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Poverty in AmericaA Handbook
By John Iceland
University of CaliforniaCopyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEarly Views of Poverty in America
What does it mean to be poor? While most people would be hard-pressed to give a precise answer, many of us feel we can recognize poverty when we see it. For example, a news story accompanied with images of malnourished children in a troubled region can vividly display extreme poverty. As one moves away from this kind of obvious example, however, it becomes more difficult to distinguish just what people mean when they refer to "the poor," as opposed to lower-income people more generally.
In 1993 the General Social Survey fielded the following question about poverty: "People who have income below a certain level can be considered poor. That level is called the 'poverty line.' What amount of weekly income would you use as a poverty line for a family of four (husband, wife, and two children) in this community?" Answers ranged from as low as $25 to as high as $1,500 per week. The average response was $341 (about $424 in 2002 after adjusting for inflation). Most families would find it difficult to live on $25 a week. At the other extreme, $1,500 per week (about $1,866 in 2002 dollars) seems excessive as a minimum standard. At what point does luxury become a necessity? More to the point, why did this question elicit such a wide variety of responses?
While poverty-or economic deprivation-is a concrete phenomenon for those who live it, the answer to these questions is that what people judge to be poor varies across both time and place. A working-class laborer in a developing country would likely be considered poor in Western Europe. In fact, the World Bank uses a poverty standard of $1 to $2 per person per day, or $1,095 to $2,190 per year, for a family of three in developing countries in Africa or Latin America. In contrast, the average official poverty threshold for a family of three in the United States was $17,738 in 2000.
As far back as 1776, Adam Smith noted the importance of social perceptions in determining what constitutes economic hardship. In the Wealth of Nations, he defined the lack of "necessaries" as the experience of being unable to consume "not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without." More recently, Peter Townsend observed that people are social beings who assume many roles in a community-worker, citizen, parent, friend, and so on. He maintained that poverty should be defined as the lack of sufficient income for people to "play the roles, participate in the relationships, and follow the customary behavior which is expected of them by virtue of their membership of society."
In order to understand who we, as a society, consider poor, we must therefore begin by examining how our views have evolved. This chapter begins by tracing views of poverty in America before 1900. I place these views in their economic, social, and political context, noting how these forces subsequently affected twentieth-century efforts to measure and understand poverty. I end by describing the emergence of the current official poverty measure in the 1960s.
Views of Poverty before 1900
Views of poverty reflect social conditions. In the United States, a common assumption in the colonial period, extending through the nineteenth century, was that the roots of poverty lay primarily not in structural economic causes but in individual misbehavior. The poor were often thought of as either "deserving" or "undeserving" of public support. Voluntary idleness was regarded as a vice, and unemployed men were often either bound out as indentured servants, whipped and forced out of town, or put in jail. The Virginia assembly as early as 1619 ordered that idle able-bodied persons should be bound over to compulsory labor. Likewise, in 1633 the General Court of Massachusetts decreed harsh punishment on those who spent their time "idly or unprofitably." Yet hardship among the elderly and children was usually viewed sympathetically, as many colonists recognized that poverty was widespread and sometimes unavoidable. Communities therefore often accepted responsibility for the well-being of the elderly in need.
By the early nineteenth century, many craftsmen and farmers displaced by the mechanization of agriculture and goods production struggled to earn a living, as did unskilled laborers. These groups constituted an economically insecure "floating proletariat," some of whom traveled extensively to find jobs. Some also became "tramps"-jobless men and, to a lesser extent, women who moved continuously from place to place in search of employment.
The perceived distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor persisted in the nineteenth century. For example, in 1834 the Reverend Charles Burroughs spoke about the differences between poverty and pauperism: "The former is an unavoidable evil, to which many are brought from necessity, and in the wise and gracious Providence of God. It is the result, not of our faults, but of our misfortunes.... Pauperism is the consequence of willful error, of shameful indolence, of vicious habit."
The word pauper generally refers to someone receiving relief or assistance-usually from local or county governments. As illustrated in the quote above, it also has a connotation that paupers are among the "undeserving" poor, as the public tended to have a dim view of people who sought assistance. The poor were also sometimes stigmatized with other labels such as "dependent, defective, and delinquent."
The nineteenth century saw the growth of poorhouses, also known as "indoor relief," as a method of dealing with the poor. Starting in the 1830s, state governments began to write laws mandating that counties have a poor farm or poorhouse. Many of those who needed short-term aid nevertheless still received "outdoor relief," which did not require those seeking help to enter institutions, from local agencies or private charities. The poorhouses were harsh; their purpose was to deter all but the most desperate from applying for help. Poorhouse inmates were expected to work as a form of punishment, moral training, education, and reform. It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that poorhouses fell out of favor, as public officials and social professionals realized that such institutions did little to reduce poverty and sometimes even exacerbated family instability when family members were interned in these institutions.
Current concerns about the concentration of poverty and the underclass echo fears voiced by many nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century commentators. Indeed, in the middle decades of the 1800s, some middle-class and wealthy city residents began to build new homes in outlying areas in a few cities such as New York and Boston. Michael Katz recounts how in an 1854 annual report, as head of New York City's Children's Aid Society, Charles Loring Brace argued that the "greatest danger" to America's future was the "existence of an ignorant, debased, and permanently poor class in the great cities.... The members of it come at length to form a separate population. They embody the lowest passions and the most thriftless habits of the community. They corrupt the lowest class of working-poor who are around them. The expenses of police, prisons, of charities and means of relief, arise mainly from them."
