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by Stephen Pimpare

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-56584-934-1
Publisher: New Press

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 ’50s and 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.