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Rediscovering Poverty

Posted on Mar 17, 2012
michael_stahl (CC-BY)

A pedestrian walks past a beggar on a street in Oslo.

By Barbara Ehrenreich, TomDispatch

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

It’s been exactly 50 years since Americans, or at least the non-poor among them, “discovered” poverty, thanks to Michael Harrington’s engaging book The Other America. If this discovery now seems a little overstated, like Columbus’s “discovery” of America, it was because the poor, according to Harrington, were so “hidden” and “invisible” that it took a crusading left-wing journalist to ferret them out. 

Harrington’s book jolted a nation that then prided itself on its classlessness and even fretted about the spirit-sapping effects of “too much affluence.” He estimated that one quarter of the population lived in poverty—inner-city blacks, Appalachian whites, farm workers, and elderly Americans among them. We could no longer boast, as President Nixon had done in his “kitchen debate” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow just three years earlier, about the splendors of American capitalism.

At the same time that it delivered its gut punch, The Other America also offered a view of poverty that seemed designed to comfort the already comfortable. The poor were different from the rest of us, it argued, radically different, and not just in the sense that they were deprived, disadvantaged, poorly housed, or poorly fed. They felt different, too, thought differently, and pursued lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance. As Harrington wrote, “There is… a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a worldview of the poor. To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society.”

Harrington did such a good job of making the poor seem “other” that when I read his book in 1963, I did not recognize my own forbears and extended family in it. All right, some of them did lead disorderly lives by middle class standards, involving drinking, brawling, and out-of-wedlock babies. But they were also hardworking and in some cases fiercely ambitious—qualities that Harrington seemed to reserve for the economically privileged.

According to him, what distinguished the poor was their unique “culture of poverty,” a concept he borrowed from anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who had derived it from his study of Mexican slum-dwellers. The culture of poverty gave The Other America a trendy academic twist, but it also gave the book a conflicted double message: “We”—the always presumptively affluent readers—needed to find some way to help the poor, but we also needed to understand that there was something wrong with them, something that could not be cured by a straightforward redistribution of wealth. Think of the earnest liberal who encounters a panhandler, is moved to pity by the man’s obvious destitution, but refrains from offering a quarter—since the hobo might, after all, spend the money on booze.

In his defense, Harrington did not mean that poverty was caused by what he called the “twisted” proclivities of the poor. But he certainly opened the floodgates to that interpretation. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan—a sometime-liberal and one of Harrington’s drinking companions at the famed White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village—blamed inner-city poverty on what he saw as the shaky structure of the “Negro family,” clearing the way for decades of victim-blaming. A few years after The Moynihan Report, Harvard urbanologist Edward C. Banfield, who was to go on to serve as an advisor to Ronald Reagan, felt free to claim that:

“The lower-class individual lives from moment to moment… Impulse governs his behavior… He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless… [He] has a feeble, attenuated sense of self.”

In the “hardest cases,” Banfield opined, the poor might need to be cared for in “semi-institutions… and to accept a certain amount of surveillance and supervision from a semi-social-worker-semi-policeman.”

By the Reagan era, the “culture of poverty” had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology: poverty was caused, not by low wages or a lack of jobs, but by bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles. The poor were dissolute, promiscuous, prone to addiction and crime, unable to “defer gratification,” or possibly even set an alarm clock. The last thing they could be trusted with was money. In fact, Charles Murray argued in his 1984 book Losing Ground, any attempt to help the poor with their material circumstances would only have the unexpected consequence of deepening their depravity.


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By Graham Weeks, March 22, 2012 at 5:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What a coincidence! I am 2/3 of the way through Jay McLeod’s brilliant “Ain’t No Makin’ It”, in which he recounts the lives of a group of poor whites and another of poor blacks in a Northeastern U.S. slum. He first meets them as teenagers, follows them up as young adults, then again when they’re in their early 40s. They themselves confess to having made many bad decisions that keep them on the margins of society. However, breaking out of those margins, especially at a time of de-industrialization of the American economy, is extremely difficult if not impossible - even for those who’ve bought into the Horatio Alger myth of achievement.
Graham Weeks, Austin, Quebec, Canada

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By Tobysgirl, March 20, 2012 at 11:34 am Link to this comment

I’ve thought quite a bit about people who blame others who have no home, no job, etc, for their own predicament. Once again, I will mention that my husband works with a group of women who are very reactionary and judgmental, and over and over again he has described to me the things they say and do. Plus I have my own experience of speaking with neighbors, churchgoers, and others.