S. Humphreys Gurteen, a writer and preacher, also decried the problems of both poverty and pauperism in his 1882 description of poor city districts: "large families huddled together in tenements and shanties which barely afford protection from wind and storm; dwellings where the laws of health are defied, where the most ordinary sanitary arrangements are unknown, and where 'boards of health' fail to penetrate; ... human forms, even those of children, shivering in rags; hunger written upon care-worn faces; and despair everywhere triumphant." He blamed these problems on the abandonment of the poor by the well-to-do, on immorality, and on the ineffectiveness of charity, which he believed often fostered dependence.
Nevertheless, aside from some of these small, highly visible "slum" districts, cities were not nearly as highly segregated by class as later in the twentieth century. Urban working-class neighborhoods were in constant flux, with steadily employed workers sharing the same buildings, streets, and residential districts as the those with less steady employment. This is a natural consequence of the fact that poverty was endemic in cities and rural areas across the country.
Katz ventures that perhaps half the population of typical nineteenth-century cities were poor, though this judgment is based more on contemporary notions of poverty than actual standards of the time. He does note, however, that the "working-class experience was a continuum; no clear line separated the respectable poor from paupers." According to another estimate, roughly 10 to 20 percent of late-nineteenth-century Americans lived in a family with a member who had "tramped" at some point-moved from place to place in search of work. The receipt of government aid was far less common. According to an analysis of 1860 census data, 7.9 people in 1,000 received public relief. Robert Hunter, in his 1904 book, Poverty, estimated that at least 10 million people were poor, which represents about 13 percent of the American population in 1900. Hunter also asserted that a vast majority of the poor were such because of social and economic conditions, not their own vice.
African Americans in particular continued to face a severely constrained labor market throughout the nineteenth century. Largely concentrated in southern and rural areas, black sharecroppers struggled to earn a living. Blacks were barred by law or custom from almost all full-time jobs, leaving agricultural wage labor as the most common occupation. As the new system of Jim Crow, disfranchisement, and racial violence escalated during the late nineteenth century, southern blacks began to migrate to northern cities in growing numbers. This migration north would swell in the following century. Most blacks who lived in cities were employed as common laborers or as domestic and personal servants. Opportunities for promotion and advancement were uncommon, if not impossible, for blacks in these and other occupations.
Because of their precarious economic position, African Americans were more likely to be very poor and receive public assistance in some cities. W.E.B. DuBois, in his well-known study The Philadelphia Negro estimated that about 9 percent of black families were very poor and another 10 percent were simply poor, earning less than $5 per week. As there was no official poverty measure at the time, DuBois's estimates of poverty are based on his own assessment. And as will be discussed in more detail shortly, Dubois's standard of poverty was meager as compared with other appraisals. While African Americans made up about 4 percent of Philadelphia's population in the 1890s, they constituted about 8 percent of those either residing in the city's almshouses or receiving assistance from the county poor board or aid for orphans. DuBois believed that high levels of poverty among African Americans had a number of causes, including slavery's legacy, white racial beliefs and practices, low levels of skill and education, and moral deficiencies of new black migrants from the South.
The United States continued its rapid industrialization and urbanization in the early decades of the twentieth century. Between 1860 and 1920 the nation's urban population rose from 6.2 million to 54.0 million, an increase from about 20 percent of the total U.S. population to over 50 percent. Immigrants from Europe poured into eastern and Midwestern cities in growing numbers. And beginning in about 1915 and continuing for the next thirty years or so, the migration of blacks in search of better economic opportunities in northern cities accelerated. Corporations with their large factories in industries such as steel and automobiles found a large pool of cheap and willing labor in the immigrant and black communities.
While standards of living rose over this period and many workers found employment in steady jobs, a large part of the workforce, especially those in peripheral industries, remained vulnerable to the periodic and often severe downturns characteristic of the economy. Sugrue describes the plight of these workers: "Trapped in insecure jobs with small companies increasingly marginal to a market dominated by large corporations, they shared with their nineteenth-century predecessors susceptibility to bouts of poverty." It was in this social and economic context that an interest in studying and documenting poverty and hardship arose.
The Beginning of Poverty Measurement
The issues described above-economic dislocation, racial/ethnic inequality, immigration, and uncertainty concerning how to address poverty-provide the substantive backdrop for the rise of efforts to measure poverty. Many of these very same issues remain important today.
It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that techniques to measure and examine poverty began to be developed, in part because many social science disciplines and statistical methods themselves are relatively recent phenomena. For example, sociology arose in the nineteenth century through the writings of such people as Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Karl Marx. While economics has a longer history, the discipline's sophisticated quantitative methods are more recent in origin. In short, while there has long been an interest in poverty issues, the "science" of examining poverty began only in the last century and a half.
Concerned over working-class unrest that fed the revolutions of 1848, European statisticians began about 1850 to study the incomes and expenses of working-class families. This lead to the development of "standard budgets," which basically refer to the cost of goods and services that families need to achieve a certain standard of living. Influenced by these studies, early efforts in the United States to develop standard budgets began in the 1870-1895 period. Sometimes different budgets were constructed for people of different social classes or occupational groups. While most were constructed to represent a minimum subsistence level, others were meant to represent minimum comfort levels.
Charles Booth came up with the term line of poverty in his well-known, multivolume study of poverty and society in London. He defined his concept of poverty in the following way: "The 'poor' are those whose means ...
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