The Poverty Problem

The Wasted Americans.
by Edgar May.
Harper & Row. 227 pp. $4.50.

Americans have often been described as impulsive consumers of material goods whose tastes change with frequent regularity. Much the same can be said about the growing group of Americans who consume social problems—or at least books, articles, and plays about them. Just a short time ago, the dominant problems were National Purpose, Conformity, and Suburbia but they have been abruptly replaced by the Negro Problem, and, more recently, by Poverty.

Market research on these consumers would probably show most of them to be college graduates of the upper middle class who are not intellectuals but who are concerned about the quality of their own lives, and fearful of recent trends in American society. During the 1950's, they read books like The Lonely Crowd and The Organization Man which helped them to understand the erosion of their college-bred hopes for a life of individualism and creativity, while the works of Vance Packard and the critics of suburbia provided them with a condemnation of the newly prosperous Americans who were copying their style of life and thus threatening their cultural uniqueness.

In the last few years, the rise of automation, increasing unemployment among the unskilled, the failure of urban renewal to eliminate the slums, and the emergence of the civil rights movement have reminded these readers that poverty did not really disappear in the previous decade, and the decline of McCarthyism has made it permissible to respond to the reminder. One probable result is a wave of popular books about poverty.

It is unlikely, however, that these books will produce much support for the war on poverty: the kind of people who read them are not—and never were—political activists, and even angry and well-written books seldom overcome self-interest. For instance, the popularity of James Baldwin's writings has not significantly reduced the unpopularity of Negro demands for school integration. Likewise, reading about poverty and unemployment may generate sympathy and guilt among the upper middle class, but is unlikely to activate this group because it is not yet affected personally by the economic transformation now under way in America. At best, then, the popular poverty books, of which Edgar May's The Wasted Americans is the first, will add only a small measure of backing to the federal efforts in behalf of the poor.


Mr. may came to his subject when, as a Buffalo newspaperman, he got himself employed as a caseworker in order to write a series of pieces about the handling of welfare in that city. In expanding his findings into a book, Mr. May has extended his research to the national scene, and has also included some material on the major types and victims of poverty. The result, like most journalistic efforts, is strong on description, anecdote, and indignation, and weak on systematic analysis.

Mr. May's detailed evidence on the realities of public welfare administration suggests a conclusion that he himself only hints at: America deals with its poor mainly by punishing them—however unwittingly—for their poverty. They are given financial aid of various kinds, but never enough to live on and without any guarantee of continued payment, so that perpetual poverty is more or less assured. They are perpetually reminded of their pariah status by unreasonable restrictions on how to spend their welfare checks, and they are forced to live in slums which are subsidized in part by these very checks. A lucky few among the poor get to live in public housing projects, but these projects are so clearly labeled as ghettos of poverty that no taxpayer wants them in his neighborhood, and they are usually built next to factories, railroad yards, or expressways.

Even though none of the rates of so-called anti-social behavior ever rise to more than 10 per cent among the poor, society also punishes them by stereotyping their-behavior as delinquent, criminal, and immoral; it accuses them falsely of being “welfare chiselers” and of having children in order to receive additional relief monies. Inequities in the courts, police brutality, the commitment of the mentally ill to prisons or mental hospitals run like prisons—not to mention a narcotics policy that forces drug addicts into crime—further punish the small minority that actually does go wrong. Nor do the children escape; they are enrolled in schools which cannot teach them what they need to know, and when the attempt to maintain discipline fails, they are pushed out, and then called dropouts.

Of course, these policies are not intended to be punitive, and most of the people who frame and carry them out do so with the best of motives. Indeed, an explicit policy of rejection and harassment of the dependent poor—such as the one in Newburgh, New York—is regarded as a social aberration. Still, the normal arrangements that American society makes for dealing with the poor, and the amount of money it allocates for this purpose, are bleak and meager, particularly when we consider how rich a society it is. Worse yet, these arrangements practically assure the perpetuation of poverty for yet another generation.


Why does this happen? Almost every society has persecuted its poor, and the Calvinist strain in American culture has further reinforced and justified the tendency here. But the more immediate reasons lie elsewhere. An important one is that the business community remains opposed to taxation for welfare purposes. Another is that the working-class and lower-middle-class population which forms the bulk of the taxpayers has little sympathy for the poor. Not far removed from poverty themselves, many of them are fearful of backsliding and exaggerate the moral failings of the poor. Others vote down public expenditures for welfare because they cannot do anything about the rising prices at the supermarket. Still others need a group that they can feel superior to.

The people our society hires to deal with the poor are drawn largely from this class, or from those who have failed at more prestigious vocations. The few professionals in public welfare soon become supervisors, administrators, and policymakers, and thus have no real contact with the poor. Nor do they have the power or the funds to develop policies that are not punitive. Even the handful of trained social workers who do work directly with the poor are helpless. Overburdened by heavy caseloads and tied down by restrictions against “coddling,” they too must eventually mistreat their clients. One social worker told Mr. May: “I used to be just like you, but I learned . . . you can't beat the system. If you try, you'll crack up. You see things that are all wrong, but if you get excited about them, you wear yourself out.”


Mr. May's recommendations pay little attention, however, to the “system” of which our welfare mentality and services are merely a reflection. He refers briefly to the need for economic growth that would help remove persistent pockets of poverty and rising unemployment, but his main interest is in higher and better relief payments, more trained social workers, and greater emphasis on rehabilitation and vocational education—in short, more professional treatment of the poor.

Not only does he lack faith in the poor to help themselves if they could obtain higher incomes, but he has far too much faith in the professionals, for in the past they have often been unable to overcome their middle-class orientation, and have thus failed either to gain the confidence of their clients or to understand their needs. More professionals may thus result only in more professionalized punishment of the poor. A hopeful remedy to this situation, already being considered by some federal and local agencies, is the employment of “sub-professionals” of low-income origins who, trained to act as middlemen between the professionals and the poor, could help tailor assistance to actual needs.

To implement his recommendations, Mr. May relies on a moral appeal to the affluent to take pity on the poor. But such an appeal is not likely to be heeded, for the present attitude—and system—that lead to the punishing of the poor are deeply embedded in our social life, and supported by the campaign funds and votes of those who elect city councils and state legislatures. The political strength of this mentality in Congress is bound to affect President Johnson's war on poverty, despite the fact that most of the money allocated is for remaking the poor through education and occupational training. Indeed, as Christopher Jencks has pointed out; “what has been launched is not a war on poverty, but a war on the poor, aiming to change them beyond all recognition.” Conversely, the present proposals do not include money payments or programs to create jobs that would allow the poor—and the graduates of the scheduled training sessions—to earn a decent living. This is not to reject the Johnson program; all legislation for economic and social change starts slowly—except in a crisis—and the current proposals at least set a precedent for more adequate governmental action in later years.

Nevertheless, the poor cannot expect substantial or rapid help from either the social welfare profession or the poverty warriors. Since poverty is preserved by our politics, it will have to be attacked through political means that will become available only through direct action by the poor themselves. Such action requires greater political strength and skill than they can now muster, and must probably await the time when automation has further enlarged the ranks of the unemployed. Even then, effective political action will depend upon whether the newly unemployed will join ranks with the present victims of poverty and discrimination in an organized coalition that can formulate and press demands for economic and social change.

Meanwhile, the upper middle class will write, read—and review—books like The Wasted Americans, and leave the rest of the society free to keep the poor in their place.

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