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The result of traveling the country and viewing the worst of American poverty, this study offers views of often ignored impoverished areas (e.g., northern Florida, Jewish Brooklyn) as well as the heavily scrutinized inner city. Shorris coins a unique terminology to define and unite these disparate scenarios—he speaks of the "surround of force," the word "force" implying not violence, but the pressures (drugs, hunger, inadequate health care) that plague nearly all poor people. Furthermore, Shorris is careful to make the distinction between "relative" and "absolute" poverty, noting that American poverty is relative because, via the medium of television, poor Americans are able to see their nonimpoverished countrymen. Shorris's background in academics and philosophy (he was a teenage scholarship student at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s) is apparent, not only through his Aristotelian belief that a political life is the remedy for the problem at hand, but also in his thesis (put to the test in the so-called Clemente Course that he documents in the book's second half) that an education in the humanities could be the solution to multigenerational poverty. While it has become a bit of a truism that only education can truly help the poor, Shorris's innovation is in his emphasis on a liberal education on the order of the Chicago curriculum as he experienced it.
While Shorris chooses some curious enemies (for example, while approving of New Deal programs that put the poor to work, he criticizes President Clinton for supporting workfare) and shows his age with his inability to understand inner-city artistic forms like graffiti and hip-hop, he genuinely cares—a characteristic noticeably lacking in many who claim to want to eliminate poverty.