Commentary Magazine


The Statistics of Poverty

To the Editor:

Although I am in sympathy with Michael Harrington’s plea for the poor (“Our Fifty Million Poor,” July), I feel duty-bound, as a student of income distribution, to correct some glaring errors in his account. The major point Harrington makes is that the fight against poverty in the United States has not made much headway during the past generation and that a very large proportion of our population–perhaps as much as one-third of the nation–is living at “substandard” levels. . . .

Yet it is not true, as Harrington charges, that “The statistics of poverty remained at about 1949 levels up to 1956.” The figures below, drawn from official government sources and compiled by leading experts, show that we have made great strides in the reduction of poverty. The number of families and individuals with incomes under $3,000 has been reduced by 8 million since 1929, whereas the total number of families and individuals has increased by 18 million; in other words, despite a 50 per cent increase in the total number of families and individuals, the number with incomes under $3,000 has been reduced by one-third. The proportions, which analytically are the more meaningful figures, show that two out of three families and individuals had incomes under $3,000 in 1929, as compared with less than one out of three in 1958. I must stress that the dollars shown are adjusted for price changes so that the effects of inflation have been taken into account. The figures are also adjusted for various deficiencies inherent in the procedures used to collect the underlying data. . . . The income level under $3,000 has been selected because that is the one suggested by Harrington as representing a more or less minimum level of adequacy. . . .

Families and Unattached Individuals by Income Level in 1950 Dollars: 1929 to 1958
    Under $3,000
Year Total number, all income levels (millions) Number (millions) Percent of total
1929 36.1 24.3 67
1935-36 38.4 26.7 69
1941 41.4 22.1 54
1944 40.9 14.9 37
1950 48.9 19.4 40
1957 53.5 16.1 30
1958 54.3 16.8 31

Source: Data for 1929-1957 from Historical Statistics of the United StatesColonial Times to 1957 to be published later this year by the Bureau of the Census; for 1957 and 1958, Office of Business Economics records underlying the data shown in Survey of Current Business, April 1959.

Harrington claims that in 1957 and 1958 “the numbers of poor have increased and some of the progress made previously toward minimum standards has been wiped out.” [But the] number of families and individuals with incomes under $3,000 was lower in these two years than for any of the other years shown, with the exception of 1944. The proportion at these levels was markedly lower in 1957-58 than at any other time in the past thirty years.

Harrington concludes that in 1956 nearly one-third of the families and individuals had incomes “below prevailing standards of adequacy.” This number is consistent with an estimate I made for 1946 (Income of the American People, Wiley and Sons), and it corresponds to the estimates which were made during the depression in 1935 when about one-third of the nation’s families were considered ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fed. The similarity of these estimates leads one to wonder to what extent hidden forces are at work either in the form of price relationships or in our definitions of adequacy which keep our standards abreast of our incomes in such a way as to give the impression that a relatively large and constant proportion of our families are living at substandard levels. . . .

Herman P. Miller
Bureau of the Census
Washington, D. C.

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To the Editor:

Michael Harrington’s interesting and otherwise careful work is marred in two spots by misinterpretation of data. Proper interpretation of these data would yield even more striking results than the has obtained. . . .

1. Harrington states: “The very poor tend to have fewer wage earners than the lower middle class. . . . The aged and infirm relatives of the poor are part of this story; children are another.” Of course, the whole of the story is that a family in which three people are working will have a greater income than if only one person works. . . . Harrington thus fails to note an important reason for the increase in the number of middle-income families: the working wife. . . . The less money a man makes, the more likely it is that his wife will be in the labor force. About 30 per cent of women whose husbands made under $3,000 in 1951 were in the labor force, compared to only 15 per cent of those whose husbands made $5,000-$7,000. . . . This contrast was even more marked where there were young children in the family.

Thus, in 1949, there were nearly 4 million families with incomes of $6,000 to $10,000. But there were only 1.4 million family-heads with that much income. Roughly two-thirds of the families in this middle-income group would drop out of it if they had to live on the income of the family-head alone.

And the poor? There were 18.7 million families in 1949 with incomes under $3,000. But there were 24.1 million family-heads with incomes that low or lower. Thus, some 5.4 million families were kept above the water-level by wives or children who worked.

2. Harrington’ later makes a similar error when he states: “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.” . . . For the most part, however, these people are in low-income brackets because they are ill, rather than being ill because they have low incomes.

Another important point here escapes the author. Salaried workers generally have higher incomes than wage workers. The salaried worker is paid for the time he is ill; the wage worker is not. Thus the costs of illness are much higher for the wage worker than for the salaried worker. . . . The “blue collar” worker not only suffers from low income but also from extremely insecure income. . . . In the boom year 1955, strikes directly affected 2.6 million workers, about half of whom lost more than a week’s pay; in the same year, close to 6 million full-time workers were unemployed at one time or another; and in the same year, over 3 million full-time workers lost more than three weeks of work due to illness. Thus strikes, illnesses, and unemployment affected the incomes of perhaps 10 million “blue collar” workers. . . .

Herman Roseman
New York City

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To the Editor:

Michael Harrington has performed a great public service in his excellent inventory of the nature and causes of poverty. . . . [Nevertheless] I should like to register a dissent with one aspect of Harrington s piece, namely . . . his remark that “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.”

. . . I would be the last to claim that the labor movement has done all it could have done to further the elimination of poverty, but I do believe that there has been no more effective ally of the poor during these decades, and–perhaps more important—that the labor movement will continue to be a major factor in the development of that “new, deeper impulse in our political life” that Harrington desires.