When my husband also described to me the educational attainments and the backgrounds of these women, I realized that many people, one step away from poverty and/or a deprived family, are eager to blame the poor because they are so damned scared they’re going to end up right back in that rundown trailer with no heat. People never seem to consider the opportunities they may have had that others don’t (a white skin is a big opportunity), and they look up to and want to emulate the rich in their utter disregard for their fellow creatures.

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By jimmmmmy, March 20, 2012 at 8:00 am Link to this comment

Great article . Informative.

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By Keith M. Bender, March 19, 2012 at 3:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Funny thing, I thought War in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan,
The Fall of Libya, and operating as if we
are the World’s keeper and Savior with 180 bases around
the Globe was the in direct relationship to bleeding
those not poor to the brink and beyond POVERTY
,attacking the POOR as if they deserve the abuse
rendered upon them while keeping the ELEPHANT in the
Living room a big secret we don’t talk about or
question?  Funny thing these Wars.

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DonSchneider's avatar

By DonSchneider, March 19, 2012 at 5:19 am Link to this comment

I had to wade through the obvious “blaming the victim” strategical justifications
and a rehash of Oscar Lewis et. al. to come to the only meaningful statement in
the article; The last line !

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DonSchneider's avatar

By DonSchneider, March 19, 2012 at 4:32 am Link to this comment

I had ton wade through the obvious “blaming the victim” strategical justifications
and a rehash of Oscar Lewis et. al. to come to the only meaningful statement in
the article; The last line !

Report this

By jenal, March 18, 2012 at 9:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I broke an entrenched cycle of generational poverty in a family plagued by alcoholism,gambling addiction,drug use, teen pregnancy, criminal activity, and low level of education. I’m not so naive or heartless to say that all poor people are poor by choice, but I think it’s equally cruel to deny the connection between choice and circumstance. The chronically poor need a healthy dose of the truth combined with empowering programs that offer alternatives for self-defeating choices, and they would benefit by contributing to the level they are able.The temporarily poor need help and support in getting their feet back on the ground and shouldn’t enjoy greater freedoms than those of us with jobs.

I have voluntarily submitted to background checks, fingerprinting and drug screening as a condition of employment, so why shouldn’t the poor be required to do the same as a condition of receiving money I earned as a result of that employment? We need to stop thinking of accountability measures as violations of poor people’s rights and start thinking of them as needed safeguards to preserve benefits for those who really need them. With a 16 trillion dollar debt, we simply can’t afford to trust the honor system when doling out taxpayer money.

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By Morpheus, March 17, 2012 at 4:22 pm Link to this comment

The real problem is that we only talk about what’s wrong in this country. We never do anything real.

OsiXs (Revolution 2.0 - The Smart Revolution)

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By taxed enough, March 17, 2012 at 3:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Since the 1960s the taxpayers of this country transferred over $16 Trillion to the poor and low income through means tested giveaway programs.  We have over 70 such programs.  We now have a huge poverty problem and are $15 Trillion in debt.  I guess all that giving didn’t work out very well. 
Maybe we should try giving away another $16 Trillion.  Maybe it will work the second time around.
BTW - I don’t hear any of the bleedliberals telling the people who took the $16 Trillion without earning it that they are “Greedy”.

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By jr., March 17, 2012 at 10:41 am Link to this comment

I’m speechless!!!

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By gerard, March 17, 2012 at 10:16 am Link to this comment

Accurate, straightforward and profoundly honest!
I’ve lived long enough to go through this movement of “the American consciousness” from the era of donating to food-banks (“Christian compassion” and the “Great” Depression) to the fight to get Rooseveltl’s “welfare state” to the reaction to “entitlements” (to people who are told they “aren’t entitled to them”!) to attempts to cut social security in order to feed the Pentagon. I’ve seen and realized the mixed-up feelings and motivations, the deceits, the avoidances, the lies, the profoundly destructive results of it all. Some-
times it seems my entire life has been spent eating food that other people needed more than I did!
  Talk about a country with twisted prioirities!

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