Because poverty is a culture, the poor must often be helped onto the escalator of social mobility before they can benefit from traditional programs of social reform. Remedial action is, indeed, imperative to deal with the obvious scandals of a decrepit school system, inadequate health care, low pensions, and so on. Yet, so long as such actions are piecemeal, they will least help those who most need them. If, for example, there were a gigantic Federal outlay for school construction, student subsidy, and higher wages for teachers, the poorest pupils would be the last to benefit. Their uneducated parents, the poverty of their family life, would prevent them from capitalizing on these new opportunities. The same would be true if public-health services were expanded; so long as an environment of disease is the basic reality for the poor, new medical services will have little effect in lowering their disposition toward illness. Housing, schools, medical care, labor standards, communal institutions must be combined in a broad, planned program if any of these measures is to have real impact on poverty.

A comprehensive assault on poverty would first involve, obviously, a massive attack on America’s rural and urban slums. But we have learned in the postwar years that great care must be taken not to construct new patterns of segregation—by race or by income. Furthermore, persistent effort at adult reeducation is required if a new “project” is not itself to acquire a vicious slum character. We have recognized that the Negro child in the South who moves from an inferior segregated school to integrated facilities has at least temporary difficulty in taking full advantage of the new situation; the urban slum family which is simply dropped into a new, red-brick apartment house faces problems of the same order. There is an overriding need, largely neglected today, for the careful development of community institutions within the new housing units.

It has also been suggested that project tenants be permitted, once they are financially able, to buy their apartments; thus a housing cooperative would gradually be built up. A variation on this idea would extend low-cost, long-term government loans to such tenants in order to help them finance their purchase of the cooperative apartments. Either way, the projects would become much more heterogeneous, instead of being income ghettos, as most housing projects are today. Another new idea is deliberately to build schools and public housing in socially and economically “marginal” areas, in order that they may draw on a wide variety of groups and help to break down barriers of communication between them. Charles Abrams has frankly urged us to consider whether or not some sort of flexible “quota” system might be the best short-term expedient for promoting racial integration in public housing. Certainly ideas of this kind merit serious consideration if the old habits and attitudes of poverty are to be transformed.

Beyond such a massive assault on the slums, there remains the need for expanded social services of every kind. As Galbraith argues, the contradiction between our national wealth and our social services becomes more glaring each day. Yet, if there is serious thought about reaching the “permanently depressed,” the eternal poor, there must be an initial attack of even greater proportions than the one Galbraith has outlined.

_____________

 

Who is to accomplish such a program? Surely, it is easier to answer this question negatively than positively: we know who will not accomplish it. The conservative approach, which would entrust the task to private groups, municipalities, and the Federal government only in the last resort, is utterly incapable of dealing with the current reality. Private charities can accomplish some amelioration, but they lack the resources and the authority to make fundamental changes in the structure of poverty. The cities are faced with the flight of the middle classes to the suburbs, which means that the slum dwellers are becoming the major source of municipal tax revenue—hardly a promising situation. State governments, more often than not, are dominated by rural conservatism, and return only a cautious percentage of the urban tax dollar for social services. Thus, the most cursory glance at recent experience makes it clear that the magnitude of the job requires a comprehensive Federal action.

But Federal action means political leadership. The social workers and charitable organizations which collect facts on poverty in this or that sector of society do not constitute a political force. The labor movement often speaks in defense of the poor at Congressional hearings, but—in part because a majority of its members are no longer among the poor, thanks largely to their skills and organization—organized labor’s political action in the last decade has paid less active attention to the problems of poverty.

Indeed, on the economic level it is quite possible that union gains have injured the very poor. If, as Sumner Slichter and others have recently argued, the unionized industrial workers have a stake in a moderately inflationary spiral, the poor are doubly victimized: excluded from the collective bargaining advances in wages, they must also pay the subsequent price increases. Because of this pattern, such economists as Clark C. Kerr believe that trade-union action, even of the most socially conscious “Reuther” type, cannot accomplish a significant redistribution of wealth. On the political level, the unions are, obviously, most concerned with legislation which aids the organized. The very poor have a spiritual ally in the labor movement—but, after all the election returns are in and all the legislative compromises made, the alliance has not been of substantial help in the last two decades.

The liberal middle class, which was so active in support of reform before the war, has not been particularly concerned with poverty in the postwar years. Many, too, have themselves recently risen from the low-income ranks and are more interested in protecting and enhancing their position than in broad social reforms. Furthermore, the great migration to the suburbs insulates millions from the facts of urban and rural poverty. And even in the cities, members of the middle class manage to isolate themselves from the facts of poverty. I recall, some years ago in St. Louis, taking a young practice teacher on social-work rounds in the neighborhood of a slum school. It was a rainy, autumn day and the first tenement corridor we entered was filled with the odor of decay and backed-up toilets. When she was twenty feet down the hall, the apprentice fled, sick to her stomach. Millions of Americans have simply never experienced the characteristic smell of poverty. Nor have they learned much about it in the schools: a survey of three standard college sociology textbooks turned up only a handful of references to poverty, one of them the bland statement that it had recently been done away with in the United States. Research into poverty is not conspicuous, either, among the many projects now engaging our army of behavioral scientists. Finally, even among observant city-dwellers who know all too well that poverty exists, the magic of “urban redevelopment” has persuaded many people that the slum complex is being steadily reduced—when in fact such “renewal” projects often increase the congestion of the slums.

It is apparent, upon reflection, that our recent lack of concern with poverty is part of the temper of moderation that has ruled our politics for the past two decades. In this period we have not seen the passage of any major social legislation. Since 1938, a conservative outlook has been dominant, though often masked by liberal phraseology. In some ways, the elections last November seemed to reflect a resurgence of more liberal political sentiment. But by now it is obvious that this is not the kind of strong tide capable of bringing about serious social legislation. A comprehensive attack on poverty must await the rise of some new, deeper impulse in our political life. Until that time, it is likely that the poor will remain with us, through cycles of boom and bust and successive elections, and that their way of life will perpetuate itself, to their own hurt and the great damage of our whole society.

_____________

 

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.