Poverty in America is a paradox. Poor people in the midst of the richest country in the world clashes with our idea of what America supposedly represents. Most Americans choose to believe that poverty is a minor problem touching only a few unfortunates. In the face of facts that suggest otherwise, most Americans believe they are middle class. Many of my students, most of whom are children or grandchildren of working-class parents, seem to identify with the wealthy, believing I suppose, that they too will someday become rich. Consequently, they tend to view poverty policy and programs as issues that are remote and removed from their personal lives. Poverty programs are for “those people” and only need concern us when we want to express our disapproval or compassion. This view is not consistent with the facts. Current poverty guidelines seriously underestimate real poverty rates, reflecting political rather than a scientific reality. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 34% of the current population will live below the poverty line for at least 2 months a year, and a number of social scientists estimate that the true poverty rate is at least twice as high as the government’s official rate (1.). Even accepting current guidelines, poverty is all too common. A majority of Americans will live in poverty for at least a year during their lifetime (2).
While most of us will have only a fleeting experience with poverty, this has not been true for most of the nation’s life. For most of America’s history, the majority of the population has hovered at or below poverty. Robert Hunter’s classic study of the problem, written at the turn of the last century, estimated that more than 35% of the population was “very poor” and another 50% were “poor”. A study of wages between 1880 and 1910 estimated that 40% of the population was living in poverty, and another 40% were near poor (3). The Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Fogel estimates that by today’s standards, 90% of late 19th century families lived below the poverty line (4). In addition to low wages and meager safety net programs, working people lived under the constant threat of economic depressions (at least five in the 1800s), periodic layoffs, injuries, and sickness.
We have come to accept the idea that American industrialization was an important process that, over the course of a hundred and fifty years, persistently raised the standard of living for U.S. families to today’s levels, and that industrial progress was paralleled by advances in the general standard of living. As a mater of fact, America’s early industrial period, roughly from 1820 to 1940, brought few advantages to the average family. A generally accepted indicator of general welfare is a population’s average height. The average height of the American male actually decreased from 1820 to 1890 and only rose to pre- 19th century levels in 1930 (5). Farm families suffered from poverty at least as much as their urban counterparts. Northern farmers faced exploitation by the banks and railroads, while crop prices fluctuated dramatically. And matters were worse in the South. By 1880, sharecropping had become a major form of Southern agriculture, and the average sharecropper earned only 49 dollars a year (6).
The work that follows is my attempt to summarize the challenges and trials that most Americans faced before the nation developed a social welfare system. This essay is not intended to be a traditional history of social welfare. There are a number of books that perform this mission. My own personal favorites are M. Katz’s, IN THE SHADOW OF THE POORHOUSE and Bruce Jansson’s, THE RELUCTANT WELFARE STATE. That said, even those excellent texts do not, in my opinion, fully cover some of the historical events that lead to an understanding of our current system of social welfare programs. Traditional social welfare histories focus mainly on programs and policies dealing with the very poor. The indigent. Few social welfare texts talk about the history of the American working class, who, for much of our country’s history, were the working poor.
This book will also present a style that diverges from traditional texts. My students know that I have a bias against advocacy papers that consist mostly of text and tables. It has been my observation that advocates of compassionate welfare policies do not effectively utilize the power of images. In this work, the visitor will find lots of images. These images have been selected to enhance the narrative and introduce students to a body of artistic work, which they may find unfamiliar. Art and compassion are natural partners. And speaking of Art. A number of people have asked me why my histories all stop with the 1930s. The answer is simple. Copyright laws. In fact, if I am informed that any of the images in this work violate current copyright laws I will gladly eliminate them.
Readers will also notice an absence of citations. There are two reasons I have not included them. First, since this is a cyber publication, I believe that a tome full of footnotes would be distracting to the reader. Second, I do not present new or controversial information. The events and issues discussed here are generally accepted and readily available in a number of more traditional sources. I strongly recommend that serious students and scholars take advantage of the resources that I have provided. They are, I believe, a good foundation for further study. I also suggest that readers take advantage of the links that are sprinkled throughout the narrative. The links add some depth that a web publication necessarily lacks. To risk stating the obvious, a work such as this one is only meant to be a beginning.
Finally, you will notice that the following pages will take some time to download. Please be patient. I think the images are worth the wait.
SCHOOL OF SOCIAL WORK
BOISE STATE UNIVERSITY
1. Rank, Mark, One Nation Underprivileged, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004. p. 17.
2. H. Boushey, C. Brocht, B. Gunderson, J. Bernstein. Hardships In America, p. 5. Economic Policy Institute, 2001.
3. Schlereth, Thomas. Victorian America, p. 34, Harpers, NewYork, 1992
4. Fogel, Robert. The Fourth Great Awakening, p. 116, University of Chicago Press, 2000.
5. Fogel, Robert. The Fourth Great Awakening, p. 141, University of Chicago Press, 2000.
6. Walton, G. and Rockoff, H. History of the American Economy. P. 308, Thompson Lerning, New