A serial journal of cogent reflections and irreverent insights on the social effects of capitalism and the roots of partisan politics. Pairing prose with HDR photography and “flash points” drawn from current and historical perspectives, the author seeks to recover lost wisdom and courageous action beyond the shouting and noise of today's headlines.
Chapter Seven, Part One
How Wealth Became Concentrated and the Poor Were to Blame: “Paupers are Everywhere”
"Paupers are everywhere.”
~ Complaint heard from Queen Elizabeth, late 16th century, after returning from travels in the English countryside.
Michael Harrington, political activist, socialist, and professor of political science at Queens College, was no Queen Elizabeth, but his research on poverty came to the same conclusion. As he wrote in his book The Other America, he was horrified to find that 40 to 50 million Americans lived in poverty, a fifth to a quarter of the entire US population in 1962. Where were they hiding?
He believed that a subtle shift had taken place in the psychology and culture of poverty. Whereas the tenements of the early 20th century were seething with a mixture of races and immigrants, there was enough diversity of intelligence, backgrounds, and aspirations to create a modicum of hope and vitality. There was poverty, disease, and poor housing in the past, but they were circumstantial obstacles to be overcome in a country that could provide social mobility and the promise of riches. Something about the very nature of poverty had changed from these historical antecedents.
My father and mother were never rich, but through hard work and frugality they found a way to make a living and see that their children might have more education than they did. There was hope for a better future. In the ’30s, when my parents were teenagers, the context for poverty was the Depression, and it gave them a collective sense of shared hardship and sacrifice. Poverty was a marker not so much of the person as of the times, a condition of society. The poor, which included tens of millions on low wages, had more of a voice politically and were not necessarily stigmatized by their circumstances. The 1930s were also a turning point for unions, which were able to flex their collective muscle and found themselves, just as Marx predicted, able to aggressively pursue their members’ own economic self-interest relative to wages and work rules.
In the late 1930s and early ’40s, the world itself was at risk. The United States went from an economic depression into a fight with an enemy believed to be the incarnation of evil. These were tough times, and the sheer exuberance of victory over evil by the mid-’40s made it easier to believe that the forces of poverty were lessening as well. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, when my parents were finally finding success and Harrington did his research, there may have been a willingness to overlook poverty as a still important aspect of the social fabric requiring attention.
Poverty, as Harrington saw it, had now matured into something separate, multigenerational, and psychological. Separate in the sense that there were whole towns, cities, or parts of cities throughout the United States that were stuck in a downward spiral. Economic and social vitality was in the business hubs of cities, in suburbs where the affluent raised their children, and along geographic corridors, not in rural areas or urban centers, where poverty was concentrated.
Small towns were adversely affected by the greater dependence on skilled labor and technology. Smaller farms were being marginalized by greater mechanization and corporatization. Minorities increasingly congregated within inner cities, which were referred to as slums and characterized by a pervasive attitude of futility. Those who could exit such places did, and the remaining were hemmed in by tight social beliefs and attitudes. The more rural or isolated an area, the more cut off from diverse lifestyles and perspectives, the more insulated and rigid became the social milieu, and the more hostile and unforgiving was its view of others.
No longer was poverty simply across the tracks; it was a contagious mindset of scarcity, fear, and resentments. It was passed down generation after generation and socially reinforced by members of its own community. Poverty and economic hardship manifested psychologically through symptoms of anger, cynicism, and intolerance. The swelling anger that Marx predicted was not crystallized between workers and owners of capital. No, it was fragmented across race, religious, geographical, and educational divisions.
Where were the poor? In the ’60s, the poor were increasingly becoming invisible — the aged tucked away in old-age homes, poor children in failing schools, minorities in slums, rural poor in the countryside just a stone’s throw away from tourist travel. A decade later, when I worked at a state prison located in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, my job was to find local employment for inmates finishing their sentences. My territory was called the Northeast Kingdom, an area as poor as Appalachia. A tourist would never have known this from driving through the area, however — a year-round recreation destination for skiing, fall foliage, and maple syrup. How sweet it might have looked to a person just passing through.
Who were the poor? If you measured the poor by material possessions such as a television set, a refrigerator, or even a decent pair of sneakers, nearly everyone was well off. If you measured only by income, you included many still starting out toward success. If you measured by psychological factors, you risked subjective prejudice. The very idea of poverty was becoming porous, fluid, and ambiguous. Poverty was not only physically becoming separate from society; it was also psychologically separating itself from social awareness, as something to be avoided. Poverty was no longer circumstantial, as it had been for my parents, or temporary until one found productive outlets; it was an all-encompassing and pitiful predicament to be in. Harrington believed, however, that if we looked at poverty with an open heart and mind, social conscience would well up in our breast. Over a million copies of his book were purchased, a surprising number to be sure, and suggesting that something unsettled was still nagging in the American psyche.
Next Week: Chapter Seven, Part Two: What Should Be Done with the Poor?
Harrington understood something that has only recently been supported statistically by studying geographic zip codes. Harrington argued that poverty was a toxic mix of factors that included poor health, minimal access to health care, high-crime neighborhoods, hostile police presence, failing schools, generational cycles of unemployment, low income, family instability, and inadequate diet. Overcoming any one of these factors was possible, but together they represented a vicious cycle of cumulative obstacles whose aggregate outcome was failure. For example, I have estimated that there are zip codes in my hometown of Oakland, California, in which the chances of an eighth grader eventually graduating from a four-year college are less than 6%.