People's History of Poverty in America

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Tens of millions of Americans currently live in poverty, more and more of them in extreme poverty. But the words we use to describe them tend to obscure rather than illuminate the human lives and real-life stories behind the statistics.

A “sympathetic social history that allows poor people, past and present, to tell their own remarkably similar stories” (Booklist), A People’s History of Poverty in America movingly brings to life poor people’s everyday battles for dignity and respect in the face of the judgment, control, and disdain that are all too often the price they must pay for charity and government aid.

Through prodigious research, Stephen Pimpare has unearthed poignant and often surprising testimonies and accounts that range from the early days of the United States to the complex social and economic terrain of the present. A work of sweeping analysis, A People’s History of Poverty in America reminds us that poverty is not in itself a moral failure, though our failure to understand it may well be.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Pimpare (political science, Yeshiva Coll.; The New Victorians: Poverty, Politics, and Propaganda in Two Gilded Ages) has written a concise and distinctive bottom-up history, arguing that there are myths about America's poor that have been around since our country's founding. Some of the myths include the belief that being poor is a moral failure and that the poor are lazy, buy too many "luxury" items, and have more children just to stay on welfare. Pimpare knocks down these myths one by one, lifting us from our ignorance in the process. The book's strength is the use of firsthand accounts from the poor, but while this is not a comprehensive history of policy, policy is not ignored. Pimpare is honest about his viewpoints, which might put off some politically conservative readers. He supports an improved welfare state, noting that historically, the United States has done a bad job of helping the poor, especially in the last 40 years. His arguments are provocative and are welcome in the study of public policy. Recommended for academic libraries.
—Bryan Craig

Kirkus Reviews

Illuminating history of America's poor, disproving many stereotypes while emphasizing that the social safety net varies "depending upon who you are, when you live, and where you live."

As Barbara Ehrenreich showed in Nickel and Dimed (2001), and as social historian Pimpare (American Politics and Social Welfare Policy, Yeshiva Univ.; The New Victorians: Poverty, Politics, and Propaganda in Two Gilded Ages, 2004) accords, the poor are seldom deserving of their status. Most have a steady history of work, at least when it is available; most of the chronically poor are disabled and cannot work, or are under or over working age, so that, as Pimpare wryly puts it, "most poor people are ‘deserving'…due to old age, youth, or infirmity." Those who do work are at the mercy of economic shifts, but then so is everyone. As Pimpare also demonstrates, aspects of poverty are strongly correlated to ethnicity, health, education and many other markers. Substantial numbers of the poor today, as in the past, are homeless; Pimpare reckons that some "14 percent of all Americans are homeless at least once," a count augmented by returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the homeless work, he adds, "if not consistently." The consequences of poverty are not just a lack of money or material goods: With poverty comes poor health, obesity ("high-calorie, high-fat, and high-sugar foods are typically cheaper than more nutritionally rich fresh foods"), victimization by crime and violence and often encountering government not through welfare agencies but through the police and prison. Pimpare allows that the absolute rate of poverty has been declining: It was 40 percent in 1900, 25 percent in the mid '50sand less than 15 percent today. Small solace to the poor, though, for, as Pimpare remarks, "Most Americans…aspire to more than mere subsistence." Surrounded by opulence, who can fault them?

A useful counter against those who blame the poor for their bad luck.

From the Publisher

“Reveals not only the terrible want but the sharply punishing indignity of being poor in a culture that celebrates affluence.”
—Frances Fox Piven, author of Poor People’s Movements

“The voices of the poor give valuable insights into the experience of poverty.”

“A must read for anyone interested in learning the real story of poverty, social welfare policy, and social change.”
—Mimi Abramovitz, Hunter College School of Social Work and the Graduate Center, CUNY

“A concise and distinctive bottom-up history.”
Library Journal

“This book is long overdue. Stephen Pimpare reveals how long-standing American societal prejudices have led to poverty policy that regulates, exploits, and dehumanizes the poor rather than addressing the root causes.”
—Sondra Youdelman, Community Voices Heard

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565849341
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 11/3/2008
  • Series: New Press People's History Series
  • Pages: 322
  • Sales rank: 1,480,329
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Pimpare is the author of The New Victorians: Poverty, Politics, and Propaganda in Two Gilded Ages (The New Press).
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