AMERICA'S STRUGGLE AGAINST POVERTY, 1900-1980 by James T. Patterson


Email this review


Poverty may always be with us, but that doesn't mean we see it or react to it the same way over time. In this instructive (if limited) descriptive history, Patterson (History, Brown) outlines the way poverty has been perceived in this century in America, along with the various efforts to ameliorate it. When Robert Hunter published Poverty in 1904, there had been no systematic efforts to gauge its extent in this country, nor even to measure it carefully. By setting a fairly low standard of $460 a year income for an average Northern family and $300 for a Southern family, Hunter estimated that twelve percent of the population was poor in that year. Poverty was then seen as a function of immigration or rural life and treated in an ad hoc manner; reformers, convinced that hard work would eliminate poverty or out to satisfy their own paternalistic interests, took a piecemeal approach to the problem. While social welfare legislation had been a staple of European governments for years, the idea that the State should take the initiative met with little success here; the notion was considered either ""Germanic"" in inspiration, a ruse of the conservatives (who had brought social security into being in Germany and England), or subversive of the ethic that underlay American prosperity. Stereotypes about the poor were rife among reformers, Patterson emphasizes, and seldom checked against reality. With the coming of the Depression, the sudden impoverishment of significant numbers of people gave rise to the image of the poor as ""down on their luck,"" and the previous image of a culture of poverty receded--only to reemerge in the 1960s during the urban riots. The New Deal social legislation marked a turning point insofar as it broke with the cultural understanding of poverty and rested on an economic one; but a line was drawn, even there, between the deserving and those who were undeserving, reflecting the bad-luck view. Poverty was all but forgotten again until the 1960s, when a ""revolution"" occurred through the expansion of welfare programs precipitated by organized and unorganized protest; here, poverty was rediscovered. Periods of boom and bust, therefore, are the periods in which welfare reform is likely (which rules out the present, it seems). Attitudes, Patterson wants us to know, count for less than economics. That conclusion will not be surprising to many, but his review does ground it in facts.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press