Theme And Variations On Deprivation And Dignity

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A People’s History of Poverty In America, by Stephen Pimpare, The New Press, $27.95.

In publishing as in comedy, timing is everything—so the appearance of a new book detailing the historical and present-day experience of poverty in America would seem well-suited to a moment when so many more Americans evidently are about to embark upon a more immediate and personal understanding of that experience.

But if author Stephen Pimpare offers one central message in “A People’s History of Poverty in America,” it’s that poverty carries a stigma that manifests itself in ways both subtle and overt—and that this stigma persists despite the surprising prevalence of the experience. That the official poverty rate finds about one in eight Americans in poverty at any time, that a more meaningful standard likely would fix the ratio at about one in six, and that an actual majority of our fellow citizens is likely to meet the statistical definition of being poor by age 75, has done little or nothing to reduce the insult society adds to the injury of poverty.

The latest entry in the People’s History series edited by legendary author and historian Howard Zinn, who pioneered the form with his 1980 book, “A People’s History of the United States,” Pimpare’s book succeeds as a grassroots history. The author mines famous and obscure sources to paint a picture of material deprivation in colonial, revolutionary and nineteenth-century America that strikingly resembles the reality of contemporary poverty, from official pronouncements of America’s plenitude and generosity, to the mean-spirited and self-serving demonizing of poor people as moral failures rather than victims of circumstance, as was often the case then and now. The voices Pimpare summons to make this case—and to articulate the wrenching tradeoff between providing for oneself and one’s children and forfeiting the respect and goodwill of one’s neighbors or of one’s own dignity—are often powerful, and sometimes devastating.

When Pimpare, an associate professor of political science at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, brings his own analytical facilities to bear, no momentum is lost: His examination of slavery and the corrections system as prototype and variant of the modern-day welfare state is exceptionally thought-provoking and troubling. In keeping with normal practice in this mode of history, he pays special attention to the added suffering of women and African-Americans, groups whose experience of poverty was and to some extent remains all the more painful because of discrimination both de facto and de jure. But far from degenerating into politically correct victimology, Pimpare offers an insightful argument for how American slavery exacerbated white poverty, both by driving down the cost of labor and, even more perniciously, giving the poor whites of the South a large psychological stake in a system that crushed their economic self-interest only somewhat less than those actually enslaved.

One perhaps inevitable problem with “A People’s History of Poverty in America” is that, however affecting the past and present voices of the poor can be, they get a bit repetitive. Another, especially for readers of more centrist inclinations than the author, is that one gets the feeling that only one side of the story is told here. Pimpare and those whose views he endorses describe many anti-poverty efforts as power relationships, with those seeking help in the weaker position. Anyone familiar with the experience of welfare applicants to the Giuliani-era Human Resources Administration here in New York City can sympathize with the notion that welfare workers often go too far in sending the message that public assistance is aberrant, if not abhorrent.

But in a secular society—meaning that Christian ideals, admirable as they might be, do not and should not dictate policy practice—it’s at least arguable that aid to the poor is part of the social contract, and that the public authority has some justification in asking that citizens who receive aid meet certain standards of behavior in return for receiving assistance. This was the core premise of Clinton-era welfare reform, and there is some evidence to suggest that the conditioning of aid made explicit in that measure has reduced the deep stigma associated with welfare receipt during the last several decades prior to the 1996 overhaul.

But this is not to say that current policies around public assistance aren’t irrational or even counterproductive. One of this book’s most powerful sections is the discussion of the tensions and tradeoffs between forcing mothers into low-wage work and depriving them of time and energy for child rearing. Bill Clinton famously posited that the positive example of a working mother delivered significant benefits for that mother’s children. To put it mildly, the voices Pimpare summons aren’t nearly as sure. The debate reminds us that official pieties in this area, often unsupported by quantitative research, still hold far too much sway.

It’s unfortunate that our overly emotional politics ensures we can’t yet have this conversation in a rational way – though this might be the least of the tragedies around poverty in our country. “A People’s History of Poverty in America” is a welcome addition to the discussion, in large part because it offers a corrective to those pieties grounded in both research and lived experience.

– David Jason Fischer

David Jason Fischer is the project director for workforce development and social policy at the Center for an Urban Future, City Limits’ sister think tank.