A People’s History of Poverty in America

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The newest addition to the “People’s History” series, this book follows the important work begun by Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States, by bringing to us the voices of those who have lived in poverty.

A People’s History of Poverty in America presents to readers the stories and experiences of numerous people who have been unemployed, underemployed, lived on welfare, charity and have been ignored by much of the doctrinal history written about the United States.

At times A People’s History of Poverty in America reads like a Charles Dickens novel, with gripping stories of how some people survived the harsh realities of poverty, while others were crushed under its weight. One thing that makes the stories so compelling is that the author presents numerous personal accounts in many of the chapters, often back to back, with comments from the 1880s and then the present day. Quiet often it is hard to distinguish which era the first person narrative is coming from, since many of the same realities have plagued people in poverty for the past two centuries in the US.

Other components of the book that are quite revealing are the attitudes by many whom have experienced poverty, particularly about charity and welfare. There seems to have been a great deal of contempt by those who have lived in poverty directed at people who have made charitable donations to the poor. The commentary by many people communicates the idea that people didn’t want charity and that often they were pressured to feel “grateful” to their benefactors.

The same message is conveyed in the stories of people who have received government welfare, where quite often welfare workers would not only look down on those receiving welfare, they would chastise people for not being “more responsible.” Many of the narratives also reflected a great shame in many people who received charity in some way and in many cases people denying it out of pride. Many of those who’s stories are told in A People’s History of Poverty in America often express a sense of not wanting handouts, but wanting a job, to work for their bread and shelter.

Another interesting component of the book was the contrast between those in poverty in the late 19th century or during the Great Depression era and those in poverty in more recent decades. The author notes that there seemed to be a stronger sense of community in the older almshouses and poorhouses as opposed to the shelters of today. People who stay in shelters today are generally not allowed to be there during the day, whereas in the past people could be there during the day, thus providing them with a greater sense of community.

This difference in how those who lived in poverty is reflected in how there seemed to be more sharing of resources and people looking out for each other. There also was a sense in reading the stories of people that they were constantly looking for ways to supplement their basic needs. People would share housing more often, provide free meals to strangers and people were willing to utilize the waste of society. A whole chapter is devoted to the stories of people who lived off of society’s waste, particularly by dumpster diving. Dumpster diving still exists in the US, but the population of those who engage in it now seems to be significantly different than those in previous generations.

If there are any shortcomings to this book, it would be in the area of how policy impacted poverty in the US. There is some information on laws that have been enacted over the years that punishes the poor and some analysis of the New Deal policies enacted by the FDR administration. One interesting observation made about the New Deal is how these policies impacted the South:

“…instead of the New Deal tearing down the apartheid regime and bringing more egalitarian provision of public aid, because of the South’s control over the Democratic Party and Congress itself, it shaped New Deal programs to serve the White planters’ interests.”

Where the book lacks in policy analysis it makes up for it with an excellent final chapter on how people in poverty have resisted. Entitled “Bread or Blood,” provides great stories of how people have fought against poverty from the food riots of 1775 to contemporary work of the grassroots group, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. In this final chapter of A People’s History of Poverty in America, there are stories of people running state welfare workers off their property, people organizing strikes, sit-ins, sleep-ins, marches, property destruction and examples of those in poverty taking over legislator offices. One example was a campaign by a welfare mother named Ruby Duncan, who was so disgusted with the government’s response to poverty that she organized other women with children to go into restaurants in Las Vegas, places frequented by casino tourists, order meals and then refuse to pay.

Like the other books in the People’s History series, this new book is a great addition in the tradition of providing the stories of people who have been left out of history books. A People’s History of Poverty in America is an important contribution for those who care about the rich history of struggle in the United States.

Stephen Pimpare , A People’s History of Poverty in America, (New Press, 2008).

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