It is true, of course, that the labor movement . . . does have primary obligations to its own members and to its own immediate goals. It is not immune from the ambivalence common to most individuals, social groups, and nations—how to balance off the concept of “charity begins at home” with that of the Good Samaritan. In the legislative field, this conflict is frequently resolved in favor of “home.” Should labor refuse to work for any extension of the minimum wage law until farm laborers can be included, too? This would be an honorable position—but at the expense of millions of retail workers and laundry workers and telephone operators. . . .

Harrington states that “unions are, obviously, most concerned with legislation which aids the organized.” However, a very small part indeed of labor’s total legislative program affects organized workers as such. Even labor relations legislation is more important in its effects on organizing new workers than in its meaning for organized groups. The Taft-Hartley Act, which practically put a halt to further organization, deprived many workers of the economic gains which they might otherwise have made. . . . [Not] too many years ago clothing workers, steel workers, and coal miners were among the poorest of our citizens. And only this year, the AFL-CIO was subsidizing a strike against laundries in Alabama paying 20¢ an hour! . . .

In every one of the major aspects of poverty discussed by Harrington—old age, health, education, housing, migratory labor, racial discrimination—the trade unions have formulated and supported policies aimed at correction of the Situation. In each of these areas, of course, there are active groups working for their respective objectives . . . [but] none of these groups would have had even the partial success they have had if it were not for the contributions of the labor movement. . . .

The country reads about it on page one when George Meany answers the President on labor reform legislation. But few people know about it when a labor representative buttonholes members of an appropriations committee to urge the expansion of the Mexican “wetback” labor enforcement program, or to appropriate another 100 million dollars for cancer or heart research, or another million dollars for the rural library program. In the next few months, we hope to enlist the efforts of tens of thousands of local labor officials and staffers in support of the Forand bill, a proposal to bring health benefits to retired persons. Efforts to improve and expand the surplus foods program, to obtain federal aid for school construction—these and many other things constitute labor’s day-in-day-out activities. . . .

Both Harrington and I may miss the social idealism, the eloquent speeches, the philosophical declarations that once made up the image of the labor movement. There may be too much “business unionism” in the labor movement today, but the business of unions still is the elimination of poverty and insecurity—both on the job and in the community at large. . . .

Hyman H. Bookbinder
Legislative Representative, AFL-CIO
Washington, D.C.

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Mr. Harrington writes:

I have little argument with Mr. Roseman or Mr. Bookbinder. I agree with Mr. Bookbinder that the labor movement is the best ally of the poor, that major change will only take place with massive support by organized workers, etc. But the fact remains that, in the past decade, what the unions were able to achieve for their members far outweighs what union legislative action achieved for the poor; this is not the particular “fault” of the unions, but one more fact about the dreary, immediate political past. Mr. Roseman’s point about working wives is an important one and affects, as we shall see, the figures submitted by Mr. Miller. As for illness, it and poverty have a reciprocal relationship: the poor do become ill more frequently because they live in tenements. When Asian flu hit New York several years ago, it did so on a social-class basis, striking Harlem and the Lower East Side hardest.

Mr. Miller’s extended critique merits careful attention. He substantiates, in effect, the main theme of my article. His figures for 1958 show 31 per cent of the nation’s family units with incomes under $3,000 (in 1950 dollars); I used the figure of fifty million people, and estimated a percentage somewhere between a quarter and a third.

If there is agreement on this point, there is some misunderstanding on another. Mr. Miller strenuously affirms that the United States has made much headway in the fight against poverty since 1929. This I would not deny; I attempted to concentrate on the postwar period of prosperity, during which the solid core of poverty persisted. Mr. Miller’s figures reflect the striking gains of the unionization wave and other social reforms of the New Deal, as well as the booms of two wars. The growth in family income between 1929 and 1959 also reflects a massive shift from the farm to the city (where the rise in income is somewhat illusory), and also reflects, as Mr. Roseman indicates, a substantial rise in the number of working wives and mothers.

Yet, even with these qualifications, the statistical shift portrayed by Mr. Miller is great, and not at all in conflict with my main argument. My point was that the great strides in national prosperity in recent decades, familiar to all of us, have least affected certain categories of people (non-white, semi-skilled, migrant workers, the aged, etc.), and that the affluent society has failed to eliminate a “pocket” of some fifty million poor. These people, I tried to show, exist in a culture of poverty which is to a certain extent beyond the impact of increases in national income and of various welfare programs. To point, as Mr. Miller does, to another group of people who have gained since 1929, rounds out the picture, but it does not change the incredible social fact of poverty in America today.

I continue to hold that poverty did increase as a result of the recent recession. A leading authority, Selma Goldsmith, has demonstrated conclusively (in the April 1959 Survey of Current Business) that tine number of families and unattached individuals earning less than $2,000 was substantially higher in 1957 and 1958 than in 1956.

Mr. Miller’s closing remarks on the relativity of our standards of adequacy are just. Of course, our norms are socially determined; in the 19th century, the Tories in England argued that a mill-hand of that time was better off than a medieval knight. My article was based on the assumption that living standards at the lowest-income levels should improve as the social product expands.

The amazing fact remains: nearly one-third of the American people (or, as Mr. Miller has it, 31 per cent) live beneath the recognized standards of adequacy—and this in the most prosperous society the world has ever known.

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